This column was published last Friday by Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, and is reprinted here from the Southern Nebraska Register.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit with the pastor of one of our small country parishes. I asked him how he was doing. We ended up talking for a full 10 minutes about fluctuating corn and bean prices, fuel and fertilizer costs, and about the impact of rain on irrigation and soil quality. He was concerned about how these factors would have an effect on crop yields, because he was worried about the farm families in his parish.
He was also thoughtful about how these factors would impact families in his parish and he understood the connections between each family, their needs, and their livelihoods. He knew that all of these issues would have an impact on both the family life and the spiritual life of his flock.
While I learned a few new things about farming from this pastor, I mostly learned how well he knows his people. How deeply he experiences their daily trials, and challenges. How much he hopes for their success, and how much he prays, in very specific ways, for their well-being.
In that conversation, I encountered a priest who loves his people. I encountered a pastor with the heart of a shepherd. In the words of Pope Francis, I encountered “a priest who wears the smell of the sheep.”
Pope Francis says that we priests “are to rejoice with couples who marry; we are to laugh with the children brought to the baptismal font; we are to accompany young fiancés and families; we are to suffer with those who receive the anointing of the sick in their hospital beds; we are to mourn with those burying a loved one.”
Priests are called to give themselves in love as a selfless gift of Jesus Christ. We’re called to proclaim the Gospel, to teach the truth, and to offer the mercy of God in the sacraments of the Church. Priests are called to know and love our people, so that we can form them in grace, and discipleship, and holiness.
A priest is called to be, as Jesus Christ is, a good shepherd, who lays down his life for his flock.
This weekend, I will ordain four new priests in the Diocese of Lincoln. I will also ordain five deacons, who, Lord willing, will be ordained priests next year. Including the eight priests ordained last year, I am blessed to ordain, God willing, 17 new priests in the Diocese of Lincoln in a span of only 24 months. Only one priest will retire during that time, giving us a net gain of 16 new priests in 24 months. We are deeply blessed and grateful to God for his goodness to us.
The Lord reminds us, in the midst of the great blessings we have received, to continue to foster a culture that promotes holy vocations to the priesthood, to religious life, and to family life. We begin by praying for vocations, asking the Lord to bless us with priestly ministers of his mercy, with religious sisters who witness to the grace of baptism, and with holy, faithful, and fervent men and women who proclaim the Gospel in their families and in the world. Each one of us can foster vocations by our fervent and earnest prayers.
The Lord reminds us to encourage young men to be open to a priestly vocation, and to encourage young women to be open to a religious call. I tell children across the Diocese of Lincoln that the Lord plants a seed of vocation in each one of us, which we must faithfully nurture. But the encouragement of a bishop is not enough. Young men consider priestly vocations, and young women consider religious vocations, because their pastors, teachers, and parents encourage them and invite them. Year after year, young men report to me that the reason they considered seminary is simply because an influential priest, teacher, or other adult invited them to consider it, and encouraged them to hear the Lord’s call.
Children take the possibility of their vocations seriously when their parents do the same: when children witness parents who pray together, and with their children, and whose lives are animated by the mission of the Gospel, they take seriously the ways in which God might call them to religious vocations.
It is a truly awesome privilege as a bishop to ordain new priests and deacons—new missionaries of mercy and truth—this weekend. It is a privilege to pray with the families and communities which formed them. May each one of us continue to form and encourage young people in their vocations, and may the Lord continue to bless us with loving pastors—good shepherds—who have a true zeal for souls.