In that first reading from the Book of Numbers, we hear the story of God giving a portion of Moses’ spirit to 70 elders — 70 members from the 12 tribes of Israel that would help him in his ministry of overseeing and directing the whole of Israel, the Chosen People of God.
To fully understand the gravity and importance of this moment, however, we should back up to the previous chapter from the Book of Numbers. There, we find the Israelites doing what they do best: Moaning, groaning and complaining in the desert — they’re hungry and thirsty — AND they’re angry at God for bringing them out into the wilderness, seemingly to die.
It’s then that Moses turns to the Lord — at this moment of crisis, this moment of desperation, and he says:
“Lord, I am not able to carry this people alone. The burden is too heavy for me. Kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight!”
It’s only after this prayer of desperation that God then instructs Moses to do what we hear about in our first reading:
“Gather for me 70 men of the elders — bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. I will come down, and I will take some of the spirit which is upon you and put it upon them — And they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone.”
In other words, God is telling Moses: “You don’t have to carry this burden all by yourself. I will make sure to provide you with helpers in this heavy ministry. I will bless them with the spirit I’ve blessed you with. Don’t be afraid. I’m with you. You are not alone.”
I think this reading is fitting for us to hear this weekend — because this Sunday is what we call Priesthood Sunday — a day on which we reflect on the ordained, ministerial priesthood here in the United States.
And on that front, it’s really no secret to anyone sitting in the pews today — that we simply do not have enough priests to go around.
In a way, I think we’re at a similar moment of desperation that Moses was at in our first reading: “Lord, I feel all alone. This is just too heavy for me…”
That is what a lot of priests are feeling right now — They have multiple parishes. They have thousands and thousands of souls under their care. It’s just too much for one person..
As much as your priests love their vocations, as much as your priests want to serve the Lord and pour out their entire lives for you, the people of God — it’s still just… kind of tough to carry that much responsibility. And it’s never been easy, of course — but on a basic level, when you look at the numbers… There are just too few of us priests left to manage.
I look at how many of our pastors around our diocese are nearing the age of retirement. I see how many of our retired priests are dying and going home to Lord. And — most tragically — I see how many of my brother priests — my young brother priests — have sadly chosen to leave public ministry in recent years. Many of my brothers who I went to seminary with — I’m always a little afraid to ask how they’re doing, because I hear over and over again “Oh, yea… they’re on a leave of absence” or “Yeah, they ran off with a lady.”
I hear statistics that say that there are roughly 20,000 Catholics for every one seminarian preparing for the priesthood.
I read news stories that say a majority of Catholics today pretty much blow off Church teachings like traditional marriage, openness to life, and a whole host of other nonnegotiable moral teachings.
I hear that 50% of Catholics leave the Church entirely before the age of 23, and that among the ones who still identify as Catholic, only 7% say: “Yeah, my faith is the most important thing in my life.”
I see so many elements of our culture falling apart. I see incoherent and offensive ideologies overtaking our schools. I see pornography warping the minds of men and women alike. I see Church leadership failing on multiple fronts to clearly communicate the beauty, the uniqueness, and the reasonableness of our faith. I see people walking away from Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist.
Jesus said in our gospel today, “Whoever is not against us is for us” — but more often than not, I think Catholics today feel as if EVERYBODY and EVERYTHING is against us.
It’s really hard to find someone who is NOT against us, and therefore “for” us!
The game feels rigged.
The tables are all tilted in one direction.
The whole world has gone mad.
Even those who claim to be for us, are very often actually against us.
When a public servant can look into the camera and boldly say to our entire country, “I’m a Catholic,” but then immediately go on to say that a child’s life in the womb deserves no protection whatsoever — that a mother ought to be able to end the life of her own child up to the very moment of his or her birth — something has gone wrong.
I’m just sharing all of this, because — That is the world that young priests are stepping into. And the weight is heavy. It’s the weight of the Cross.
So yea — things look desperate.
And there is a lot of darkness in the world.
But then again: Moments of desperation and darkness are precisely when God usually works His greatest, and most amazing, and most unexpected miracles.
Well because in those moments of difficulty, we surrender ourselves (in a more radical way) to God for His help. It becomes even more clear in those moments that we cannot possibly do this without Him.
And just as He responded to Moses in his moment of desperation, so I believe that He will respond to ours:
“Gather for me 70 men, and I will give them my Spirit. They will help you bear the burden.”
THAT is the foundation of my hope, as I look at the state of priestly vocations today.
On this Priesthood Sunday, I want to say that I believe that God is raising up a new generation of holy, manly, fearless, convicted, and zealous priests to help me, to help Fr. Kevin, and help all the good priests of our diocese and our world in bearing the burden of preaching and teaching the Gospel — the Love of God! Of making the sacraments available. Of offering the Holy Eucharist. Of being merciful spiritual fathers to a largely fatherless generation.
But let’s face it — When we talk about God calling men to the priesthood — we usually like to think of Him calling men somewhere far off — very far from little Saint Andrew’s in Roanoke, Virginia. In some forgotten corner of the Diocese, or maybe in Africa. But here? Definitely not in our own pews.
That’s where you would be wrong.
God is calling young men from our parish to become those holy, zealous priests that I just mentioned.
It could be your son.
It could be your grandson.
It could be your nephew.
It could be that guy sitting a couple of pews ahead of you.
And I guess what I want to ask this weekend is — Are we praying that this might be a possibility? Are you open to that option?
OR….and this is natural I think… are you kind of secretly hoping that it’s somebody else’s son…that has to go and do that? Do some of your words and actions discourage your sons from being open to the priesthood?
If you ask me, every young Catholic man should at some point in their journey of faith ask the Lord — “Jesus, are you calling me to be Your priest? Is this the way You created me to serve You and the Church? Because if You want this, I want it too. Or at least.. I want to want it, too.”
Every man owes it to himself to entertain and investigate this possibility.
And yea, the Priesthood is a rare vocation.
It’s more likely that a young man is called to the beautiful, and equally difficult vocation of marriage — to be a husband and a biological father, to help raise the next generation of Saints as the head of the domestic Church.
But I’ll be blunt: It’s a shame that a call to the Catholic priesthood seems to be so incredibly rare these days.
I suspect part of the reason for this rarity is that some kind of personal and structural sin is obstructing good, holy vocations from bubbling to the surface. Maybe it’s our consumerism. Maybe it’s our worship of our careers, or our idolization of romantic love. Maybe it’s our lust, our stubbornness, our pride, or our neglect of prayer. Whatever that sin is —
We need to pluck it out. We need to cut it off, as Jesus said in our Gospel.
When it comes down to it, every parish that is truly alive and vibrant with the Spirit ought to be slowly, patiently, and regularly raising up vocations to the ordained priesthood. If we aren’t seeing that fruit, then something is wrong. And unless something changes, the priests we DO have will end up feeling a lot like Moses in the Book of Numbers:
“Lord, kill me at once. This is just too heavy.”
So, by the grace of God given me at my ordination, I challenge and exhort the young men of our parish to open their hearts and minds to this gorgeous, demanding, and purifying path of serving the Lord in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. I also invite the rest of our parishioners to boldly and fervently ask the Lord to raise up for us priestly vocations from within OUR parish…from within OUR families.
That’s scary, but it’s just part of being the Catholic Church. Without priests, there is no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, we are lost and starving.
So pray for an increase in holy vocations to the priesthood.
Pray for the strengthening of families, and an overall increase in devotion and love for Jesus.
These are hard times. But God WILL provide us with the helpers we need.
You can’t discern a vocation on your own in isolation. You need help. Father Kevin and myself are always here to help — not to recruit you. Not to force you to become a priest. That’s the last thing anybody wants. We are here to give you tools and the opportunities you need to figure out what the Lord is inviting you to say yes to.