When Pope Francis wrote his letter to priests last August 4 on the 160th anniversary of the death of the Cure of Ars, he used four key words to describe the life of a priest: pain, gratitude, encouragement, and praise.
In his letter for the 2020 World Day of Vocations, May 3, 2020, he uses a different combination: gratitude, encouragement, courage, and fatigue.
In his 2020 message, he uses the image of the disciples in the boat during a storm from the 14th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. The disciples are afraid but Jesus appears, encourages them, their courage returns, and they are grateful.
“Something similar takes place in the hearts of those who, called to follow the Teacher of Nazareth, have to undertake a crossing and abandon their own security to become the Lord’s disciples,” Francis explains in his letter. “The risk involved is real: the night falls, the headwinds howl, the boat is tossed by the waves, and fear of failure, of not being up to the call, can threaten to overwhelm them.
“The Gospel, however, tells us that in the midst of this challenging journey we are not alone. Like the first ray of dawn in the heart of the night, the Lord comes walking on the troubled waters to join the disciples; he invites Peter to come to him on the waves, saves him when he sees him sinking and, once in the boat, makes the winds die down.”
The Holy Father suggests that the fears experienced by the apostles on the stormy sea can be felt by all the faithful today. And although he doesn’t mention the coronavirus, there is no doubt that it makes the world a storm sea these days.
In the past month, at least 60 priests have died in Italy of the disease, along with thousands of the faithful. In two convents in the area of Rome, 59 nuns have tested positive for the virus.
The stormy sea isn’t a literary image; it is reality.
“Every vocation is born of that gaze of love with which the Lord came to meet us, perhaps even at a time when our boat was being battered by the storm,” Francis writes in his letter. “We will succeed in discovering and embracing our vocation once we open our hearts in gratitude and perceive the passage of God in our lives.
“When the disciples see Jesus walking towards them on the sea, they first think that he is a ghost and are filled with fear… What frequently hinders our journey, our growth, our choosing the road the Lord is marking out for us, are certain ‘ghosts’ that trouble our hearts. When we are called to leave safe shores and embrace a state of life – like marriage, ministerial priesthood, consecrated life – our first reaction is often from the ‘ghost of disbelief’. Surely, this vocation is not for me! Can this really be the right path? Is the Lord really asking me to do this?”
Significant in the Holy Father’s 2020 letter is the substitution of “pain” with “fatigue” – a sensation he warns many in religious life can experience. And he suggests fatigue can mar the life of any person, lay or religious.
“As we live out our specific vocation, those headwinds can wear us down,” Francis writes. “Here I think of all those who have important responsibilities in civil society, spouses whom I like to refer to – note without reason – as ‘courageous’, and in a particular way those who have embraced the consecrated life or the priesthood. I am conscious of your hard work, the sense of isolation that can at times weigh upon your hearts, the risk of falling into a rut that can gradually make the ardent flame of our vocation die down, the burden of the uncertainty and insecurity of the times, and worry about the future. Take heart, do not be afraid! Jesus is at our side, and if we acknowledge him as the one Lord of our lives, he will stretch out his hand, take hold of us and save us.”