The invitation of Jesus, “Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send workers into his harvest” (Mt 9.39), implemented mainly in the form of prayer for the sanctification of the clergy, from 1920 onwards can be found in several books of some prominent figures of the Church and bishops from one end to another of the Catholic world. Of course, in this respect, it is acknowledged even in the Papal Magisterium that has addressed with increasing frequency the invitation to pray for Vocations.
Pius XI in his Encyclical “Ad Catholici Sacerdotii» insisted forcefully on the need to use the great means of prayer to get the gift of vocations. However, one who actually indicated the heart of the problem of Vocations, from which sprang the Montinian fruit of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, was Pius XII. Firstly, he, with the Motu Proprio “Cum nobis” on 4 November 1941 constituted the Pontifical Society for Ecclesiastical Vocations, to which he entrusted the task of promoting the prayer for priestly Vocations in all parts of the world, and, then, with the Apostolic Exhortation “Menti nostrae” on September 23, 1950, he urged the bishops to take care of the problem of Vocations precisely because it is “intimately connected with the future of the Church” and he exhorted the faithful to make use of the humble and trustful prayer commanded by Jesus (Luke 10: 2) as “the surest way to have numerous Vocations.”
John XXIII was also thinking along this line, and, in addition to numerous interventions on the topic of Vocations, through the Pontifical Society for ecclesiastical Vocations, he urged the institution for Italy of “National Day for Ecclesiastical Vocations.” The Pope’s dream was to extend the proposal to various Episcopal Conferences so that the initiative would reach a level of harmony throughout the Christian world, something in fact that took on a unified form with his successor. Indeed, after just seven months of Pontificate, Pope Paul VI, on a Saturday, April 11, 1964, the eve of the second Sunday after Easter, called the good Shepherd Sunday, addressed the faithful throughout the world, with a radio message, saying: “‘Pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers to his Church’ (cf. Mt 9: 38). From the soul may the heartfelt invocation to the Lord spring out, according to Christ’s invitation. Yes, today as in the past, ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’” (Mt 9: 37). Therefore, may this Sunday, which, in the Roman Liturgy takes from the Gospel the name of the good Shepherd, see merged into a single throb of prayer numerous arrays of Catholics around the world, to invoke from the Lord workers needed for his harvest. And in order that this world day of prayer for priestly and religious Vocations have the resonance that it deserves, we wanted to address our encouraging word to all our most beloved children, so that none would be remiss regarding a duty so serious and sensible.”
In the opinion of accredited scholars of Paul VI, it seems there were no particular contingent to urge the Pope to take such an initiative, if not a concretization of the concern of his whole life, present since the years in which he worked in the Secretariat of State (1937-1954) and even more so during the period in which he was Archbishop of Milan (1955-1963). Certainly, the information he was receiving regarding the problem of Vocations were daunting. With the institution of a World Day of Prayer for Vocations, however, Paul VI did not want to touch only the problem but highlight it permanently. One should not miss the fact that the initiative arose fully in the climate of a Council, after the promulgation of the Constitution on the Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium”, which placed the liturgical prayer at the heart of Christian life.
The first World Day of Prayer for Vocations was celebrated, then, on April 12, 1964, but, even if loaded with theological sense, had no great resonance, indeed for many Christian communities it passed almost unnoticed. Gradually, over the next few years, thanks to the forceful action of some religious congregations including the Rogationists and the Daughters of Divine Zeal, it has attracted attention until its insertion in relevant form in the pastoral activity of the Catholic Church. The World Day of Prayer for Vocations is undoubtedly to be considered first fruits of the Montinian pontificate, culmination of a path of the Magisterium which was started years before.
- AAS 28 (1935), 37-52. The same Pope had also treated the problem in the Apostolic Letter «Offi ciorum omnium» dated August 1, 1922 (AAS 14 ,449 ff.; in in another correspondence, cfr. AAS 15 (1923), 348-349; 19 (1927),135; Messages of the Pope for the World Day, cit., 8.
- AAS 33 (1941), n. 13, p. 479.
- AAS 42 (1950), 617-702. See also the Encyclical «Mystici Corporis» of June 29, 1943 (AAS 35 , 242).
- Cfr. Dompieri G., Giornate sacerdotali, per le vocazioni, per il Seminario, Esperienze circa le vocazioni ecclesiastiche, in Seminarium 12, 1 (1961), 96-102; Idem, Giornate diocesane e parrocchiali, Esperienze sulle vocazioni ecclesiastiche. Primo Congresso nazionale italiano, in Seminarium 12, 2 (1961), 275-280. The initiative has been regularly repeated in 1962 and 1963, see also Celebrazione della Seconda Giornata nazionale per le Vocazioni in Italia, Pontifi cia Opera per le Vocazioni, in Seminarium 15, 2 (1963), 305-308.
- Teachings of Paul VI, II, Città del Vaticano, LEV, 1964, 240-242.