The vocation famine Mgr George Leonard outlines his personal view that we are over looking a vital clue in our search for vocations.
SUCCESS, they say, can be deceptive since it often serves to reinforce our prejudices. Failure forces us to take stock and to profit from our mistakes. In the years of plenty. the Church had scarcely to think about how to recruit vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.
In the lean years we all have to think more deeply about the present famine and how best to secure a future harvest. Is it possible that the Church has almost forgotten the secret which had made all the difference in the past'? Have we perhaps today overlooked a vital clue in our search for future priests, nuns and brothers'?
In modern times vocations to the priesthood and religious' life have been haphazard, to say the least. Each diocese, each religious order has in practice followed the same course. There have been prayers offered for vocations: parents have been encouraged to sow the seeds of vocation in the minds of their children; sermons and talks have been given; brochures and pamphlets have been imaginatively and skilfully produced: stress has been laid on fostering a generous and loving spirit which will, in God's providence. flower into a vocation. The sowing has been liberal; the reaping is frequently a disappointment.
At best such an approach can never adequately meet the needs of God's people. Since there is complete reliance on volunteers there ..ill alv.a\ s be an uneven response in different dioceses and at different times: religious orders will flourish and decline with little relevance to their usefulness. It is obvious that the Church would benefit immensely if it could count on an adequate and consistent supply of men and women to take on the responsibilities of ministry as the needs arose. Is it possible to speculate in a radical fashion on why such a supply remains at present beyond our reach? Can such a supply in fact be guaranteed in the future?
Many reasons are brought forward to explain the present dearth of vocations. Uncertainty and the crumbling of religious belief worldwide: affluence and materialism during the post-war decades: the upheaval in religious attitudes which followed the Second Vatican Council: the spread of women's liberation: the reluctance by people today to undertake lifelong commitments.
It would be foolish to ignore the massive influence of these factors, and yet I suspect that they may merely have toppled a house of cards. (.suspect that for many generations Catholics have lived with a dangerously inadequate idea of xy hat vocation is. Although the genuine elements are still there. although safeguards have survived from a more objective past. in practice a more subjective understanding of what a vocation is has been the dominant and sometimes debilitating fashion.
The more extreme form of this misunderstanding can still be found. It is not uncommon to Find people who think that vocation consists in an inner call from God. almost a voice like that which St Joan of Arc experienced. No amount of explanation from priests and nuns about the origin of their vocation has yet managed to dispel this myth. Even if there is no such misunderstanding, the present expectation is that people have first to offer themselves voluntarily and individually for the priesthood and the religious life, Individuals are led to expect that they will experience an attraction to that life and work. They are carefull), and prayerfully to consider whether their gifts and temperament suit them for that work. They are to take advice and then offer themselves to the diocese or to the religious community. They then undertake the necessary formation and training. In due time their voluntary offering is sealed by the acceptance of the bishop or the religious community.
At all times it would seem as if the initiative rests to a large extent with the volunteer, while the bishop and the religious superior retain the power of veto. It is in this whole process that the seeds of future collapse may be found. If my inner conviction prompts me to believe in my vocation, then the loss of such it conviction makes me think my vocation has been lost. There is at every stage a reliance on personal self-offering and sense of being called directly by God.
Yet the Church has never lost from her teaching traces of a more robust approach. It is an approach characterised by a sense of community and church; it is based on the conviction that the Christian is called by God first and foremost to be a member of "a chosen race. a royal priesthood. a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God" (I Pet. 2:9). The Christian receives his call from God, his basic vocation, through the mediation of the Church and, within the Church, for the world.
To be saved. an individual has to become one of Abraham's posterity. part of Christ's body. And so all vocations — first the call to baptism and then to the various ministries whether they be lay, priestly or religious share in different ways the building up of Christ's body on earth and its ministry to mankind. The call comes from the Church and is for the Church.
And to some, his gift was that they should be apostles: to some, prophets: to some, evangelists: to some. pastors and teachers: so that the saints together make a unity in the work of service, building up the body of Christ." (Eph. 4 11-13).
Throughout the Old Testament Gbel's call to serve the people came to individuals who often seemed unlikely and initially reluctant. They would be set apart ceremonially for their future work. The Apostles similarly were called by Christ to be his witnesses. The early Christian communities spontaneously singled out those needed for leadership. service or mission and laid hands on them as a sign of their calling. The initiative rested with the cothmunity and with those who spoke in the name of the Church.
The call of the Church to priesthood has never ceased to be part of the function of a bishop. Representing the community of the faithful, his acceptance of candidates is still the decisive and objective element in priestly vocation, No one has a vocation unless it is confirmed by the Church. Traditionally the whole People of God ratified the bishop's call. The consent of the community has still a place in the modern ordination rite.
The teaching of the Church, then, its history and its instincts would seem to be at some variance with our present way of acting. Instead of waiting for individuals to volunteer and then discern their suitability for a particular ministry, the process could become much more like the current practice used in the appointment of bishops. In this case tried and tested men are asked after a lengthy process of consultation and enquiry to accept a particular responsibility.
The return to a more ancient tradition, the people of God would assess local needS. decide who are best equipped to meet those local needs and then would call those chosen to respond to the challenge of serving God in this or that particular ministry. It would involve a much more positive approach than the one to which we have grown accustomed. It would respond better to the demands of particular situations. It would in no way take away an individual's freedom. Personal response to the call remains unaffected. It would remove much of the agonised self-doubt over the reality of the calling.
If this is, in fact. a valid concept of vocation. it means that not only with vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, but also with calls to other forms of ministry in the Church, the bishop through his priests ought to feel free to invite suitable candidates to undertake the necessary formation and then the responsibilities of ministry.
There are obvious dangers but they need not become serious. There must be no free-for-all by over-zealous priests of sisters. There must be no undue pressure. But there can be a free, consistent and prayerful provision to match local needs. It could well transform the present situation.
The bishops of England and Wales in the Easter People commended the idea that parish clergy should call, form and sustain individual lay-people in their distinctive mission. More positively than at any time since early Christianity. bishops would themselves be encouraged to call, form and sustain those who would grace the priesthood and religious life.
"But they will not ask his help unless they believe in him, and they will not believe in him unless they have heard of him. and they will not hear of him unless they get a preacher, and they will not get a preacher unless one is sent, but as Scripture says, the footsteps of those who bring good news is a welcome sound." (Romans 10 14.15).