It was a great pleasure recently to meet Cardinal Heenan — fit and well, thank God — and to hear his optimistic views about vocations. The "bad" period was over, he felt, as regards dissatisfaction among, younger priests leading to applications for laicisation.
This had reached its peak in the late sixties. Similarly, more candidates were now coming forward for ordination to the priesthood. Whereas, for example, only two men had been ordained for the Westminster Diocese in 1968, there were 12 in 1972: and eight arc expected this year.
There are, meanwhile; 60 students in England's major seminaries: 14 entered last year, and for this year seven applications have'been received so far.
But Cardinal Heenan spoke first about something which I know has long concerned him. as he has mentioned it to me on previous occasions. And this is the position with regard to vocations to women's religious orders.
The "ordinary" work of a nun, the Cardinal felt, no longer appealed to young women. They preferred nowadays to pick and choose as to what particular kind of work which, as religious, they would prefer to do.
They were attracted by the "romance" of a vocation:_ but "romance is not necessarily the same thing as love." It was love,
pure and unadulterated, that had made aspiring nuns in days gone by willing to do 'anything that was asked of them.
Modern dress for nuns, moreover, did not hold out the attraction to lay people that was sometimes imagined. Rather were nuns who were clearly recognisable as such more likely to inspire confidence.
The net upshot of all this was that there was a great dearth of nuns at a time when they were needed more than ever. Many convent schools had been forced to close. thus adversely affecting the whole community. Anxious parents well knew and were gravely worried by this development.
As are all great 'nen who are also spiritual plies, the Cardinal is a realist. His optimism about the general pattern is not blind to the danger areas. or to the need for new policies.
He felt it right, tor example, to admit that junior seminaries in the recent past had "probably" been a waste of money, though they had once served .1 useful purpose.
And the Cardkpal stressed the effect of social change. Whereas, up to 30 or 40 years ago, the priesthood meant, for many boys. the best chance of becoming well educated. now there is a vast choice of secular careers open to almost all young people, and it would he unrealistic not to recognise the inevitable effect of this on numbers of vocations.
But numbers were not everything. Having made an estimate of future needs, we had to adapt our present thinking aecordinglv. For a paraphrase. in fact. of much of what the Cardinal had been saying, 1 afterwards took du ti from m■ shelves the hook he wrote, "Council and Clergy," in 1966, to reread some ot its very valuable contents. He then referred to vocations as undoubtedly "the greatest problem facing the Church."
He went on to particularise about England and Wales "during the years immediately ahead" where "the number of active diocesan priests will have dropped by hundreds by the end of the century."
"Certain consequences," the Cardinal concluded, "arc clear. I he first is that we shall have to use the manpower available with great skill and with a generous appreciation of the needs of souls elsewhere.
"Boundaries of diocese, nation, and religious congregation will have to be crossed. Laymen will have to undertake work now being done by priests. But this is only a rescue operation: What is needed is a vast increase in vocations."
This passage seems especially interesting as it was written at a period when. as the Cardinal pointed out to me the other day, there was a distinctly worse state of crisis with regard to vocations than there is now.
Things have already started to improve again: but naturally not enough. We came back, toward the end of our conversation, to a similar "solution" as that put forward by the Cardinal in his book.
His answer, in fact, to my key question ("What is t he solution'?") was humbling. though not or course meant to humiliate! It was almost identical to that described in "Council, and Clergy": "Even though we cannot diagnose the spiritual disease we can be sure that the remedy is in God's hands.
"Vocation, by definition, comes from God ...Thc attraction of -material prosperity is not likely long to remain an obstacle to vocations . (but) we must prepare now for the end of this century and the beginning oldie twenty-First. "We must give our boys the vision. Parents and priests alone can do, this ... The problem of vocations can be solved only by prayer and the example of priests."
I thought of these words when I was in Lourdes last week, where the example of young priests helping handicapped children, reading the Gospel story to them, praying and playing with them, and quite obviously — in sonic mysterious way known only to God and His Blessed Mother, perhaps — imparting to them a languageless lesson of faith and hope, brought tears to unashamed e■ CS.
Some of the priests had long hair: some of the young nuns with them played guitars. There was indefinable happiness in the midst of poignant tragedy'. When the sign of peace was exchanged, a spiritual electric current of deep love and unfathomable fellowship rippled through all present.
You might not have seen "that sort or priest and .nun" a Few years ago. But you see lots of them now, wherever you go . . thank God!
As a priest of Westminster Archdiocese I have been working for the past six years on the task of encouraging vocations. This article is an
effort to summarise my experiences during that time and also to put down what I think needs to be done now.
The two main areas of my work were the school and the parish. Religious Orders used to send their vocation promoters around the schools to recruit
candidates. he method used
was to illustrate the life of the particular Order by means of slides, films or a talk and then appeal for volunteers. The follow up was by means of literature or visits to the homes of the volunteers.
At a time when a child's future was decided at an early age this method was acceptable. But six years ago when I went around the schools talking to headmasters, it became very clear to me that this approach was becoming less acceptable to teachers and parents. Basically, it was felt that there was a danger of unduly influencing
the child at an age when he or she should be concentrating on their studies.
A new style of school visiting has now evolved based on the statement in the Vatican Decree on the Church "The profession of the evangelical counsels (i.e. the role of the Religious priest,
sister,' brother) is to be a sign that has the power of encourag
ing all Christians to live up to the duties of their Christian Vocation."
Whatever a child's particular vocation in life may be, each one is called to be a child of God, This general Christian vocation applies to every child. Today, our young people need
all the help they can get to live this vocation. If a Religious is to
be a sign to help them it is important that they understand the sign. Many children don't understand this sign. How can they. when they rarely get an oppor tunity of talking informally with priests or religious? I have met many children who have never even spoken to a priest or religious. This is why learns of priests .and Religious are now trying to visit each secondary school in Westminster Archdiocese at least once a year. They general
ly meet .the second year, who
are considered most receptive, and tell them a little about their own lives. But the aim of the visit is to encourage the children to talk to them and to question them.
Children can sense holiness, they can feel the love of Christ made real in the person of a Religious. I have seen a Little Sister of Jesus hold an unruly class spellbound, just talking about what Jesus means to her. People like this have to be "rescued" from the children at the end of the day. These visits succeed in bringing into the open all sorts of problems and queries about life and religion. They also, incidentally, give the children an idea of the variety of Religious Orders in their Church. It is hoped to expand these visits to meet the parents. and listen to them and help them. As a follow up to this approach it is hoped to en courage the children to feel free to visit the Religious houses in the diocese, and also to take groups away to spend days of recollection at suchplaces as