Vocations Crisis? What Crisis?

Recently, in the course of a conversation with a fellow Benedictine, I was told it was all right to blog about Easter and so on but better to stay off controversial subjects. Taken out of context, the remark might have seemed dismissive or even patronising. It wasn’t, but it has encouraged me to try to re-think how we approach the idea of vocation in the Church. Do we play safe and spiritualise it so that God does everything and the human person involved is reduced to a mere cypher? Or do we forget God entirely and concentrate on the human person so much that we become mired in an unhelpful kind of ‘vocational psychology’ that leads nowhere? Is there a way of reconciling the two, so that we are honest about the dynamic of vocation, not as it was in the past or as it might be in the future, but as it is now in 2019, with all that that implies?

I’ve written so much about vocation over the years that it is plain where I stand. Of course God takes the initiative, but there has to be a response — and that’s where the trouble comes. No vocation, whether to marriage, priesthood, consecrated life, singlehood, or whatever, is roses and rapture all the way, nor does any vocation exist in isolation from others or from the times in which we live. To ignore the demands of a particular vocation as it is now is as misleading as failing to speak about its blessings. I wonder how many parish priests will dutifully preach about the need for more priests this morning but dodge the question of how badly the Church’s reputation has been damaged by the revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up and the difficulty of living with that. Then again, how many will dare to speak of the joy their own experience of priesthood has brought them? A loss of confidence only too easily conveys itself to others. It is there, in that loss of confidence, that I would locate any ‘crisis of vocations’ today. I think I would go further and argue that any such crisis is really of our own making. We do not quite trust God to see us through without what has become familiar to us.

Among religious, I think the loss of confidence is sometimes palpable. Communities wax and wane (not always in that order, be it noted) and it probably does not help when those who have lived a particular kind of vocation for fifty or sixty years are blithely informed that they are either not traditional enough for some or too traditional for others — ‘traditional’ being one of those words used to signify both approval and disapproval. Then again, it is easy to latch onto  one or other aspect of consecrated life and make it the be-all and end-all. Among women, the wearing or not wearing of a habit or using a particular form of prayer is sometimes used as a test of orthodoxy, with results that can be comical when not disastrous. Again, it is our unease in the face of the loss of the familar that is the problem. We know the Spirit is always doing something new, but when confronted with the new, we are apt to take fright and draw back rather than seeing it as an opportunity, a genuine turning-point (which is what a crisis is). I can only say that most communities I know are making a good attempt to be true to their calling in the Church despite the difficulties and discouragement they sometimes encounter.

With that mention of the Church, we come to the heart of the matter. People sometimes feel  they are ’second best’ because they haven’t become priests or religious but discovered in the course of formation that they were meant for something else. Or they torture themselves because they have left active ministry or their order/congregation and the Church treats them with ambivalence, sometimes even suspicion.  I think myself that the important thing is to find one’s place in the Church because that is how we follow Christ, as Church. To be members of the Church is what we are all called to be. What membership involves will differ for each of us. Prayer, generosity and fidelity are required of us all, whatever form our  vocation takes. I have no hesitation in saying that being a Benedictine has been the supreme blessing of my life. I have no difficulty in encouraging others to become Benedictines themselves, but I would never hide from anyone the fact that to surrender oneself into the hands of the living God is to surrender oneself into a consuming fire. And fire, as we know, has its own way of dealing with things.

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5 thoughts on “Vocations Crisis? What Crisis?”

  1. What I find strange is that people automatically assume that vocation means to be about some sort of service to the Church, not to God. Why cannot work or occupation also be a vocation to serve God?

    For over 43 years I was in the Armed Forces from 17 to 60. This was perhaps a vocation call that I took up in a fit of pique because my former Civil Service role, would not “Establish” me after a certain period of service, because I had poor eyesight. I know, that you are not able to discriminate these days, but this was the sixties. So, I went to the recruiting office and had a medical and passed, poor eyesight, corrected, was not an issue. Taking it back to my manager he just said to me that if I didn’t like the rules, I’d be better off in the Army, where they had harder rules. I went anyway, not prepared to be held back by petty civil service rules (in my view).

    The fit of pique lasted the rest of my working life. I found that I had an aptidude for the trade/role allocated and made early progress and 23 years later retired for the first time as a Regimental Sergeant Major.

    But, perhaps worried about working within a civilian environment, I started a new contract with the Reserve Forces in the same rank, and stayed for the next 20 years, in a variety of roles, which included being commissioned and promoted and retiring at ‘Field Officer” rank.

    I enjoyed what I was doing, albeit, towards the end, the increasing military operations and recruting and sending young men and women to dangerous places palled, and I was glad to retire.

    In that last two years, somehow God happened into my life after a long abscence as I had conciously disavowed him by becoming an agnostic.

    Suddenly everything was changed, I felt a new Vocation to be doing something new, within the Church, and now, nearly 10 years later I am in active ministry as a Reader in the Church of England.

    This morning at the sermon, our Vicar mentioned my journey as one which others might be called to follow, but emphasized that vocation might well be our life’s work in any sphere of public or private life.

    Many in the medical profession(s) and emergency services or education are described as having a vocation, surely that should be expanded to encompass all of us, who work in whatever sphere that God has placed us by witnessing to his goodness and the truth of his message. I am aware that in some work places or even society at large, people are uncomfortable with overt Christianity, believing that we are all trying to convert them deliberately.

    I believe that “intentional discipleship” living out our Christian Lives is witness enough – listening and responding and supporting those who inquire, whatever their background and being able to speak well of our faith and of God and what it means to each of us. Surely, that can change people, just as well as intentional evagelisation through campaigns or advertising or appearances on social media to recruit new disciples. These have their place, but the one to one relationship, building trust will do more to attract new disciples than any other that I can think off.

    I thank God for the gift of vocation, all through my life, albeit I didn’t acknowledge that gift openly for some of that time.

    • Dear Ernie, your first paragraph mnakes me doubt whether I have written clearly enough. I have said, over and over again through the years, that every human being IS a vocation, insamuch as we are all uniquely callled into being by God. What we DO is secondary to that primary vocation.In the Catholic Church Vocations Sunday encourages prayer for the ordained ministry, which is why I addressed the subject in my post. Forgive me for not replying to your other points, but you have written at some length and I have difficulty reading and writing at present. Bless you!

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