Vocations Sunday 2017

Writing about Vocations Sunday is a little tricky for me. I once pointed out the obvious, that everyone is a vocation inasmuch as we have all been called by God to be whatever it is we are — priest, laity, religious — and was publicly rapped over the knuckles by a Prominent Cleric (who, to be fair, hadn’t actually read the blog post in question). I have mused on what it is that encourages vocations and posed the question, why not you, why not me, why must it always be someone else who answers the call, and ended up being lectured on the need for being traditionalist according to my interlocutor’s ideas of what is traditional. I have analysed the miserable condition known as vocationitis, mulled over statistics, and written some quite thoughtful (in my view) accounts of of religious life; and I must have answered hundreds of vocation enquiries since our community was canonically erected in 2004. I hope I may have helped someone, by my prayer if not by my words, but I cannot comfort myself with the thought of success, as that word is usually understood. And there’s the rub.

When we pray for vocations, as we do today, what are we really praying for? Some people are quite clear: we need priests to provide the sacraments and essential Church services; a few religious to do some hard-core praying would be nice, especially if they dress in olde-worlde habits and inhabit olde-worlde buildings and keep up olde-worlde traditions of music and liturgy, with perhaps a few more to do the odd bit of social work in areas we prefer not to get involved in. Looked at in that way, success is really about numbers and serving our own needs. If that were all there were to it, one can see why many people would find the whole idea of Vocations Sunday uninspiring, and I have to say I would, too. Of course the Church needs people to serve as priests, and possibly as religious, too, but there is more to Vocations Sunday than simply asking the Lord to bump up our numbers.

If we really knew what we were praying for when we pray for Vocations, I think we’d feel seared by the holiness of God. What we are asking is for God to seize hold of us, shake us up, draw us to himself and change us for ever. We can’t do that while playing the numbers game. It is a work we can only do on our knees — one that involves us, each one of us, not someone else, not someone else’s son or daughter, not someone in another parish, not someone anonymous. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,’ wrote the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Perhaps we have fogotten that and become a little too cosy in our approach to him. The God of infinite love and tenderness who, in the person of Jesus Christ, likened himself to a good shepherd in search of the lost and stray, is also the God of infinte holiness and utter transcendence. This Sunday every Catholc should leave Mass with a blazing sense of the importance of vocation, a readiness to ask himself or herself,  ‘Are you calling me, Lord?’ and a determination to answer, cost what it may.

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Praying for Vocations

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is devoted by the Church to praying for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. That doesn’t mean that the Church regards only priesthood and religious life as vocations. On the contrary, each one of us is called into being by the Lord and our lives are a living out (or should be) of all that that implies. In that sense, each and every one of us is, quite literally, a vocation. But on this Sunday of the year the Church asks us to think and pray about two special ways of responding to the Lord’s call. Why is that?

Most people have little difficulty with the idea of priests being necessary to the Church. Without priests, we can have neither sacraments nor authoritative teaching. But priests don’t come out of thin air, as it were. They come from families, from the ordinary world in which most of us live and work; and it is our duty, as members of the Church, to encourage and support those who are, however tentatively, exploring the possibility of becoming priests themselves. This year we have all benefited from the homily Pope Francis gave on Maundy Thursday and the joy of being a priest. Too often the emphasis, especially of the media, is on the sacrifices that have to be made and the shortcomings of the individuals concerned. Today is a day when we need to be much more positive, much more hopeful. We need, too, to pray for those who have already responded, who are living out their priesthood as generously and faithfully as they can but who do not always feel as supported as they might.

But what of religious life, isn’t that a more difficult concept for many people? The Active Orders — those that teach or do social work, for example — are sometimes disregarded because there are so many lay people who do a fantastic job of teaching or whatever. ‘One doesn’t need to be a religious to do those things.’ Quite. One doesn’t. But the form of service these Orders and Congregations perform is their way of expressing something much more fundamental to their being: a love of God that can brook no rival, no distraction. The renunciations of religious life, above all, the forgoing of marriage and family, are not a purely ‘functional’ response to a particular mission. They are a response to a love so compelling that no other love can take its place.

The Contemplative Orders — typically, monks and nuns — are also often disregarded because, perversely, they are not seen to do anything ‘useful’. Yet the Church has always prized her contemplatives because their work of prayer is at the heart of the Church’s mission. It may not seem to achieve anything; it may even seem a waste of time; but love is never wasted. There are no barriers prayer cannot overcome, no frontiers it cannot pass. But it takes courage to go on, day after day, living by faith, not seeing results but trusting in God to do what he wills through us.

The whole Church is called to be holy, to live in the closest possible union with her lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; but some are called to live out this universal vocation to holiness in a particular way, in priesthood or religious life. Therefore I have a challenge for those reading this post today. Is there anyone you know — perhaps yourself, perhaps a member of your family — who could, indeed should, spend a few moments in prayer asking the Lord whether he is calling them to priesthood or religious life? Is there anyone to whom a word of gentle encouragement could or should be spoken? For those of us who are priests and religious, there is the weightier challenge of leading lives that inspire others to follow in the same path; and that is one for every day of our lives, not just Vocations Sunday.

Note: there is a simple, light-hearted guide to the difference between religious sisters (active) and nuns (contemplatives) here.

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