Here's an excellent article on the problem of lay ministry and lay apostolate over at Pertinacious Papist.
Here are a few choice quotes, and quotes within quotes of an article by Robert Shaw:
Clearing up our understanding of vocational discernment is the key, says Shaw, to resolving much of the confusion over lay ministry. It involves, first, setting aside the false idea that vocational discernment is done only by those considering the priesthood or religious life; and second, the idea that vocational discernment is a one time thing. The question one seeks to answer is not "What do I want from life?" but "What does God want from me?" It isn't subjective, but guided by Christian morality. "Conscience formation comes first. A person with a well formed conscience is equipped to engage in fruitful discernment. But when someone whose conscience is not well formed tries it, the result is likely to be self-serving and not God's will."
Lay ministries, as they are called -- service roles and functions performed by lay people in church settings, especially parishes -- undoubtedly do have their place, and an important one. But their place is subordinate to the priority of apostolate carried on in and to the secular order....
I'm sorry to say that in recent years we seem to have gotten it just the other way around, assigning de facto primacy to lay ministries and downgrading lay apostolate. And although the intentions have been good, that is a bad mistake which has contributed a lot to the current problems in the Church....
I repeat: lay ecclesial ministry can reasonably be seen as one part of [the] larger picture. but to speak of lay ministry as if it were the very apex of it, the peak of the pyramid, so to speak, is an instance of the tail wagging the dog -- that is to say, it's a painfully narrow-minded view of a much larger development in Catholic life extending over the last century and a half and still taking place.
Confirmation is a sacrament of vocational discernment, in that it is meant to prepare the youth for full participation in secular society as a disciple of Jesus. It is not simply a matter of defending the faith, but living it in such a way that society (at least the corner in which I live an participate) is transformed from within. Often, that will lead those who prefer the status quo to push back. So the "defense of the faith" in this situation is giving the rationale for what I'm doing, and will likely include reference to Scripture and Church teaching.Part of our problem is that in our panic over priestly vocations, we are unintentionally giving the impression that there's only one vocation, or only one vocation we think is important. And that means that the only environment that is important in the life of faith is the parish - and particularly the liturgy.
Shaw goes on to relate a hunch he has about how this is related to the sacrament of confirmation -- "a sacrament in crisis if there ever was one." The problem with confirmation, he says, is that basically "nobody really knows what it is." His idea, which he believes is both theologically and pastorally valid, is to present confirmation as a sacrament of vocational discernment
Let me give a couple of examples of our unintentional myopia.
When you hear prayers at Mass for "vocations to the Church," which vocations come to mind? Sometimes the prayers are explicit, i.e., for priestly and religious vocations. But we've trained ourselves to hear "vocation = priesthood/religious life."
I was preparing to give a presentation to the Serra club of a diocese at the local cathedral. I went to the early morning gathering of about thirty lay people in the cathedral basement, and as I approached the podium, I noticed the vocations poster directly behind it. In large letters it asked the question, "Are you called?" When I turned to face the people, I pointed to the poster and asked, "What's the answer to the question?" After a few moments of silence, one fellow responded, "Well... yeah."
"Right," I said, "but what's the unintended message given by the poster?"
After a little bit of murmuring, someone piped up, "that the only call is to the seminary."
Exactly. The poster had the photos of all the seminarians studying for the diocese, along with the picture of the vocations director.
Such posters are fine, especially when they invite us to pray for seminarians, and to get us thinking about priestly vocations. The problem is, it is a vocations poster that features only one of five types of vocations, and we seldom, if ever, see posters promoting the other ones explicitly - and as vocations.
I'd love to see a vocations poster that focuses on the vocation we all have - a vocation to holiness and discipleship. I'd love to hear more language about marriage as a vocation that must first be discerned (as in, "am I called to it,") which would be an important distal preparation for the sacrament before discerning if I'm called to marry this particular person. Can I discern marriage apart from the person I might be called to marry? I think so, in that I can ask myself if I am prepared to give myself to another person in freedom and with a desire to serve them, help them become holy, share a common faith with them, and raise a family with them. Even dedicated single life is a call, and not just for those with a homosexual orientation. There are those who are given a charism of celibacy who are not called to priesthood or religious life, who are being called to live as a single person, available to serve God and others with a freedom that a married person (or a priest or religious) can't.
Finally, it would be great to see a vocations poster that highlighted the fact that each person has a "personal vocation," that will name them and allow them to best use the gifts, natural abilities, skills, personality and experiences that God has given them.
When we pray for vocations - even when it's not explicitly said - people automatically think "to priesthood and religious life." And a consequent of this is many people presume that they have nothing to discern. We presume, usually unconsciously, "I've dodged the vocation bullet, and so am free to live my life as I please," when in fact, prior to baptism, I was claimed for Christ by the sign of His cross on my forehead (and on various parts of my body if I was baptized as an adult). Your life is not your own. St. Paul tells us, "you have been purchased, and at a price." 1 Cor 6:20.
As Sherry likes to say, the problem is not a lack of vocations (every baptized person has at least three!), but a lack of discernment of vocations.