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Can We Re-Imagine Vocation Work? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Thursday, 24 January 2008 04:47
The following quote comes from an interview by the diocesan newspaper with the vocation director of a the diocese. It is interesting and somewhat worrisome in the assumptions that are proposed. It's also a bit different from the approach taken by my own Dominican Province.

While striving for quality candidates, the vocations office still has "wide open arms" to young men on fire for Christ who believe they may have a vocation to the priesthood, but given their age, may not be as certain as older candidates often are. "The place to test a vocation is in the seminary, not in a culture where you're not supported. If there are seeds of a vocation, it's going to be stifled in the world."

As a young man discerning whether I was called to priesthood and religious life, my intuition was a little different. Having grown up seeing posters encouraging priestly vocations, and as an active member in a local parish, I was concerned that if I let it be known that I was considering priesthood, I would be subtly - and not so subtly - pressured into entering the seminary. My intuition may have been all wrong, I suppose, but when I did enter the Dominican seminary, my former university advisors - both geophysicists and non-Catholics - told me that if anyone had suggested to them that one of their students would enter ministry, they would have assumed it would be me.

I would presume that a young man entering seminary is going to be doing so from a parish, and that he would be engaged in the life of that parish. I would hope that that environment wouldn't stifle a vocation. In fact, one of the great religious reformers of seventeenth-century France, Jean-Jacque Olier, established a seminary that was attached to his parish of St. Sulpice in Paris. At the time, it served the roughest, most irreligious sections of Paris. His seminarians, who came from all over France, were engaged in parochial work, and the priests who served in the parish were meant to become models for diocesan clergy throughout France.

The parish was divided into eight districts, each under the charge of a head priest and associates, whose duty it was to know individually all the souls under their care, with their spiritual and corporal needs, especially the poor, the uninstructed, the vicious, and those bound in irregular unions. Thirteen catechetical centres were established, for the instruction not only of children but of many adults who were almost equally ignorant of religion. Special instructions were provided for every class of persons, for the beggars, the poor, domestic servants, lackeys, midwives, workingmen, the aged etc. Instructions and debates on Catholic doctrine were organized for the benefit of Calvinists, hundreds of whom were converted...The poor were cared for according to methods of relief inspired by the practical genius of St. Vincent de Paul. During the five or six years of the Fronde, the terrible civil war that reduced Paris to widespread misery, and often to the verge of famine, M. Olier supported hundreds of families and provided many with clothing and shelter. None were refused. His rules of relief, adapted in other parishes, became the accepted methods... [Catholic Encyclopedia]

Part of the genius of Olier's seminary was the insertion of those preparing for ministry into the life of the parish. I was walking the halls of an archdiocesan seminary last year and noticed that nearly all the pictures on the walls were of cathedrals and historic churches, mostly from Europe. The only pictures of people were those of the graduates from past classes of seminarians. It could be easy to forget that seminary is the place for cultivating a life of service to God's people, since there were no reminders of them on the walls!

The Western Dominican Province encountered the phenomenon back in the 50's, 60's and early 70's that recently ordained friars, who had spent seven years in formation within the safe confines of our house of studies, were leaving the Order and priesthood. These men complained that the life they had lived and enjoyed in seminary was not what they experienced when thrust into ministry.

In response, my Province established what is called a "residency" year, in which a friar in formation works in one of our parishes or campus ministries after their first year of theology (which is their fifth year of formation, since that year of theology is preceded by a year of novitiate and two years of philosophy, typically). It's an important part of the discernment process, as it gives the seminarian a better sense of religious life in the context of full-time ministry and its demands. It also serves to remind the friar that all of his academic work is directed towards a purpose - the salvation of souls.

The interview with the vocation director continued,
Planting seeds must start young and involve the whole community, including the bishop, priests, parents, schools and other church ministries. In dioceses where there is a strong culture of vocations, "it's a totally normal part of the culture that if you're a Catholic man you should seriously consider priesthood at some point."

Other ministries involved in building up that culture include ministry to young adults. "The diocese has invested heavily in young adult ministry. We wanted to build up a lot of places where we could go fishing for these guys."

Having young priests and seminarians involved in activities like the Young Adult Mass, Catholic Challenge Sport and Theology on Tap. Young men can see that "they talk, they breathe, just like me. But they're in the seminary. Success builds on success," he said, "The more seminarians we have and the more visible they are, the more other young men can see themselves doing it.

I agree that the planting of the seeds of priestly and religious vocations is the work of the whole Christian community. But so is the work of planting the seeds of all vocations. Until we fully accept the truth that God is calling each and every one of us to some work of love and service of others that is unique to us, we will not be doing our best to foster priestly and religious vocations. The way the vocation director describes a culture of vocation is precisely the way we should be thinking about a culture of discipleship. We need to talk about discipleship as normative. Too often disciples are seen as unusual - on fire in a way other Catholics aren't - and thus automatically candidates for priesthood or religious life. We need to be able to witness discipleship in our parishes, celebrate it, preach about it, and make it the goal of all of our ministerial efforts.

Currently, with our vocational language centered almost entirely around priesthood and religious life, we give the impression that those are the only vocations. We seldom even speak of marriage as a vocation, much less dedicated single life. We don't speak of vocations beyond state-of-life, so the implication is once you've settled on that, you're finished. You can go ahead and live your life as our non-Christian culture proposes, and pursue a lifestyle of individually oriented personal consumption.

The well-intentioned vocation director I'm quoting sees young adult activities as a potential source for priestly vocations (and, I presume, religious vocations for young women). I would rather see them as schools of discipleship, just as our Catholic schools and parishes should be. The call to any vocation, state-of-life or otherwise, comes from Jesus. How can I expect to hear that call if I am not consciously following him? Discipleship - the intentional, conscious, daily following of Jesus - is the ultimate root of every vocation. Our approach to vocations seems to be one of short-cuts.

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