November 18, 2008

Do I Encourage Vocations?

In the parish where I work we are very fortunate to have three full-time priests, so we have no explicit reason to claim that we are suffering from the shortage of clergy. It makes itself felt, however, in subtle ways. One of those ways is in the culture of Mass intentions, which are filled up here about six months in advance. As the years have gone by and the number of regular Masses has decreased (though we still celebrate eighteen a week here, plus an average of two funerals and half a wedding) and the reform of the liturgy has ended the "side altar" Mass, the demand for Mass intentions has not decreased at the same rate. So many times I have rescued one of the poor kids who answers our phone and door in the evening from someone who is irate that they can't have a Mass said for their deceased loved one anytime soon.

But how many of these irate souls have ever encouraged their own sons or other young men in their life to consider the call to the priesthood? Not many, I would guess. That's where the clergy shortage ends up in its most unpleasant illogic: you can't expect the ministry of priests on demand while not encouraging priestly vocations.

But am I a hypocrite in this criticism I have just made? Yes, at least to some degree. Seeing a young man, an outstanding altar server or a thoughtful religion student perhaps, do I try to plant the seed of a vocation? Like a lot of my brother priests, and even among those who are happy, I think I am also hesitant. Why? I've thought a lot about this, because my hesitancy surprised me at first. If I am grateful for my own vocation and find a lot of joy and redemption in it, why would I not recommend it to another, even on just the human level?

I remember when I was a senior in college and I was first thinking about a vocation to religious life. There was an ex-seminarian, a philosophy major like myself, who heard about it and said, "Best of luck with your vocation." I hardly knew him, but it was a big moment for me to have someone simply say those words, "your vocation," and make it real for me. So why am I hesitant to do that for someone else?

I hesitate to recommend the secular priesthood to anyone for two reasons. First, because I don't feel like I really know anything about it. I don't know what it's like to go to a diocesan seminary or grow up attached to a specific local church. Second, the morale of the secular clergy--at least where I live--seems pretty low. For example, without something to fall back upon like a religious community perhaps, they are one accusation away from being on the street without a home, a salary, or a pension.

But what about religious life and/or priesthood within a religious community? Since this is my own vocation, for which I am exceedingly grateful to God and for those who have encouraged and helped me along the way, why am I also hesitant here? I think that it's because, though this is a beautiful life full of fine challenges and wide opportunity, it is a very hazardous life on the spiritual level. I have no doubt that if there is anyone in hell at all, there is a good proportion of religious and clergy. This life is a beautiful and well-beaten path of Christian discipleship, and it has been proven in its power to make saints, but religious life can also make you worse. In some cases, I think people end up worse for their religious life than they would have been if they had stayed in the world. This is because, at least in the mainstream, North American religious life that I know, you don't have some of the spiritual safeguards that secular people enjoy. For instance, in secular life you don't have the option of deciding you don't want to work for a living, but in religious life this sometimes happens, and a priest or lay religious becomes miserable in their idleness and infects the rest of the community with the rotten luxury of their laziness. Other religious, lacking the give and take of close relationships, which keeps a lot of ordinary people from becoming entirely self-centered, start to believe all the praise they receive and become the sort of narcissistic little kings that make people think there is something the matter with religion. Others simply get comfortable and complacent, performing religious functions while they pursue bourgeois values and middle class goals.

Now I'm not saying that this happens to everyone, or that there aren't genuine saints that you meet frequently in the course of religious life. But I do think that the reason I am hesitant to recommend this life to potential vocations is that the spiritual hazards of this life are real, intense, and in your face all the time. Worse, it has been my experience of religious life and ministry that we as religious or priests do not know how to challenge each other to avoid or work ourselves out of these pitfalls. So I don't know what I would do if I encouraged someone to join up and I saw his soul ruined by it. But doesn't that make me the man who buried his talent?


Gentledove said...

I think if God makes a call it is all but irresistable. God bless you.

GrandmaK said...

God bless you and ALL in Discernment! Cathy

ben in denver said...

I have a massive red 15 passanger van. We got it used after the birth of our last child, number 8. The old Suburban we used to drive was no longer large enough to cart the family around and remian in compliance with the seatbelt and car-seat laws.

Lately, I have nicknamed the van "the scarlet letter". I have chosen this name not because it is a mark of sin, but because it is very much a mark of social disaprobation. The large family in our society is the recipient a a special kind of loathing and contempt. I often joke with my wife that through some sort of cosmic oddity, the more children women have, the less they know about children. My sister, the mother of 2, used to call regularly for advice when we and 2 and 3. Those calls stopped when we got to 4. My wife, driving the big red van, has been hounded out of the Costo parking lot by Greenpeace volunteers who thought she had too many children. I was subjected to riddicule at work while attending a semniar that dealt with college tuition savings plans and outed as a fool who would never be able to send my kds to college. The manner in which my coleagues interact with me markedly and permanently changes when the learn that I'm the father of 8. My parents, and my inlaws parents react to news of a new pregnancy in the way you might expect a parent to react to news that their child was arrested for DUI. I'm not even sure that my father-in-law knows the names of all of his grandchildren. My wife was even informed at chior practice of which priests she could go see who would give her permission to "do something about that".

We have switched parishes a couple of times in the effort to find a community which did not disapprove of our lifestyle. Sundays have really become my favorite day of the week; not just beacuse of the eucharist, although that is primary, but because it povides me the opportunity of just being myself with other people. On Sunday at Church the "scarlet letter" becomes a "red badge of courage". It is one of precious few places the large family is allowed to be normal.

Now, I have not posted this list to generate sympathy, but to illustrate that crosses and temptations are provided to the faithful who answer the call to marriage just as lovingly as they are provided to religious. We come to holiness only through the cross, whether we are layman or cleric.

If solth is a more difficult temptation for the cleric, greed and lust are perhaps are more trouble for the layman.

To answer a vocation is always frought with difficulty, whether that call be to married, single, religious or clerical life.

Brother Charles said...

Ben, thanks for this, and thanks for your courage and witness.

Matt G. said...

In some ways I think your life is an encouragement of vocation, whether you intend it to be or not. I've met some grumpy religious, but their attitude doesn't bother me all that much, because in the end, no matter how grumpy they seem to get, they are ultimately dedicating their life to something far greater than themselves and that, for me, is a true inspiration.

I guess I've been lucky, I've been blessed with the experience of wonderful religious. My spiritual director, Father Kruse, is without a doubt one of the greatest people I've ever been able to meet. His insights, his love of the world, his deep and meaningful relationship with God, and just his mere presence have been a great inspiration.

I agree with the post above mine, from Ben, every life is full of challenges. As human beings we all share the same challenges, regardless of the life we lead, we will always encounter the less-than-spectacular traits of humanity, our weaknesses and our flaws, regardless. The first vocation director I ever spoke to, Father Joe, always referred to the Church and his life as a religious as being a part of a family. Like in any family, there are some that we get along with better than others, some whose flaws are more noticeable, and, dare I say, some we might just dislike. I know I have an uncle who I don't get along with at all, we never have and may never get along, but it comes with the territory.

You have and continue to encourage my vocation simply because you carry on in your own vocation, so keep up the good work.

Barb, sfo said...

I think that just because you are aware of the pitfalls possible in the way of life that goes with your vocation, this does not disqualify you from encouraging others. In fact, I think it would put you in a position to actually encourage others--because you can help people look at the possibility of a vocation with wide-open eyes.

4narnia said...

hi Fr. C!
this is a great topic and i would just like to share a comment on this subject. both ben & matt make some really good points. ben in saying that "every life (whether single, married or religious life) has challenges." and matt, who says that you who have entered religious life are an inspiration because "you have ultimately dedicated your lives to something far more greater than yourselves." personally, i feel that if God wants a person to serve Him in some way, it will happen - whether it is in religious life, the secular priesthood, married or the single life. i've already shared the fact that i entered a convent right after high school, but only lasted a couple of weeks. it wasn't the right time for it. God will definitely put the right people and circumstances in our lives without even forcing us (He gave us free will) to serve & follow Him. i've seen how things have unfolded in my life since i left the convent. i met some great religious (some Capuchin friars and some friars & sisters from Graymoor); i also have met some great secular (archdiocesan) priests; and i've met some great lay people - all of whom i believe God has used and is using as inspirations in how i have and continue to serve Him. God has taken me from a very non-religious family that i grew up in to serving Him in two parishes where i'm truly happy and feel very blessed. i also try to be aware of "planting a seed" in my everyday work life, especially since half my day is spent caring for children. i feel that we're all responsible in planting seeds and encouraging others in whatever state of life we have been called to. one of the best ways (if not the most important way) is just by how we live our lives. our good example is often the best way to inspire others to join us in serving God in whatever state of life He calls us to. so, Fr. C, don't be too hard on yourself in feeling that it the responsibility of the religious tp encourage vocations - the responsibility is all of ours. and, just to let you know (if you don't know already) you have been a great inspiration and encouragement in my life. and, i'm sure you have inspired many others, too! PAX ET BONUM, Fr. C!
tara t