On Monday mornings I have the joy and privilege of offering Mass at the local monastery of Poor Clare nuns. When I arrive at the sacristy, stole and chasuble are laid out on the vesting table. They have a funny way of folding the stole so that it provides a little bump whereupon sits a little slip of paper that indicates the intention for the Mass. Today, as it does once in a while, it said, "for vocations."
I guess I never reflected much on what it might mean to pray for vocations. In the past I think I just prayed that God would inspire young women with a desire for this particular expression of the Franciscan life. But as I prepared for Mass today and formed my intention, I noticed that this isn't the only way one could think about it. Perhaps it's not that I should pray for God to inspire vocations, but that God has already done so, and I need to pray for those who already have a vocation, that they might be aware of it and have the courage to follow. It's a different way of thinking about praying for vocations, and it goes to some basic theological questions about how we understand the will of God for the individual human life.
I adduce two other examples of this latter way of thinking. When I was in the parish, there was one priest who wouldn't accept that there might not be someone to proclaim the first reading at a weekday Mass. If nobody got up to do it, he would just sit there and wait. Everyone would get annoyed and uncomfortable, and finally someone, not being able to take it, would get up and do the reading. Father was confident that if God had called us together to offer the Eucharist, he would also provide ministers for the assembly. Therefore, it must be that someone was resisting or failing to be aware of God's call to the ministry of lector. (Now I know that this behavior doesn't stand up to the GIRM, but you see my point.)
Another example is a young woman I once met who often prayed for a husband. She wasn't praying for just any old husband, however, but for the specific man whom she was meant to marry. She was convinced that God was calling her to the vocation of motherhood, and so it must be that God had also given some guy out there the vocation of being the father of her children. God would arrange for them to meet, she imagined, and she made sure she prayed for him, whoever he was to turn out to be. (Just a caveat on this procedure: I have heard of a couple cases of young women who prayed for a good husband and ended up 'brides of Christ,' as it were.)
It also raises questions for the so-called shortage of priests. When we pray for vocations to the priesthood, for what are we praying? Is it like my friend and the first reading? Could it be that God has provided the Church with all of the priestly vocations she requires, but the young men in question are perhaps unaware of it, or distracted, or hesitant? Could it be that we are praying for specific men already called when we pray for priestly vocations? Could we perhaps be praying and working for an environment that provides the conditions wherein such vocations are noticed and encouraged?
Sometimes I get into conversations with people in which they express annoyance that the Church hasn't provided a priest for their parish. I ask them why they think of the Church as someone else. Doesn't everyone bear the responsibility to encourage vocations? I remember once when a lady in the parish office was yelling at the poor kid who answered the phone later in the day because there weren't enough free Mass intentions available. I asked her if she had any sons. She said that she had three fine sons. "Did you ever encourage any of them to think about the priesthood? I asked. She replied that she hadn't, and with such a tone as to dismiss even the idea. "That's why there are fewer and fewer Mass intentions available."
So today at Mass I tried on this other way of thinking about praying for vocations. I prayed for the young women out there who had vocations to be Poor Clare nuns, those who were aware of it and those who weren't. I even prayed for the little girls to whom God willed to give this vocation one day, and even for the unborn. I prayed that all of them would have the graced people and situations they needed to become aware of and accept their vocations.
Nevertheless, I'm not sure about all this; as I say it goes to some basic claims and theological imagination around God's will and relationship to individual human lives. It's an interesting question, though.