Priestly Vocations: Numbers Or Persons?

2012. május 07.

I was asked, now almost six months ago, by my superiors in Rome to participate in the project launched globally in my religious community, the Piarist Order, to foster vocations, ultimately but not exclusively Piarist vocations, among the young that we work for. What I was, and still am, supposed to do is to write a blog on the subject of vocation.
Why this delay, you might ask quite properly. And indeed,  this  is the question  I have been asking myself ever more passionately lately. What is it that has been stopping me? By now, I have come to the conclusion that unless I find the reason for my delaying I won’t be able to write anything on the subject. And what I have to, indeed what I must, write about is exactly this reason.
If I had to express it as briefly as I can I would say this. The subject of vocation is so heavily loaded with fixed forms with definite meanings and images that I find it difficult to position myself in it. Sometimes I feel that there is no space left for me there personally. I have the impression that I’d have to choose between what is meant by having a vocation and my own identity. I guess this is quite a bulky obstacle.
I was helped in finding this obstacle the other day by a newsletter which I received in my e-mail. The newsletter is entitled Paix Liturgique, and apparently is distributed in all the major world languages, to an audience the members of which, like myself, did not necessarily ask to receive it. This is a form of direct marketing, if I am not mistaken. Paix Liturgique, or Liturgical Peace, seems to be a movement within the Catholic Church to promote the cause of what is known as the extraordinary form of the mass, sometimes also called the vetus ordo, or the old order. The form of the mass they like is old in the sense that it basically goes back to the way the mass was celebrated before the Second Vatican Council.
The actual issue of the newsletter that I refer to (accessible here) was about the number of priestly vocations in the Church in France nowadays. Its claim is evident form the title: “France: While the vocations crisis goes on, the traditionalist tendency continues its trend”. In other words, while the number of vocations generally is decreasing, the number of vocations among people with “a more ‘traditionalist’ sensibility” is growing.
The authors’ final remark says:
“If more parishes were opened up to the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, if satisfaction were given to the desire of the faithful, and if this liturgical form were made more available for those who do not know it to discover it, then the number of ‘Summorum Pontificum’ seminarians would undergo a considerable increase. This would have an immediate influence on the diocesan vocations curve. Why not do so?”
In what follows I do not at all want to say why not do so. What I want to speak about is why not do only this.
First, it could perhaps be said that the comparison the newsletter makes is like the one between apples and pears. But I think it is worse than that.
Priestly or religious vocations, like any other, need an ecosystem where they can flourish. But to simply say that in seminaries that take a more traditional approach priestly vocations abound is, I think, dangerously superficial. What should be said is rather this,  that in those seminaries with a traditional mind-set there are more people with a traditional mind-set. This is somewhat tautological, of course, and so not as attractive as the original version. Of course there are more people with a traditional mind-set ready to enter a seminary which has  a traditional mind-set. But then it should also be added that there will be fewer people with a non-traditional outlook to enter it. And who knows how many possible vocations have been squandered simply by the fact that they cannot find, within our local Churches and hence in their seminaries, the ecosystem that they need. I think this is, in fact, also what the authors of the newsletter meant to say.
I accept as a fact that there are people with a traditional mind-set and that they need what, at last, they have found in traditional seminaries and communities. I can also be happy about it. It is something really good. But then I also think that the same thing should happen to those with a different mind-set. The same thing should happen, at last, to people who feel that the spiritual ecosystem they absolutely need is the one fostered by the Second Vatican Council, and described by John Paul II in his apostolic letter Novo Millenio Ineunte as the spirituality of communion.
Is the Church, or better put, are we the members of the Church and our communities, unequivocal about what is meant by the spirituality of communion? Have we followed through the deep spiritual and theological change that took place with the Second Vatican Council? I do not think so. And this is why I think that what the newsletter of Paix Liturgique says about priestly vocations is dangerously superficial and one-sided.
I do not think it is easy to be a priest nowadays. But neither is it easy to lead a meaningful life today. Where can we find meaning for our lives? This is a fundamental challenge for all of us personally, no matter what vocation one may have.
We live in a world of constant change where everything is shifting. This is not attractive for anyone, not even for the most innovative minded. And so it is quite easy to give quick fixes for our difficulties.
One such example of a quick fix is when we think that traditional forms, even values, if restored, could sort out all our problems. The reinstallation of traditional forms or values mostly means more rules, and rules of the past, rules that once proved to be successful. Rules, that is, that do not need any discussion. Rules that are by definition true and applicable.
Such a solution, however, quickly entails that the actual members of our communities, of the Church, or of society in general, are overlooked. What matters more than they do are the rules and the expected order and security granted by the rules. What is meant by the spirituality of communion is just the opposite of this.
The spirituality of communion makes our communities in the Church more like a school. That is, it makes them a place of growth, a place where one can freely and securely make mistakes, where one can set out to try and find his or her identity and vocation. If you fix this identity, by saying that those who belong  here are such and such full stop, you are not only prematurely defining the members,  you are really killing them.
We need more freedom and more courage to make our communities like a school (and as a teacher I cannot help saying, to make communities out of our schools) where you can become what you are called to become. For our communities to become like this what we need are not rules, not even the restoration of what are called traditional values. Rather what we need is freedom and courage to make mistakes, to face and embrace the truth in ourselves and in each other, opportunities and occasions where we can talk to each other honestly and seek truth, where we can open ourselves to the truth in our lives personally and as a community to transform us to who we are called to be.
A priest today, in a community, has the special responsibility to promote such an ambience. His role is already like this something sacred, transcendental, and “supernatural”. It has, already like this, everything to do with God.
If priests  are not allowed to live it like that, if they are asked, by all sorts of un-reflected expectations, to find the sacred, the transcendental, even God, in something else  placed  apart and separated from their own and their community’s everyday and “profane” life, whether as a special form of life signalled by special  vestments, gestures, a way of speech, indeed insignia of power, or in a liturgy and prayers more akin to the life of our predecessors than to our own, there will be, or continue to be, few who choose this vocation.  I admit, you will still have some people even then; people with a traditional mind-set, as I have labelled them, following Paix Liturgique. And, of course, they will be more numerous than those who  are looking for  something different.
So instead why not try, at last, to do what the Council proposed? Why not do something that is meaningful today, something that helps us find meaning for our lives today? In this way, I am sure, we would have more people who say yes to the priestly vocation both in communities with a more traditional sensibility and in communities seeking a shared communion.
I set out to say a few words about my vocation. What I have just pleaded for is, of course, something that affects me deeply and personally. So, “Tread softly…”