Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why vocation programs don't work

Fr. Damian J. Ference:

Millions of dollars have been spent by vocation offices on prayer cards, lesson plans, vocation week activities, homily helpers, discernment brochures, websites, and an array of other vocation promotion materials, but have these approaches really made a significant impact on our young people? Sadly, the answer is no. For all the effort that has been put into vocation awareness in recent history, our returns have not been very good, but it is not for lack of effort. Bishops, vocation directors, DREs, catechists and parents, have been working diligently to address the lack of vocations in the Church, but very little has changed. Sure, there are some orders and some diocesan seminaries that are doing better than others, but the overall vocation picture remains the same. It seems to me that the real problem is that we’ve misdiagnosed the vocation situation, and therefore, we’ve been spending all our time, effort and money on the wrong things. In other words, we’ve been treating the symptoms without ever recognizing the disease.

The root of our current vocation problem is a lack of discipleship. Of course, a disciple is one who encounters Jesus, repents, experiences conversion and then follows Jesus. All too often those of us in positions of Church leadership presume that all the folks in the pews on Sundays, all the children in our grade schools, high schools and PSR programs, all the kids in our youth groups, all the men in our Men’s Clubs and all the women in our Women’s Guilds, and all the members of our RCIA team are already disciples. Many are not. (The same can be said of staffs and faculties of Catholic institutions.) Our people may be very active in the programs of our parishes, schools and institutions, but unfortunately, such participation does not qualify for discipleship.

If the root of our vocation problem is a lack of discipleship, then the remedy is to make more disciples, just as Jesus commanded. But how is this accomplished?

First, an important principle to keep in mind is that disciples beget disciples. In other words, if we are really serious about fostering better marriages, holier priests, more devoted religious, and generally a more faithful and dedicated Church, then those of us who are already married, ordained, and consecrated, and who identify ourselves as Catholics must take a good, hard look at our own lives and evaluate how our discipleship measures up. How long has it been since we last experienced real conversion and transformation? How often to we repent of our sins? Do we really allow Jesus to rule our lives, or have we fallen into the ancient trap of Pelagianism, ultimately believing that we save ourselves? Do we really know Jesus? Do we allow him to really know us? These questions are important ones, for unless we as a Church can offer true models and exemplars of discipleship with our own lives, very few will seriously consider living the kind of life we live.

When I was 20, there was no way I was going to seriously consider becoming a religious.

For one thing, all the nuns that I'd ever seen were old. Okay, call me ageist, but hanging around women who've seen better days for the rest of your life is a bit tough to contemplate at that age.

The second is that all the orders were full of leftists. Why would I even consider joining a community of women-- my future home-- when they were all diametrically opposed my core religious values?

When you don't have contact with real Catholics, and real priests and religious, you don't know that a vocation is possible. It's pie in the sky.

One of my pet peeves regarding the way the Church operates now is that in certain areas, if you're not part of a marginalized group, the priests don't have time for you. There is no person-to-person contact.

I strongly felt that neglect when I was 16-20 years old. Here I was, the only person under 20 at church, but if I wanted the priest's attention, I felt like I had to capture the crumbs of time that fell off the table, that is, the main agenda.

There was time for old people. And time for the disabled. And time for the sick in the hospital.

But if you were just a normal parishoner-- there was no time for you.

The person-to-person contact between a priest and his parishoners-- especially his regular church-goers is so vital. The priest can't just be a Church bureaucrat saying Mass and dispensing sacraments. He has to be a locus of truth and wisdom in the community. And if he doesn't radiate that spiritual authority, then I think he's not doing so well in his role. And by "spiritual authority" I don't mean his ability to run a parish or tell people what to do. I mean his role as a source of Truth. He's got to know what he's talking about and look like he knows what he's talking about. He's got to have it so together on the spiritual front that he oozes the wisdom of the ages without even trying and give us Magisterial Catholics warm fuzzies. How many times have you met a priest like that? I can't say I've met that many.

It's that person-to-person contact that makes the Catholic faith so real, that makes that wisdom come alive. If you're too busy to bring that to your "regular parishoners", how do you expect any of them to consider vocations? A church that is too busy for its regulars is a Church too busy for its future.

Another pet peeve of mine is that there is a big difference between the Church On Paper (e.g. Papal documents) and the Church in Real Life.

There should be no difference. And good Catholic priests know how to create that church so that Catholicism is not just a bunch of propositions in an encyclical, it's a real way of life that people can and are expected to live up to.

But if people don't see that, then they won't consider vocations. If being a priest is just about being a Church bureaucrat or a social worker, they can be a bureaucrat or social worker for higher pay in the secular world with the benefits of marriage.