“Creating a culture of vocation in today’s Irish Church-is it too late?”

The following is a talk which I was invited to give to the Annual General Meeting of St. Joseph's Young Priest's Society in Foxrock on the 13th of June 2016.

Good evening, it’s good to be here with you this evening. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Sr. M. Louise O’ Rourke, and I’m a Disciple of the Divine Master, up at Newtownpark Avenue. Thanks to Dominic Dowling for inviting me to speak to you too.
When I asked Dominic, what do you want me to speak about…he more or less told me that I could choose! Sometimes it is easier to be given a topic to talk about. Anyways, after some prayer and reflection I came up with the title: “Creating a culture of vocation in today’s Irish Church- is it too late? ”.

Everyone is called to discern what God wants them to do with their lives — be it a young man considering the priesthood, men and women entering the religious life, a man feeling called to the permanent diaconate, a couple deciding on marriage, or someone recognizing a dedicated single life. Today, however, there are many challenges to hearing God’s call, and the task of the Church is to assist men and women to discern the path that will lead them to true happiness and eternal life.

We often associate the term “vocation” solely with priesthood or those discerning a call to the priesthood.
But it is more than that. The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, which is a verb that means ‘to call’. In simplest terms, a vocation could also be called a ‘calling.’ In our Catholic worldview, we believe that God has a plan for each of us. In a way, in a broad way, the whole sense of discipleship, the whole sense of divine Providence, the whole sense that God has a plan for us, stems from what you might call this generic sense of vocation. What we often overlook is that we all have a vocation. Two actually! Primarily, we are all called to a life of holiness. That is we should all be striving to be saints one day. In addition, we all have a particular vocation. It is through our particular vocation that we discern the state of life God is calling us to.
We tend to hear all the time about a “crisis in vocations.” This is usually discussed concerning vocations to the priesthood. But the challenge of discerning a vocation is not limited to the priesthood. The crisis is that the vocations to the priesthood and religious life are not being nurtured and encouraged as well as they could be. Nor is the vocation to marriage. The crisis is not just one of numbers; it is a crisis of culture.  There are many who are being called, yet for a young person today it can be very daunting to acknowledge such a thing and pursue it.

That said, I don’t believe there is a vocation crisis.  I believe that what we have is a Vocation Awareness Crisis.  I know that God continues to call men and women into service, but I think we have created an environment in our Catholic culture where people no longer have the ears to hear that call; or the willingness to follow it. Outside of our church, our secular culture values materialism, wealth, status, position, celebrity and power, far, far above a call to poverty, chastity, obedience and service and so the natural outcome is fewer deacons, priests and religious, fewer married couples and families open to promoting vocations.

In vocation circles, we often talk about creating a culture of vocations. This is not a new concept. We know it used to exist.  Fifty years ago, there was no greater honour to a family than if one of its members became a priest or a religious, but those times have changed. But they can change again. 
Maybe for a while, we had a culture that discouraged vocations, even in religious circles. I myself was told in Leaving Cert year by my Catholic guidance teacher that ‘I was mad’ for considering a vocation! We all pray for an increase in vocations. But would you dare to pray for a vocation in your family? Your own son or daughter, grandchild, niece or nephew? When Bishop Kevin Doran was consecrated bishop of Elphin in 2014, he posed the question- do we really pray for vocations? Or is it, vocations, yes, but not from my family! The founder of Opus Dei, Jose Maria Escriva once remarked that those called by God owe ninety percent of their vocation to their parents. So we can say that the family is the seedbed of vocations. Saint Pope John Paul II tells us that us the future passes through the family. Whether it is a fertile or clogged seedbed is another issue. It is not the only seedbed though. There are three particularly strong influences on young people today. One, the general culture and peer network; two, the educational system; three, the family environment. Hopefully, at least two out of three would be positive influences to create a favourable environment for young men and women to commit themselves totally to God but this is not always the case.

I always think that we miss the boat when we don’t speak too about marriage as a vocation. I mean, that is the biggest vocations crisis in the Church today, if you ask me. When only half of our Catholic people are getting married, it’s to be expected that we have a crisis in the numbers of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. 
It’s a fear of commitment which is present across the board of all walks of life.
What is a culture of vocations?
What I understand by a culture of vocations is whereby our young people and at times not so young grow up in a culture that encourages you to do God’s will and that affirms the individual in that desire to be a priest, a religious, married etc. Such a culture encourages, fosters, promotes, affirms and celebrates young people as they discern their particular vocation to serve Jesus Christ and his Church. Then, we will have people who have made mature and committed decisions to take seriously on board their vocation.

But what does it meant to create a culture of vocation? The word culture has many different meanings.  For some it refers to an appreciation of good literature, music, art, and food.  However, for anthropologists and other behavioural scientists, culture is the full range of learned human behaviour patterns. Culture is what forms us from our earliest days. Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon, it is constantly changing and easily lost. Just as this applies to any other kind of culture, so it applies to a culture of vocations.

Whose responsibility is it to create this culture of vocations? Pope Benedict XVI said: ‘Particularly in these times, when the voice of the Lord seems to be drowned out by ‘other voices’ and his invitation to follow him by the gift of one’s own life may seem too difficult, every Christian community, every member of the Church, needs to consciously feel responsible for promoting vocations.” So there’s our answer. It is the responsibility of everyone. It’s not a responsibility we can take lightly though it’s a responsibility we might not want to take upon ourselves. It means being moved out of our comfort zones to invite and encourage those in whom we see a potential vocation to consider the religious life or priesthood. Yet we need to do it because there are so many other aspects of our popular culture that promote values and ideals that dissuade anyone who might consider getting actively involved in the Church, much less give their life to service of the Church.

Answering Jesus’ call of “Follow me!” is “no less challenging” today than it was for the disciples 2,000 years ago. Pope Francis is his message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations urged the faithful to take every opportunity to develop vocations. “Every moment” in Church community life from catechesis to prayer and pilgrimages can be “a precious opportunity for awakening in the people of God … a sense of belonging to the Church and of responsibility for answering the call to priesthood and to religious life by a free and informed decision,” he says.

“The ability to foster vocations,” Pope Benedict wrote, “is a hallmark of the vitality of a local Church.” Yes, the springtime of the Church is happening in the universal Church. We see it in Africa; Asia; parts of Central America and Eastern Europe. We see it in some of the ecclesial movements.  But what about Ireland? It may be too early to say that it is springtime in Ireland but as Church, we live knowing that spring is coming.

I would like to share with you some of the seeds of hope which I see as influential in the flourishing of a culture of vocations in recent times in the Irish Church.

One which is fresh in my mind is the Rise of the Roses, which our congregation was blessed to be involved in. A group of young women spent 10 Saturdays touring Ireland visiting 10 different convents with a bus load of friends and families. Aside from the 10 Saturdays, they were instrumental in sowing the seeds of the call to religious life in the hearts and minds of many young people during the Year for Consecrated Life. Their mission was to rediscover the beauty of a life consecrated to God by meeting religious women and having young people hear their story. The fruits of this are showing in small cells of young women who are coming together to discern and share common life .
Youth 2000 – Last year, over 1300 young people between 16 and 35 attended a 4 day festival of faith, based on the format of the 40 hours of Adoration. They sang, danced, prayed the Rosary, did Adoration, went to Confession, attended workshops on a number of topics, including vocations. It is an incredible witness to the hunger of our youth to know and celebrate their faith. There are now over 30 weekly Youth 2000 Prayer groups who meet and have Eucharistic Adoration and offer peer support in living faith.
Pure in Heart- a movement which promotes the beauty of chastity and healthy relationships.
Living Water- a charismatic prayer group here in Dublin for 20-40 year olds. It is committed to evangelisation and cultivating a living relationship with Jesus who sends us out to bring the Gospel. In Lent, a Life in the Spirit seminar was held for 10 weeks and over 130 young people participated.
Sisters Café- an initiative of Vocations Ireland whereby sisters go to different venues and parishes to speak about vocations in an informal setting
There have been a flourishing of male religious life in Ireland, especially the mendicant orders-over the past few weeks in and the coming weeks there are ordinations to deaconate and priesthood in different religious orders. Also numbers in the enclosed and contemplative orders are on the rise. There is a trickle of applications also to apostolic and missionary orders too, both people applying here in Ireland and Irish people joining new orders and associations in different countries. This is the fruit of prayer of individuals and communities and also of committed vocation directors.
There are more applications for the Order of Consecrated Virginity (Ordo Virginum) which is a very specific form of consecration.
So what can I, what can we do? A recent study by the U.S. bishops showed that something as simple as having even one person encourage an individual to consider a vocation doubles the likelihood that they will do so, for both men and women. If three people offered encouragement, respondents were more than five times more likely to consider a religious vocation. We need to encourage our youth to consider this way of life just as they consider the myriad other ways of life presented to them every day. We must promote this same culture in the digital world too. Somewhere in the region of 90% of inquiries for priestly and religious vocations now come from social media: from websites, via Twitter and Facebook, and for the really old-fashioned, via email! People can now explore a vocation online in a way that is much less risky, they can make the initial steps of discernment online without having to speak to anyone in person
As St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society, your focus is essentially on priesthood. As I was preparing this talk, I was reminded of an initiative which I saw done in my home parish and which has been repeated in different countries too. It is called the ‘Chalice Programme’. The Chalice Programme directly involves the parishioners. At the end of a Sunday Mass, a family, couple or individual receives the Chalice from the priest and they take the Chalice home, place it in a prominent location and pray daily for vocations. It may be the first time this topic has been explored, and may be a very important week for the family. This might be an opportunity to invite family and friends to join in sharing and prayer. In one year, 52 families will have actively prayed and hopefully dialogued about vocations. In ten years, that number reaches 520. Multiply that by the 199 parishes in Dublin…well you need a calculator!
The question I started off was whether it is too late for the Irish Church to create a culture of vocations. I would answer ‘no’. Not because of any of our human efforts but because the call comes from God and He keeps calling. The good news is that much work has been done to begin to create a culture of vocations to point to the transcendent and profound good that comes to the individual and the world when an individual embraces his/her vocation.  We have to focus on the small mustard seeds which we see flourishing and be prepared to keep dreaming, hoping and praying.

Some parishes, dioceses, religious orders, and colleges are developing vocation programs or youth programs to encourage young people in their faith, helping them to realize that a relationship with Christ is a beautiful and powerful thing that is worth developing despite what the popular culture may say. In Ireland, the national organization for vocations, Vocations Ireland, recently received a generous donation from the Hilton Foundation which offers huge possibility to get the message out about vocations and also to provide resources and opportunities for young and not so young people to explore the Lord’s call.

Conclusion-Each way of life is full of challenges – as any married person can attest to.  But, when it is what you are called to, you cannot imagine doing anything else. We have to encourage people to be open to the possibility.  To open their hearts to listen to Jesus. The simple thing that we are all called to do is encourage young people to be open to whatever God has planned for them – whether religious, married, single,  or priest.  When we make Jesus, manifested in our world, manifested in the Eucharist, Reconciliation and all the sacraments, the centre of our life, we look at life differently.  You see, it is a domino effect.  When we are open to the presence of Jesus, we become the presence of Jesus in the world.    

Prayer is always the first step. Pray for more young men to listen for God’s call to the priesthood for them. Pray for the strength of marriages in our community. Pray for strength and courage for our priests, deacons, and religious as they live their lives in service to God. Pray for all young people to listen to God’s call for them and then to follow through. Pray for your own children, that they will be open to God’s will for their lives and they will say yes to whatever He is calling them to.
As a bonus, take your prayer to Adoration if it is available to you. Parishes with perpetual adoration often see a boost in young men discerning the priesthood and people entering religious life. In our parish, we have an Adoration Chapel. One day each month is set aside in a very specific way to pray for vocations to the priesthood. Our Divine Master Centre is available for youth seeking spaces of prayer and reflection to discover God’s will for them.  Spend one hour in adoration, pray for an increase in priestly vocations, and one day we will see God’s amazing work. Many bishops are testifying to the clear relationship between Eucharistic devotion and an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.   
Another way of supporting vocations is to let those in formation know that you praying for them. Going through the formation process can be a joyful time as well as a very difficult time for young people. Almost every priest or religious I have spoken with has questioned their vocational call at some point during their discernment process. Knowing that people are praying for them offers them support and encouragement.
Young people are looking for models of holiness and commitment, and the community of the faithful, recognizing this desire, can help lead these young seekers in the right direction.   In addition to this, we can all help create a culture which encourages and supports vocations in our homes and in our parishes.  There’s no better place for us to start than with our prayers for vocations. So maybe we could conclude by praying a prayer for vocations, composed for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.Thank you.

Sr. M. Louise O’ Rourke, pddm