The fourth Sunday of Easter (11 May 2003) has been set aside by the Church as a World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The following article reviews the position of vocations in today's culture.
Joanne Grainger is Special Projects Officer, Catholic Vocations, Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Many within Church circles today ask "where are the vocations?", while the declining numbers entering the priesthood and religious life prompt claims of a crisis in the Church and calls for optional clerical celibacy, the ordination of women and lay-led "priest-less parishes".
In fact, recent international figures indicate there is a considerable willingness among young adults - even in affluent Western nations - to make a commitment to Christ through a vocation to religious life or the priesthood.
Young people live in a society where autonomy, relativism and freedom mean that, materially speaking, almost anything can be gained through a constant pursuit of self-gratification and pleasure. However, it is an empty pursuit, for once something is conquered, another challenge inevitably presents itself.
As the young continue to search in the outside world for what will ease their restless hearts, many are looking for a meaning in life in something beyond a material world that is often confusing, hostile and violent.
As Colleen Carroll states in her book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, "a small but committed core of young Christians is internationally embracing organised religion and traditional morality - [and] in a culture where young adults are frequently told that no universal moral standards or religious truths exist, many have begun to question that dictum and search for the truth that they believe is knowable".
The truth of Jesus Christ's eternal love through his sacrifice on the Cross is no longer an abstract experience for many Catholic youth. His love is tangible, and a revelation of something far greater that this earthly experience filled with pain, uncertainty and suffering. "Our heart is restless O Lord, until it rests in you" - poetic words from St Augustine that beautifully capture this fervour among many young Catholics to seek and find Christ present in every element of their lives.
This is evident in the hearts of the several thousand Australian young adults who have experienced World Youth Day over the last decade, in the prayers and heartfelt yearnings of hundreds of young people before the Blessed Sacrament during formal and informal Holy Hours and prayer sessions throughout the dioceses of Australia, and in the growing numbers of lay people involved in Ecclesial movements.
In this new millennium, despite the uncertainties and fears, vocations are being discerned by many with eagerness and joy.
How many of us could define the word vocation? There is a secular understanding of it being something you are called to because you are good at it, such as teaching and nursing. In this sense it has a nurturing and dutiful connotation.
Commitment of baptised
Vocations to the Church have these elements, but much more. While we are able to make decisions regarding our vocation, it is God who has chosen it for us from the moment He created us. As Catholics we have a free choice - either to follow His plans or reject them.
The concept of vocation has not changed - it still entails a call for a special commitment from all baptised Christians.
We each have a personal mission - highlighted so beautifully by Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi: "Evangelising is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity." The state of life that allows us to fulfil this mission of evangelisation of the message of the Gospel, our true vocation, may be as a priest, religious, consecrated lay person, or a married or single individual.
What is common to each of these vocations is that there is work to be done to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near. It is through commitment to God through our mission here on earth, to be "saints of this new millennium" that Pope John Paul II has challenged each to consider his or her vocation as not only as a God given gift, but as the ultimate source of love and freedom.
It seems as if everyone in society has a comment about what the Catholic Church should or should not be doing with regard to vocations, especially the priesthood. The recent media frenzy regarding sex abuse scandals has been almost "gladiator like".
During a recent talk at the Thomas More Summer School, Monsignor Peter Elliot pointed out that this persecution is not new for the Church. "From the Colosseum to 60 Minutes" was the title of this insightful and at times provocative view into why Catholics have become targets of such intense scrutiny and judgement.
Can there be a solution to the permissiveness of a society that accepts unequivocally earthly desires such as materialism and self-gratification? I would argue that those Catholics who are committed to their vocation are in fact an affront to such societal expectations and demands centred on the here and now, rather than the life eternal.
Vocations within the Church tend to be denigrated by many of our contemporaries as nonsensical life choices in a culture that considers faith a pointless pursuit of the meaningless. Yet accepting that living out a Catholic vocation today runs counter to this current trend can be not only liberating but also has a certain sense of splendour and truth to it.
Vocations therefore need to be promoted, fostered and encouraged as a universal mission within the Church, not lamented as part of a crisis or something in need of "spin doctors" resorting to man's ingenuity instead of God's providence.