Mark Makowiecki, aged 22, was youth representative at a recent vocations awareness conference in Adelaide. This is the edited text of his address, in which he cites his experiences with two religious orders, contrasting their differing approaches to the role of the modern Church. He concludes that a focus on Catholic identity and authentic spiritual traditions is the key to attracting vocations.
The survival of the Church in Australia depends on the success of vocational initiatives during the coming decades.
From 1995 to 2001 I attended Cabra Dominican College in Adelaide and received no religious benefit from it whatsoever. In 2004, in growing desperation for meaning in my life, I headed off to India to work with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta.
It was there that God was confirmed as an important part of who I was, and that working for God is the best job on earth. Whether I achieve that by religious vows is yet to be seen.
I have identified many areas we could improve upon as a community to encourage vocations, but I believe that particular areas need emphasis. In discussing these I will refer to my experiences with two different religious orders, the Missionaries of Charity and the Christian Brothers.
Only one of them inspired me. The other, in its misguided attempts to remain relevant, has become irrelevant to the deepest needs of young people, including the need for certainty.
Learning from their examples is the key to attaining vocational interest, but I am doubtful whether any inroads can be made in the present culture of hedonism.
My desire to work with the Missionaries of Charity began not solely out of concern for the poor, but from a personal desire to know God better. For a long time as an Australian Catholic, my spiritual life had been confined to Sunday Mass with little or no transference to weekdays.
One particular Sunday morning in late 2004, as the prayers of the faithful were being read, it seemed to me that these prayers, along with their responses, were totally insincere. I felt angry inside, realising that my faith had completely stagnated. I had reached a cross-road where I either sought God or went my own way. This proved to be a major catalyst for my journey to India.
Within weeks I had made the best decision possible. I was going to work in Calcutta with the Missionaries of Charity to find God - for real.
I arrived unannounced and settled in with barely a ripple. By the grace of God alone I took everything in my stride. For once in my life, I was in the right place. And now I am back in Adelaide, I couldn't be further from home.
An illustration of the social and religious makeup at the Missionaries of Charity can be seen at the daily Mass in Mother House. The novices, the nuns, the volunteers and public are segregated into three groups. The tabernacle is behind the altar and pattens are used at communion. The Sign of Peace is reserved and sincere and the hymns meaningful and appropriate. Bells are rung at the Consecration while incense is used on special occasions.
It is obvious there is complete reverence when it comes to the Mass and the worship of God. Furthermore, this reverence extends to the workplace. Nuns avoid engaging in chitchat with volunteers and interaction is limited to the tasks that need performing. When breakfast is served, it is simply brought out and left for distribution by volunteers.
Only one Sister is dealt with on a regular basis, the one in charge of volunteers. As with my parents, and the best teachers and leaders I have encountered, the Sisters don't make the mistake of confusing "loving thy neighbour" with over-familiarity. They don't seek to be liked; but in many cases it is a natural consequence of their holy lives.
What I admired about the Sisters, aside from their love of God, was that they didn't seek my endorsement. They didn't have me call them anything but Sister, they didn't entertain distractions from God, they were humble and they didn't disguise their radiant faith under secular dress.
It is these boundaries and principles that have drawn me to them, that have me respect them, and why I will return to them. They have retained what many other orders have lost; they are unapologetic about what they believe and whom they serve - Our Lord in the distressing disguise of the poor. Their mission statement is not found in airy words, for you see it on the streets. This ethos engenders respect, and they receive it in spades from all categories of volunteers.
Their devotion to God alone promotes a sense of certainty, something all youth crave, and with such certainty comes leadership. Since every leader demands a disciple, you will find that these three things are the formula for vocations.
My four months there taught me a lot. For three months I was responsible for the English orientation, along with other special duties throughout my stay. The aforementioned Sister of Volunteers, Sister Karina, showed complete confidence in me to perform tasks that I would normally run from. When she asked me to do something, it felt more like a request from God, and as such one couldn't refuse.
Indeed she is a leader in India, and that fact doesn't help us much in Australia. So you have to look to others, and if you want to know to whom I look especially, they are Cardinal Pell and Monsignor Aitken [a retired Adelaide parish priest]. They represent all that I like about the priesthood.
Time with the Sisters did me good; however, I knew that my return to Australia could have a toxic impact on my faith, not yet on a solid foundation, as it would be bombarded again by a culture of sex, greed and vanity. To avoid this, I set about going to Africa, a place of calling since childhood, to work for a longer period with another order, the Christian Brothers.
My application to be an Edmund Rice volunteer - Edmund Rice being the founder of the Christian Brothers - began late last year. What I was seeking was a more immersive environment than the one in Calcutta; more than five hours of involvement per day, where Mass and prayer were not optional, but required.
And so I began a series of discussions with a Brother in Adelaide and was quite enthusiastic about teaching in Tanzania, being based a stone's throw from Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti. Such natural wonders would serve as a tonic for home- sickness and promised to serve as inspirational places for improving my relations with God.
All enthusiasm was drained, however, during a weekend spent in Melbourne with other Brothers and applicants.
On a Saturday morning during participation in a so-called "cultural awareness" lesson, I was required by an affiliated Sister to take part in bizarre walking exercises aimed at self- awareness. Indeed, every exercise seemed detached from God, unless we were trying to find the "God within us."
In addition to such perplexing requests, an evening was spent at the Brothers' residence where I was privy to conversations aimed at gauging an applicant's level of approval of homosexuality and condom-use. As with many other orders, I was encouraged to address Brothers by their first name while Cardinal Pell was openly derided.
What I witnessed in Melbourne was disunity, insecurity and failure of leadership. I could see genuine agreement on the faces of some of the more reserved Brothers as I challenged some opinions during a discussion on the topic of vocations, but alas the more dominant personalities seemed to have a muting influence on them.
During a discussion on the way home with another young applicant, who despite many years with the Brothers was still uncomfortable using the "J" word, she told me of how one Sunday morning during a retreat, the Brothers didn't attend Mass because they considered a shared pub meal the night before to be an adequate substitute. In her ignorance she saw this as a positive.
Such revelations confirmed the withdrawal of my application.
Due to the discomfort so obviously caused to young people by the mention of Jesus, the Order had refocused attention on Edmund Rice. So instead of working overtly for God, it seemed as if continuing Edmund's legacy was the favoured goal.
To best illustrate their misplaced emphasis, of the six candidates applying for an overseas placement, only I identified the spreading of the Gospel as a key element to the term "mission". Indeed a great amount of financial backing accompanies each volunteer, so you must wonder what is achieved when five of six people don't comprehend the primary aim of their placement, nor can relate to God without a middle man.
It seems in the Brothers' attempts to attract youth, none of whom are likely to consider religious vows, they are really compromising themselves into extinction.
True, relevance is important, but core values must not be abandoned for the sake of popularity. To compromise is a failure to trust God, a sign of doubt inviting subversion and usually irreparable. What you have left is a social club.
Of course, the Brothers I dealt with are fine people, seeking God and doing their best. They treated me well and are sincere in their desire to know God. However, I believe they have adopted the same wayward compass young Catholics are using because no-one has been around to correct it.
As for my situation, I realise that when you're on a good thing you stick to it, and as I think God wants me in Africa I'm going. So Ethiopia and the Missionaries of Charity await me, where I hope to gain an even deeper appreciation of God. It's an opportunity I will relish and I believe something special is in store. I look forward to finding out what it is.
Church in Australia
In regard to the decline of the Church in Australia, I ask that it not be seen as a complete negative. John's Gospel explains:
"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of Mine that bears no fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the Word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in Me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned" (John 15:1-6 RSV).
We are witnessing the burning of many branches. I for one believe it is necessary. We are being called to a genuine return to traditions and truth.
As a young person, I want leadership, certainty and reverence in my Church. These things must be addressed before young people find God, know God, and love God enough to devote their lives to Him within the Church in Australia.