14 February 2011

Re-thinking the Vocations Crisis, Cause and Solutions

In the February issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review there is an exceptional article on the failure of our current Vocations Programs in actually increasing the number of vocations. Here is an excerpt,
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 do 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.

The inspiration to consider a vocation rarely comes from vocation literature; it comes from real people living out their vocations in the real world. In order to know what it means to be a good family, a good priest, a good religious, and a good Catholic, one needs to have living, breathing examples of each. I would have never considered the priesthood if I had not known some great priests as I was growing up; the seminarians I teach continue to tell the same story about their call. Disciples beget disciples—good marriages beget good marriages, good religious beget good religious, good priests beget good priests, and good Catholics beget good Catholics. When discipleship is modeled well, it becomes an invitation for others to become disciples themselves.

Second, we need to reevaluate how our parish groups, ministries, and programs operate. We have to ask if these groups are truly fostering discipleship, or if they are simply social groups that happen to meet on parish grounds.

Let us take the example of a parish youth group to serve as a microcosm for our current situation. A youth group has a similar structure to most parish groups, in that most parish groups identify themselves in four ways: spiritual, service-oriented, social and catechetical. For a parish youth group to be what it is supposed to be, the first priority of the group must be to make disciples of young people who do not know Jesus, and to make stronger disciples of the ones who already know him. Such a suggestion seems quite basic and even simplistic at first glance, but this is precisely the point. Far too often we as a Church have failed with the most basic principle of discipleship while loading up on service projects and social activities, and the parish youth group becomes just one more line on a young person’s college résumé, without ever calling that young person to real conversion. 

It is true that young people tend to stay out of trouble while socializing with peers from the parish, and that service projects help build character and allow young people to move beyond themselves, but without being disciples, such activities never allow for true transformation and human flourishing. Over and over again we as a Church have fallen into the subtle trap of settling for results that can be easily calculated, photographed, and documented in a parish bulletin or website, rather than getting down to the basics of discipleship. Granted, opportunities for socializing and service projects are goods that the Church offers young people, but young people can find these goods outside the Church as well, which is why youth groups that don’t get beyond social gatherings and service projects aren’t very good youth groups. A youth group that is primarily about the work of making disciples is another story indeed. 

Youth groups that are filled with disciples and are about making new disciples are youth groups that allow their young people an opportunity to fall in love with Jesus. Again, I realize such a claim seems simplistic and perhaps a bit pious, but nonetheless it is true. Coming to know Jesus is foundational; not just knowing his ideas or teachings or his history, but really coming to know him. If a youth group is able to offer a young person an opportunity to know Jesus, to know transcendence, intimacy, depth, and a real sense of mystery and being part of a something greater than himself, it will be hard to find a space big enough to gather the young people together. 

If youth ministers and, more specifically, priests take the time to teach their young people how to pray alone, in community, liturgically, before the Blessed Sacrament, with an icon or crucifix, in nature, with Scripture, or with a journal, disciples will emerge. Don’t be fooled; young people desire to learn to pray and to pray well, and they want their leaders to teach them.

Moreover, it’s all too common that those working with youth soft-step around difficult or controversial Church teachings in an attempt not to drive young people away. Gone are the days of young people defining themselves as liberal or conservative Catholics. The stakes are much higher today: either you believe in God or you don’t. As the Southern novelist Walker Percy said upon his Catholic conversion, these days it is either “Rome or Hollywood,” there is no more middle ground. As such, young people want to be challenged. They want to think and understand and wrestle with big ideas. So why not spend time teaching them about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, the Liturgy, and the Last Things? It is no secret that the Church’s teachings on sexuality are counter-cultural, but this is precisely the draw for so many young people—that the human person is more than simply an object of pleasure, and that there is something beautiful about God’s creating us male and female, in his image and likeness, and that there is a divine plan for the way we express ourselves.

When young people come to know Jesus, they will develop a deeper appreciation for the Eucharist. And when young people finally find their identity in the Eucharist (and not a pizza party, bowling or laser tag), young people will naturally want to socialize and do service projects, because these activities will flow out of their discipleship. When their lives are formed by the self-giving love of Jesus in the Eucharist, they will want to make themselves a gift for others, and their service projects will take on new meaning as acts of justice. Once young people become disciples, they will want to come to Mass, to spend time at the parish, to serve those in need, to gather for recreation, and to read good books and articles about the faith, and to really help build the Kingdom of God. But none of this can ever happen without the most foundational, and often forgotten, principle of discipleship.
Please read the rest of the article at Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

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