January 13, 2005
In his 1983 book
Class, Paul Fussell first used the new term “Generation X”. It has now become part of our vocabulary. It designates the 41 million Americans born somewhere between 1965 and 1976. They have survived childhood marked by divorce and witnessed political corruption. They have a suspicion for institutions and almost an indifference to church teaching and its impact on the daily problems of life. They have moved from commitment to commitment and are very tolerant of different lifestyles.
They are now succeeded by Generation Y. The youngest of this generation are attending grade school. The oldest are graduating from college. Born between 1982 and 1995, this generation has grown up with cell phones and the internet. They are members of a well-connected world community. These kids have been following a discipline imposed on them by their parents that pales in comparison to the horarium of the medieval monastery. From soccer to swimming, from karate to catechism, their weekdays are crowded and the weekends no less free. A well-known pediatrician and professor at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Mel Levine, has studied this generation, the largest since the 60’s. He remarks that in this generation traditional values are coming back; and, individualism is no longer as important as fellowship.
Generation X and Y. This is the raw material from which vocations are being hewn. These are the individuals who will respond or not respond to serve the Church. Perhaps growing up in an environment that stresses team sports, community service and team teaching may be a better soil for the seed of a vocation to grow than in an environment of self-absorption and individualism. Perhaps a return to emphasizing moral values in society at large will even play a positive factor in future vocations. But neither the raw material nor the environment is where the real answer lies to an increase of vocations in the Church.
Some have surveyed the vocation scene and have noted that there are fewer vocations today than in the late 50’s and early 60’s. But those years were the exception, not the norm. According to a recent Cara Report, the average age for diocesan priests is 58; for men religious, 61; and for women religious, 69. Almost half of permanent deacons are over 60.
One-priest parishes have become in the eyes of some not only what is, but what should be. Some trace the change from a two or even three priest parish of just a few years ago to the Church’s reawakening to the role of the laity after Vatican II. And they are quite comfortable with the situation, almost afraid that more priests would somehow weaken the need for work of the laity. Others speak of society’s trend for multiple careers and the shying away from permanent commitment as reasons for a general decline in religious vocations.
Some say the sins of a few priests, bishops, and religious have made service to the Church in leadership roles no longer attractive. They fail to notice the many dedicated, zealous, persevering priests and religious selflessly serving God’s people. It can be all too easy to give into pathology of despair and spend all our time preparing for even bleaker days.
The Catholic Research Center in Virginia has done a study on vocations and has provided some interesting statistics. There are close to 100 new communities of religious life awaiting approval. True, there are fewer seminaries than 25 years ago. But these same seminaries are beginning to look for more growing room. Whether this trend will continue, time will tell. If we want this trend to continue, we must do more than wait. We need to work hard. Not just vocation directors, not just the ordained or those in consecrated life—but all of us need to work hard at developing a home where vocations can flourish.
Vocations come from God. Vocation is gift, divine gift. It is not the product of a promotion campaign. It is not the effect of human recruitment. Vocation is a dialogue between God and the individual: God calling the person to offer his or her life for the good of the Church, and the individual responding with the sacrifice of self to the will of God. There are many practical ways we can create a space for the young to hear and respond to God’s call. Prayer. Good Example. Open dialogue within our family on the importance of priests and religious. Personal and direct invitation to those who show signs of a vocation. All these have value. Not to mention that those dioceses where Eucharistic Adoration is widely embraced are witnessing the blessing of an increase in vocations. But there are two very basic truths of faith, lived faith, that are the foundation for a home for vocations.
First truth. Every baptized person has a vocation rooted in the mystery of the Church. In the second sentence of
Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council taught that the Church is a sacrament. Christ is the sacrament of God. And the Church is the sacrament of Christ. As members of the Church, each of us is called to make Christ visible in our lives. In the mutual love of husband and wife, the very mystery of Christ and his bride the Church is mirrored. In the work of the doctor, the nurse, the health care person, the healing of Christ touches our lives. In the instruction of teachers, the truth of Christ reaches our mind and heart. In the consecrated lives of religious, Jesus’ total gift of self is witnessed. And in the priest, the man himself becomes the very icon of Christ. The Church as sacrament means that Christ identifies himself with all the baptized (cf
Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).
Second truth. Every baptized person is called to express his or her identification with Christ in service of others. And this can only happen when there is total fidelity to the Lord. Once each of us recognize that our vocation is not separate from the Church, the sacrament of Christ, then it becomes imperative to remain faithful to Christ and the Church. Here is perhaps the greatest challenge in making a home for vocation:
total fidelity to the person of Jesus. Exempting oneself from any of the Ten Commandments, jettisoning certain teachings of Jesus, setting oneself up in doctrine and practice as an authority over and against the magisterium—this is not fidelity to the Lord. But, looking to the gospels to discover the face of Jesus; striving for holiness; celebrating the sacraments worthily; respecting and embracing the authority of the Church and her teaching in our lives — these are ways to remain personally faithful to Jesus.
When those called from Generation X and Y see each of us enthusiastically and joyfully faithful to the Church, the very sacrament of Christ, they will understand the ABC’s of vocation. They will find a home where they can hear the Lord and respond to his call. And we will have the priests, deacons and religious we need to serve us.
Through the intercession of Mary, may our local Church be blessed with an increase of vocations, especially to the priesthood and consecrated life.