Friday, August 19, 2011

Fostering Vocations in the Church

I’m back home in Knoxville after a wonderful 3-day Vocations Workshop at Lake George, NY.
The workshop began with a presentation on the 2009 Study on Recent Vocations to Religious Life, conducted by CARA (The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) for NRVC (The National Religious Vocation Conference). That Study confirms what most of us already know or intuit about religious life’s present state and future prospects in the U.S. It has been evident for some time now that most religious Institutes (including also Societies of Apostolic Life) in the U.S. have been experiencing diminishing numbers (and the aging of those that remain). Even so, there are still significant numbers of men and women who are responding to the call to religious life. (78% of men’s communities and 66% of women’s communities have at least one person currently in formation). And some communities are experiencing significant growth.
Of course, the overall numbers remain below replacement value. We will not again (at least not in my lifetime) see anything like the numbers of Religious that were so instrumental in forming the immigrant Church in this country - and certainly nothing like the numbers that characterized the great post World War II boom in religious life that came at the end of that period of the immigrant Church. One participant in the conference observed that one might look at the present phenomenon in terms of the transition from the old European immigrant, urban-based Church (that people like me grew up in) to the very differently composed Church we now have in the U.S. And indeed the Study shows that those entering religious life today are much more representative of today’s American Church than those of us that entered decades ago. (21% of those in formation now are Hispanic and 14% Asian/Pacific Islander. Whereas 94% of finally professed Religious are Caucasian/white, only 58% of those in formation are).
That all said, the point is that it is still the case that there are at least some people who will respond positively to the call to religious life, and it is our task – indeed an essential component of the Church’s mission – to foster and nurture such responses. All sorts of things can get in the way of our doing that – from inertia, doing things the way we have always done them, to failure to use new media and other relevant resources, to contrasting and competing ecclesiologies, often reflecting the generational differences between the older members and the pool of younger people that they might hope to attract.
It seems evident that most young people who might be interested in some form of religious life are looking for a way to live a counter-cultural witness. Some of the communities that over-adapted to contemporary culture in the 1960s (and after) may find themselves especially challenged by this. Even so, as our presenter pointed out more than once, any authentic form of religious life is inherently counter-cultural. In a society which sees wealth, sex, and power as primary values, what could possibly be more counter-cultural than poverty, chastity, and obedience? Faithfully living the evangelical counsels, combined with an authentic and honest community are not only counter-cultural but can be quite attractive. Within those fundamental paramenters there may be lots of room for a legitimate pluralism in terms of how different communities relate to the surrounding culture.

Fostering vocations to religious life is, first and foremost, a challenge to religious communities themselves (which, after all, are committed to their distinctive mission and presumably believe that mission ought to continue in the Church). But it is also a challenge to the entire Church – Bishops, clergy, married, single, old young. When speaking about the need for vocations to the priesthood, I often remind people that a local Church without priests is a local Church that will, sooner or later, likely shut down. Religious life may not be as inherently essential to the Church’s life as Holy Orders, but it is hard to imagine the Church without religious life. Isaac Hecker was fond of pointing out that the distinctive needs of each age have generated specific expressions of religious life to meet those needs. It is hard to imagine the Church meeting the needs of this or any future age without appropriate expressions of religious life.

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