Monday, April 30, 2007

Vocations, B16 Style: You Can't Have One Without the Others

Well, friends, Ordination Season is at hand. And unless you've been living on Mars, you know that an amped-up focus on seeking out vocations to the priesthood has become a major concern of practically every diocese in the US.

Some have taken to terming it "Code Black." But whatever it's been called, you know it's gotten a bit out of hand when even I'm asked if entering the seminary is completely out of the question.

How the lot are doing at it is, of course, well worth looking at -- much more so than inquiring whether your narrator would reconsider. Some local churches have continued making great strides at little more than windmill-tilting, while others have experienced significant booms, and the success stories offer several truisms.

The first of these is the irreplaceable worth of the involved, invested diocesan bishop. For example, Bishop Arthur Serratelli's three years in the diocese of Paterson have seen his corps of seminarians go from 6 to 38 (all without, until a month or so ago, a full-time vocation director); Bishop Robert Morlino's stated first priority in Madison has paid off with an increase from 4 sems in 2003 to a projected bounty of 30-plus come September; and while Bishop Robert Carlson of Saginaw arrived in Michigan to find but two men in formation in early 2005, it's looking like he'll have something like 32 more in the fall. In just over two years. And with a new house of formation up and running, to boot.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall... who's the greatest rainmaker of 'em all? "It's never been any secret that Carlson is," replieth the mirror, Carlson's effectiveness at the task being such that no less than B16, himself, wanted to know his secret, calling the Michigan prelate in for a shock private audience a year ago this week. (Secret #1: The bishop acts as his own vocation director.)

Looking around, it seems that getting the job done isn't as difficult as many might think; results are accomplished not so much through leaving the legwork to one delegated office, but pushing towards it from the top and across the board, with significant personal commitment, concerted team effort, a creative approach, contagious enthusiasm and zeal, and basically everything else that comprises the best exercise of Catholicism's "good humanity" as its keys.

In a nutshell, predicting the yield can be accomplished by a rather simple exercise: the more a diocese looks and feels like Fortune 500 than Faith-Filled Flock, the emptier its nets will be -- "People, not paper," they say.

Don't shoot the messenger... nor throw paper at him. Or, for that matter, anyone else. Because it just doesn't work.

A total of 475 transitional deacons have been called to orders this year in the States, and a CARA survey of a majority of these is now floating around. While the report finds that "relatively few ordinands say that TV, radio, billboards, or other vocational advertising was instrumental in their discernment," it goes on to note that "eight in ten were encouraged to consider the priesthood by a priest. Close to half report that friends, parishioners, and mothers also encouraged them to consider priesthood." However, only "four in ten ordinands participated in a 'Come and See' weekend." After the US (on 69%), Vietnam and Mexico are tied for the most common country of birth at 6% each. Six percent are also adult converts.

At the same time, it's become something of a concern out there that, for all the talk of priestly vocations, the concept of vocation in general has been sacrificed. And, it must be noted, to detrimental effect.

Another quality of the places that've reaped the sacerdotal windfall is that this is anything but the case; a blessed complementarity and mutual respect of roles exists between the lay and ordained without any of the "ecclesiastical class warfare" that, more often than not, distracts the church from its true work and its most effective exercise of said mission ( if there weren't enough obstacles to begin with). In these places, genuine collaboration and ecclesial spirit has produced genuine church, where each vocation is emphasized, encouraged and nurtured, and good things happen like gangbusters.

In his famous 2005 Q&A with the priests of his vacation diocese, the Pope warned against the dangers of the "tribal chief" mentality in priestly formation. And, again, it's no less than B16, himself, riding to the rescue; Benedict highlighted the full meaning of vocation in a recent encounter with the pastoral council of a Roman parish, using as his springboard the religious community serving it:
[W]e are in a place where the seed of the Word of God grew from the outset and the "agape", love, also developed, so that 100 years later -- more or less in the year 100 -- St Ignatius could say that Rome presides in charity. And so it should be. It is not enough for the Pope to be in Rome. An active, committed Church must thrive in Rome, a Church which presides in charity. Therefore, it is a very happy experience for me to see in the parish that this Church of Rome exists, that she is still alive even after 2,000 years....

Here you have the Vocationist Fathers. The word "Vocationist" is reminiscent of "vocation". We can examine two dimensions of this word. First of all, we think immediately of the vocation to the priesthood. But the word has a far broader, more general dimension.

Every person carries within himself a project of God, a personal vocation, a personal idea of God on what he is required to do in history to build his Church, a living Temple of his presence. And the priest's role is above all to reawaken this awareness, to help the individual discover his personal vocation, God's task for each one of us. I see that many here have discovered the project that concerns them, both with regard to professional life in the formation of today's society -- where the presence of Christian consciences is fundamental -- and also with regard to the call to contribute to the Church's growth and life. Both these things are equally important.

A society where Christian conscience is no longer alive loses its bearings; it no longer knows where to go, what it can do, what it cannot do, and ends up in emptiness, it fails. Only if a living awareness of the faith illumines our hearts can we also build a just society. It is not the Magisterium that imposes doctrine. It is the Magisterium that helps enable the conscience itself to hear God's voice, to know what is good, what is the Lord's will. It is only an aid so that personal responsibility, nourished by a lively conscience, may function well and thus contribute to ensuring that justice is truly present in our society: justice within ourselves and universal justice for all our brothers and sisters in the world today. Today, globalization is not only economic: there is also a globalization of responsibilities, this universality, which is why we are all responsible for everyone.

The Church offers us the encounter with Christ, with the living God, with the "Logos" who is Truth and Light, who does not coerce consciences, does not impose a partial doctrine but helps us ourselves to be men and women who are completely fulfilled and thus to live in personal responsibility and in deeper communion with one another, a communion born from communion with God, with the Lord. I see here this living community. I am grateful to the priests, I am grateful to all of you, their collaborators. And I hope that the Lord will help you and enlighten you always.
By and large, we're still coming to grasp this here in the East. It could well explain why, at the diocesan level, the concept of "vocation boom" isn't so much the reality in these parts, but an ever-elusive sign of ecclesial health...

...then again, so, too, is the concept of "pastoral council."