Millions of dollars have been spent by vocation offices on prayer cards, lesson plans, vocation week activities, homily helpers, discernment brochures, websites, and an array of other vocation promotion materials, but have these approaches really made a significant impact on our young people? Sadly, the answer is no. For all the effort that has been put into vocation awareness in recent history, our returns have not been very good, but it is not for lack of effort. Bishops, vocation directors, DREs, catechists and parents, have been working diligently to address the lack of vocations in the Church, but very little has changed. Sure, there are some orders and some diocesan seminaries that are doing better than others, but the overall vocation picture remains the same. It seems to me that the real problem is that we’ve misdiagnosed the vocation situation, and therefore, we’ve been spending all our time, effort and money on the wrong things. In other words, we’ve been treating the symptoms without ever recognizing the disease.
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.
The answer to the crisis of all of our vocations comes from forming and strengthening disciples of Christ. As I wrote here, vocations are a natural response to understanding that we are servants of Our Lord. A man does not become a priest in order to serve himself, but rather to serve God by serving His Church. A man and a woman do not rightly enter into Holy Matrimony for their own benefit, but rather to love and serve God through the vocation of marriage. A woman does not enter a religious order to please herself, but rather to serve and please God. This desire to serve comes from knowing and loving Christ. Without this relationship to Christ, all of our good works will be empty actions devoid of any transcendent quality. Fr. Ference touches on this when he discusses youth groups.
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.
Pope Benedict emphasizes the same point in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:
Individuals who care for those in need must first be professionally competent: they should be properly trained in what to do and how to do it, and committed to continuing care. Yet, while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church's charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity. Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbour will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal 5:6).
The final words spoken by Christ to the Apostles did not command them to alleviate earthly suffering. Rather Christ said:
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (Mt. 28:19-20)
We are each charged to do the same.