Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pastoral Guidelines for Fostering Priestly Vocations

Come, follow me!
The new document from the Congregation for Education is so important that I think many people will appreciate a series of blog posts to help us burrow down into its rich teaching. Time permitting, I propose doing this over the next few days so do come back often to look for updates. Today I want to look at the origin of the document and its overall structure.

The Introduction to the document explains something of its genesis. I am too busy in the parish to be an expert on the workings of the Roman Curia, but I do know that every Congregation is composed of its officials, headed up by the Cardinal Prefect and the Secretary, who are aided by officials who work there and by Cardinals and bishops from other parts of the world. According to the Introduction to the new Guidelines, they were requested by a Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Catholic Education, in other words at a meeting of the wider network of officials and consultors. Interestingly this request must have been made some considerable time ago because in response a department of the Congregation, the "Pontifical Work for Priestly Vocations", got together with other groups to produce a questionnaire that was sent out in March 2008 to Bishops' Conferences and National Vocation Offices all over the world. The purpose of the questionnaire was to get a snapshot of the situation as regards priestly vocations in different parts of the world (information) and ideas that could be formulated into the guidelines (a "plan of action"). What came out from the responses was the fact that all over the world people welcomed the possibility of guidelines and also recognised the need for a clear theology of vocation and clarification of the identity of ministerial priesthood. I find this latter point particularly interesting because the question of priestly identity has been raised again and again in the years following the Second Vatican Council and has been beautifully addressed on numerous occasions not only by individual theologians but also authoritatively by Pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI. The fact that it remains a question possibly highlights the fact that the teaching of the Church can take time to sink in and become part of the self-awareness of the Christian people. These days some form of catechesis is usually part of vocation discernment. Perhaps it would help if this preliminary catechesis included an element of reflection on the identity of the ministerial priest.

This new document is the fruit of the analysis of the responses received from all over the world. Apart from an introduction and a conclusion, it is composed of three substantive sections:

  1. The Pastoral Care of Vocations to Priestly Ministry in Today's World;
  2. The Vocation and Identity of the Ministerial Priesthood;
  3. Suggestions for Pastoral Ministry for Priestly Vocations.
The first section is basically an overview of the current situation. At the Press Conference to launch the document the Secretary of the Congregation brought forward figures to show how the number of vocations varies in different parts of the world. Broadly speaking while the developing world has seen a large increase in seminarians and North America a more modest one, Europe continues to show an overall decline. Although the document itself doesn't give the figures, it does quote Pope Benedict's reflection that "In effect, Western Christians, that is the new 'first invited', now in large part withdraw; they do not have time for the Lord". As an overview of the current situation this section of the document is very useful because it puts before us both those circumstances that favour a priestly vocation as well as the sort of attitudes and mentalities that can undermine one.

The second section of the document sets the vocation and identity of the ministerial priesthood within the context of Christian discipleship. I plan to comment on the significance of this later as it is a very important concept for vocations work. Many years ago I was visiting a friend who worked at the Pontifical Council for the Family and who, while I was there, received a call from an English priest complaining that a recent document was "too theological". The official laughed and suggested he should "begin at chapter four" and then commented to me that English people are too pragmatic: "you always want to leap to the action". He had a point and I've certainly seen that mentality repeated again and again over the years. Well this section of the document is theological and you MUST NOT skip over it. Its catechetical exposition of the identity of the priest leads explicitly to practical consequences. Why is priestly ministry important? Because "without these gifts the Church would lose her identity". Why must love for Christ be the priest's reference point and motivation? Because, "if ministerial priesthood does not find its origin in this love, it collapses into the performance of a function, rather than the gift of the service of a shepherd who offers his life for the flock". Priestly life is lived in communion with his bishop and the members of the presbyterate and therefore vocations work must have this communal dimension. If you have ever met a seminarian whose zeal seems to have been extinguished during the years of priestly formation, I recommend the final paragraph of this section. It merits a post in its own right.

The third substantive section of the document draws on the responses to the questionnaire to suggest some practical suggestions for us to consider. It underscores the importance of prayer and also speaks of the importance of solid catechesis. It speaks both of those directly responsible for vocations ministry as well as the indispensable role of the wider Christian community. It speaks of the need to remind seminarians of their role, alongside those undergoing formation in religious institutes, as "the first and most immediate apostles of vocation in the midst of other young people". Seminarians: take note!  The section then goes on to suggest the basic elements of Christian formation needed to help those considering their vocation before suggesting some very practical ideas that have flourished in different parts of the world. These won't all be familiar. The idea of an "invisible monastery" for example is new to me and I intend doing some more research on it. "Eucharistic Thursdays" and "Seminary Days" are not common over here but I have seen them work very well in Spain. It will be interesting to read this section carefully in order to get ideas as to what practical things we can implement in our dioceses.

I was very pleased to see the document conclude with a commendation of the ecclesial communities, Associations and Movements for their commitment to fostering vocations. I certainly appreciate that commitment and value the contribution particularly of those groups and movements working to promote the new evangelisation. As parish priest, albeit one who about to move out of direct parish ministry and into full-time vocations work, I really appreciated the recognition that, "The most favourable environment for vocations to the priesthood is every Christian community that listens to the Word of God, prays with the liturgy and gives witness with charity". Amen to that!!!

So much for the overview. The plan now is to reflect a few of the document's gems. We will do that in future posts but in the meantime you can read the document by clicking on the Guidelines tab at the top of this page.

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