"Dear young friends: only Jesus knows what “definite service” he has in mind for you. Be open to his voice resounding in the depths of your heart: ... he needs priests, good and holy priests, men who are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep. Ask our Lord what he has in mind for you! Ask him for the generosity to say “yes!” Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus. He will give you the grace you need to fulfil your vocation". Pope Benedict XVI, Hyde Park, September 2010
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:
The Pastoral Care of Vocations to Priestly Ministry in Today's World;
The Vocation and Identity of the Ministerial Priesthood;
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.
One of the problems diocesan Vocation Directors face is the opposition of those who claim it is wrong to promote specifically priestly vocations. The idea is that we should promote vocations in general. But why? Certainly the experience has been that some protagonists of this new theory have even been unclear as to what they mean by vocation, including teachers, doctors and nurses in their catch-all vocational soup. Diocesan Vocation Directors have a specific remit (to promote vocations to the diocesan priesthood) and a limited budget to fulfil their task. It is unreasonable for them to be criticised for producing publicity materials and vocational resources to achieve that end, rather than posters publicising religious life, marriage, or indeed one of the secular professions.
Religious Orders should, of course, be the ones primarily promoting religious life. After all, the best way to promote a specific vocation is to live it joyfully. These days it can help to invest in modern means of communication to get the message across. The Dominicans did so last year when they commissioned four excellent short videos to express different aspects of their charism. There is a lot of multi-media competition out there and the target audience is quite critical in the positive sense - so orders need to invest money and do things really well. Photographs of hugging rodents and sunlight through trees stuck onto pastel card with scripture quotations may have worked in the 1970's but have no place in the modern world. What other organisation is using publicity concepts and forms that are forty years old? It is difficult for the religious congregations because there are so many of them and they have a wide variety of charisms and specific apostolates. Fortunately the religious orders now have the National Office for Vocation that will be able to give them increasingly professional advice and it is good to see that the Director of the National Office, himself a Benedictine, is working hard to win over the trust and confidence of religious congregations. Perhaps on the supposition that they must be going somewhere, it is occasionally suggested that girls must be approaching the diocesan Vocations Director as their first port of call. In my experience that is quite rare. Sr Cathy at the National Office can now help put such a person in touch with a Samuel Group or some other discernment opportunity.
The Diocesan Vocation Directors are responsible for one initiative that is not an activity of the National Office for Vocation but is nevertheless wider than just priestly vocations. That initiative is the annual Invocation Festival which brings together young people from all over the country for a weekend of prayer and discernment. There are many people who want us to change the way we run Invocation but we have found that our formula works and this year's festival looks like being bigger and better than ever. Of course the fact that we run an annual festival does not preclude others from coming up with their own initiatives (obviously they would have to come up with their own name - which can sometimes be the hardest thing!). The important thing is to reach as many young people as possible. Counter-intuitively it may help our vocations work if we spoke less about vocation and more about discipleship. If young people learn to embrace the demands of discipleship the question of vocation will arise spontaneously. When we speak to them about being disciples we have to focus on the basics: a disciple is one who sits at the feet of Jesus and learns from him. Drinking Traidcraft coffee may possibly be a good thing (if it has improved!) but it is not the essence of Christian discipleship.
In general, however, Diocesan Vocation Directors stick to the job of promoting priestly vocations. Today I am pleased to report that our work has been vindicated and confirmed the Holy Father himself with the publication of specific Guidelines for the Promotion of Priestly Vocations. The document speaks of the importance of promoting priestly vocations. You can read the whole text of this welcome document by clicking the Guidelines page on this Blog.
The Archbishop of Southwark, the Most Reverend Peter Smith, has appointed Fr Stephen Langridge as full-time Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Southwark, with a view to establishing the UK’s first dedicated residential centre for nurturing a culture of discipleship and vocations promotion. Announced last week, Fr Langridge, who currently serves as Parish Priest of the Holy Ghost, Balham, and as part-time Vocations Director for the Archdiocese, will take up in the post in September 2012. It is the first time in over thirty years this has been a full-time post.
Since he began vocations work in 2005 the number of seminarians in Southwark has more than doubled with 26 men currently accepted by the diocese as students for the priesthood. At a national level he serves as Chairman of the Conference of Diocesan Directors of Vocations and has been instrumental in promoting the Quo Vadis model of discernment group, and the highly acclaimed Invocation festival, now in the third successive year. Earlier this year he produced The Calling a vocations DVD for use in schools and parishes. He has also worked on a number of publications including a collection of Stories of Priestly Vocations published by St Paul’s, and Transitions a contemporary photographic gift book for young adults.
Speaking of the announcement he said, “I am grateful to the Archbishop for this exciting opportunity to expand the work of promoting vocations in the diocese. Moving from a model of recruitment to discernment means that we must be prepared to invest time and resources into vocations work. The establishment of a new Vocations Centre will give us the opportunity to host events and retreats for young people, and also to give training and support to laypeople, clergy and Religious working with them”.
It has also been announced that Monsignor Gerald Ewing will be the new Parish Priest of the Holy Ghost, Balham, where Fr Stephen has served for the past sixteen years. “Balham has been an amazing to place to work as a priest”, said Fr Langridge, “We have sown the seeds of the Gospel, grown the congregation, developed an enviable programme of catechesis and formation, and gained a fitting reputation for the dignified and reverent celebration of the sacred liturgy. It will be a wrench leaving, but we need new priests to continue this important work - the sanctification of the world. I am privileged to have been asked to contribute to that mission”.
The appointment comes soon after the launch of the National Vocations Framework, which has been adopted by the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales. This is the practical expression of the Bishops’ desire to proclaim the universal call to holiness in Christ by promoting a culture of vocation. Regarding how the new National Framework would affect the work of Vocations Directors, Fr Langridge said, “The new National Vocations Framework gives us an exciting opportunity to build on existing good practice, and to share the wealth of experience held by Diocesan Directors of Vocation with the wider Church. It is my hope that the new Vocations Centre, when established, will provide a hub of activity and development of those methods of discernment and discipleship which have borne so much good fruit already in our diocese”.
In the coming weeks the plans for the establishment of the Vocations Centre will be finalised, with the objective of opening the doors of the new centre in time for the start of the 2012-2013 academic year.