Saturday, March 09, 2013
We are not Pied Pipers...
When I was at university I had a friend, we can call him John, who was thinking about the priesthood. If I add that he wasn't considering his vocation you might think I'm contradicting myself but I'm not. He was committed to the faith, involved in the chaplaincy and sang in a choir. He often mused on the priesthood, sometimes expressing frustration with priests he knew and commenting on how he might do things differently. For a while it seemed as if, in common with a good number of our friends, he would eventually apply to go to seminary. But he wasn't considering his vocation. He thought a lot about what the priest did but he ever really tackled the fundamental - and difficult - question of what God was asking of him with his life. Priesthood was attractive but so was Mary, his girlfriend. Mary was also a friend of mine. She was very intelligent, was always cheerful and fun to be with, and had a deep serenity about her. Like John she too was very committed to her faith and involved in the life of her parish.
Eventually, to no one's real surprise, John and Mary got married. It was a great ceremony with loads of young Catholics at the wedding. They have now been married for over twenty-five years and have four wonderful children who are likewise involved in their home parish as catechists and musicians. They love each other very much and are very happy together. John has a special concern for the poor in his neighbourhood. They have coaxed many of their Catholic friends back to the faith, and sometimes helped them prepare to get married. They are an outstanding Catholic couple.
And yet, for all his contentment, there is still a question that lingers in John's heart. Many priests have enjoyed hospitality in his home but very few of them know that their very presence raises within him the question of whether he should have gone to seminary. It is as if he cannot be completely happy because that question has never been resolved.
John and Mary won't mind me relating their story (as I say I have changed their names) because it is a reality in their marriage. If you like, it is the one cloud in an otherwise sunny sky. Some people will leap to the conclusion we should abolish celibacy so that men like John could both marry and be ordained. But that is totally to miss the point of what I am saying. Fundamentally the problem for John wasn't that there was no possibility of being a married priest but that, for all his thoughts about priesthood, he never actually learned to discern his vocation. Instead of asking what God wanted he made decisions based on what seemed most powerfully attractive at the time. And who could blame him? In those days the Church was still working out of a recruitment model when it came to vocations ministry and the word "discernment", when it was used, was synonymous with "procrastination".
I would like to add at this point that neither John nor I would say that marrying Mary was a mistake or that he got it wrong. How could either of us say that? The issue is a different one. It is that there is a shadow hanging over their real happiness because a question went unanswered. For all their mutual love and joy, there is still a "What if?"
I mention this because it is still true that some people involved in different aspects of youth ministry are suspicious of Vocations Directors. If we ask to visit a school or chaplaincy they fear we are some sort of ecclesiastical Pied Piper coming to whisk their young people off to convents and monasteries. We Vocations Directors still have a lot of work to do to persuade people that we share a common purpose with school chaplains and youth ministers. That purpose is to help young people become better disciples. In fact, since most Vocations Directors have some involvement with the New Evangelisation, and since we have some role to play in the initial formation of young people seeking to live Christian discipleship, it could well be the case that chaplains and youth ministers could learn a lot from what we have ourselves learned in our ministry.
A motto of the Vocations Centre is "Discipleship Discerns Vocation". If we help young people become better disciples they will eventually want to discern God's will for their lives. It is vitally important that vocation discernment is part of their growing to Christian maturity and feeds into the decisions they make for the future. If it doesn't they won't necessarily make a mistake, but they may always be left with that "What if?" shadow. Youth personnel should welcome the work of Vocations Directors so that those young people they care for will experience a profound happiness because whatever path they choose to follow they do so with a conviction that it is what God is asking of them.