Why not a Religious Vocation “Mission”?

Over at Word on Fire Ministries, Rozann Carter notes a Mormon celebrity putting his career on hold to make a two-year “mission” and wonders why Catholics don’t have a similar mechanism in place to encourage religious vocations:

I don’t agree with the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Nor am I advocating that charity, service, and evangelism should be mandated, like some sort of religious draft. But, there is something here, something in the Mormon faith, that speaks of another era, something that we, as Catholics, would do well to recover.

It seems to me that somewhere along the line, between what journalist Tom Brokaw termed “greatest generation” and today, duty and responsibility lost their mundane-ness, their everyday quality, their non-complicated expectedness and began to be valorized and assigned a level of heroism that would have seemed utterly foreign to the “responsible” and “dutiful” of an earlier day. Doing what one should do, rather than being something praiseworthy, was commonplace. I would argue that living in the “should,” even if subconsciously, was a majority position—there was a general consensus on what was expected and these expectations went relatively unquestioned. Working hard, accepting blame for shortcomings, loving loyally, and committing to tasks and relationships independently of emotive fulfillment were characteristics that were, at least as a cultural norm, accepted without fanfare. The commonplace was not revered; rather, what is praiseworthy now was commonplace then.

It’s a very well-done piece and I urge you to read the whole thing. Carter acknowledges that a Catholic vocation to the religious life or the priesthood is very different from a two-year mission, but wonders:

. . . what if every young Catholic . . . gave the religious life a year of their time? . . . What if we, as Catholic mentors, parents, and even young people, changed the course of our Catholic conversation to allow this consideration, now deemed the stuff of bing-ing halos and adoration chapel whispers, of hush-hush spiritual director meetings and nervous confrontations with grandchild-ready parents, to be posed, somewhat dutifully and with a sense of healthy responsibility, by every Catholic parent to their child.

It’s a good question and one I’ve wondered about, myself. Some will naturally argue that a postulancy is a religious “try-out” and it is, but it is also a very formal sort of try-out. Something structured but less formal, I think, is what Carter means, but I wonder if it can be designed in a practical manner that is not terribly disruptive to the ongoing life of a community? I’m not sure how such a situation would work.

Many religious orders do have “associate” programs whereby young lay people can spend some time volunteering and working with communities — particularly in active apostolates — but again, it attracts those who are already vocation-minded, and they are a distinct minority.

It seems to me that if the idea of a religious vocation is to be “normalized” then what is needed is more serious (and regular) encounters between our CCD students and the professed religious who are actually living the vowed lives.

That might be easier to do in the Mid-west, where vocations are on the rise, but in some places, it’s a tall order. Here on Long Island (and throughout the coastal regions) there is a real dearth of religious vocations. How do you attract young people to the idea of such a life, when it is profoundly aged-and-gasping and barely represented around them?

It’s certainly an idea worth discussing, though, don’t you think? As is the notion of teaching about marriage as a true, vowed vocation, and call to holiness, too.

Speaking of vocations, the Vatican has received its final report on women religious in the US:

A three-year survey of women’s religious life in the United States has concluded with the filing of a final report by the Vatican-appointed Apostolic Visitator Mother Mary Clare Millea.

“Although there are concerns in religious life that warrant support and attention, the enduring reality is one of fidelity, joy, and hope,” Mother Millea said in a Jan. 9 release . . . Along with her comprehensive report on women’s religious communities, Mother Millea is presenting individual reports on nearly 400 religious institutes to the congregation’s secretary Archbishop Joseph Tobin. These reports are likely to be completed by the spring of 2012.

It’s a rather quiet end to what began as an issue full of paranoid high drama:

Coupled with the cynicism that dismisses out-of-hand the possibility that the visitation could be anything less than a hostile takeover (with an ever-present threat, apparently, of “violence”), Schneider’s “new form of Religious Life . . . Religious who are not cloistered and ministers who are not ordained” sounds like it promotes a selective sort of openness–one so narrow that the Holy Spirit may have to suck in His breath and slide in sideways to get access.

Meanwhile, the Benedictine Nuns of St. Cecilia’s Abbey, in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight (who, along with Stanbrook Abbey, helped Rumer Godden write her brilliant and unforgettable In this House of Brede) have been fortunate in the regular reception of young vocations; they have just celebrated the solemn profession of Sr. Elizabeth Burgess, OSB

St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde is a cloistered community of Benedictine nuns of the Solesmes Congregation. . . They have been blessed with a number of young vocations who have persevered to solemn vows in these last years. This week saw the profession of Sr Elizabeth Burgess. She made her solemn (life) vows as a nun and received the Consecration of Virgins. Our abbot was delegated by our bishop to preside at the Mass and concomitant ceremonies. The liturgy took over two hours and was sung in Latin in exquisite Gregorian Chant.

I understand Sr. Elizabeth is all of 25 years-old, having entered the abbey at 19. That used to be quite a normal thing. Nowadays we tend to think any lifelong vow made at “only 25″ years of age to be rather an unusual and foolish thing. Everyone is supposed to hold out, keep the options open and wait until all the worldly things have been done.

But there is nothing more radical than following the call of the Holy Spirit, wherever one is led, to the exclusion of all the world’s conventions.

You can read the homily of Sr. Elizabeth’s solemn profession here

As Archbishop Timothy Dolan has said, “His call trumps our Curriculum Vitae; His grace lifts up our natures…”

YouTube Preview Image

Related: The Dominican Nuns at Summit will soon be celebrating a solemn profession, too

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://www.sherryantonettiwrites.blogspot.com Sherry

    It’s sort of like Dating God.

  • Peter Brown

    Anchoress, I think it may be overstating the case to say that “we think any lifelong vow made at ‘only 25′ years of age to be rather an unusual and foolish thing.” The average age at marriage, even today, is only 28 or so; the numbers being as big as they are, that means there are a whole lot of under-25′s getting married. That’s not “unusual”, even if there are more who marry later.

    Perhaps what you’re thinking is that it’s “unusual and foolish” to think of marriage as a lifelong vow. While culturally that’s increasingly true, it’s not as nearly as true as the cynics would have us think. Very, very few people get married planning to divorce; even Hollywood’s serial-marriers talk about “this time, it will be different.”
    (And, of course, marriage isn’t technically quite a lifelong vow–your spouse might die first–but betting that your spouse will die before you is *definitely* foolish, at least in the general case.)

    I think the biggest reason that we do see young nuns such as Sr. Elizabeth as “unusual and foolish” is that *she’s not going to have sex*, ever. Culturally, we can more or less deal with lifelong commitments, at least in the abstract. We can even deal with making them at a relatively young age. But the idea that a person can live a full life without ever having sex is radical, and radically subversive; it calls into question the whole host of accommodations (abortion, contraception, no-fault divorce, sex outside marriage) that our culture accepts because, after all, everybody’s got to be able to have sex, right?

    Which is maybe why we need more Sr. Elizabeths, both to challenge us and to pray for us.


  • http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/ EBL

    The church should offer that…perhaps tied in with attending a Catholic institution of higher education after that service is done. I bet you would see more recruitment into the religious orders from people who served a year or two on a mission.

  • Matthew

    The Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, headquartered in Meriden, CT, have/had a wonderful program called the Land Program. This was a full-time volunteer program in which we cared for animals, tended the grounds and assisted the elderly. In return we got room, board, seminar opportunties, and, if we desired, counseling. The program was open to both men and women and not directed toward recruiting. I believe the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT, has a similar program.

  • Jenny

    I am not sure that the Anchoress is overstating the cultural pressure on commitments made at 25 as being ‘unusual and foolish’.
    You say, “The average age at marriage, even today, is only 28 or so; the numbers being as big as they are, that means there are a whole lot of under-25′s getting married. That’s not “unusual”, even if there are more who marry later.”

    While statistically this may be true, the question is how many of the under-25′s getting married were barraged by friends and relatives questioning the decision to marry on grounds of youth. This is the pressure to which I think Elizabeth refers. Not that getting married or professing vows at 25 is actually foolish or unusual, but that it is perceived to be.

    I was married at age 22 after graduating college to a 23 year old college graduate and yet many times our decision to marry was met with doubts and questions, not about our relationship, but because of our supposed youth. That was 12 years ago. I suspect I am not alone on this front.

  • lethargic

    I live in the heart of Mormon hegemony, in suburban Utah. The Mormon mission pretty much ensures lifelong commitment in those young people who make it. According to what I’ve been told, it is a bonding experience like no other. Those boys endure a trial by fire, being (sometimes literally) cursed and spat upon by the people they’re trying to witness to … then being fed and comforted by their local Mormon community … can you imagine the bond of love it must create in their hearts for that faith?

    Manipulative, it is. Also effective.

  • Tommy R

    Remember when colleges were religious…where a student’s character formation fit in perfectly with education. Nowadays college is all about job training.

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd

    “(W)hy Catholics don’t have a similar mechanism in place to encourage religious vocations(?)”

    Don’t some? Jesuit volunteer corps. Maryknoll. Vincentians.

    I think the hermeneutic of entitlement has spawned a degree of laziness in some dioceses and religious orders.

    But seroiusly: I’d be happy with a mechanism to encourage lay people to lead a baptismal vocation. I think that’s the missing piece. If we had tens of millions of Catholic youth formed to live a baptismal life, religious vocations would come.

    [Oh, gosh, did I not write this? Many religious orders do have “associate” programs whereby young lay people can spend some time volunteering and working with communities — particularly in active apostolates — but again, it attracts those who are already vocation-minded, and they are a distinct minority. Talking about something differently structured. -admin]

  • http://panchoslinks.blogspot.com Pancho

    I think part of the problem is that people don’t make the connection between vocations and their own parish until it’s too late. As long as there is someone to say mass it’s business as usual, until the day comes when the diocese announces parish closings because there aren’t enough priests to go around. Then people are upset because their parish is slated for closing or merging. There are other reasons and I’m oversimplifying a lot but I do think vocations are still an abstract thing for a lot of run-of-the-mill Catholics.

    I do wonder if something similar to what the Mormons do wouldn’t be good for Catholics, or similar to what they do in some Buddhist countries in Asia where young men and even boys spend time as monks in a monastery. I also wonder if we wouldn’t see an increase in vocations if people knew that, for every couple of vocations from a given parish, at least one of them would be guaranteed to serve in that parish as a priest or religious brother or sister.

  • kmk

    Ealier religious education has to be considered, too– SOme hours of Adoration in place of a few os the weekly religious ed sessions would be excellent. Nothing like being before the Lord–perhaps at an “unusual” time–early in the morning with Dad, followed by a walk or breakfast, or in the evening, coming out of the chapel with the stars hanging in the heavens….

  • Livin’ with ‘em

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to point to the LDS system of proselytizing as a model for the Catholic Church. You have to understand – from the day they are born the LDS are taught that they must bring people into their church. I’ve no doubt young Mr Archuleta will bring in many young women.

    Those of us who live among the Mormons do have a somewhat clearer and different understanding of how they operate than those who don’t. It doesn’t look too bad from the outside…

    It’s not the worst idea for those interested in it to study a bit on what the Missionary system originally accomplished back in the day – regardless of what the intent might seem. It’s not all about spreading the Good News. In fact, when the missionaries come to your door, they don’t tell you that they want to introduce you to the Gospel. The first thing they say is, not quite verbatim, “Did you know that families can be together forever?”

    Those of

  • skp

    As a convert from evangelicalism, I am aware that young people are encouraged to consider becoming missionaries–either long term, as a career, or short term, maybe for a few months to two years, or so. Even for those who never go, they develop an interest in ministry that extends beyond their own church community. It seems in my own parish, that awareness is lacking, which in turn means not so many vocations. I know there are opportunities out there, but they are not so easy to find out about.

  • newton

    “Nowadays college is all about job training.”

    Also, the “booze” and the “hook-up”. Don’t forget that.

    I thought missionary times for college students would come with the campus ministries set up at religious colleges. My own college is religiously affiliated, and some students that I knew then worked in Campus Ministry and helped the nuns.

  • Dan C

    I was a volunteer in the Mercy Corps at a Native American school in the Southwest and then went on to live in Catholic Workers for about 5 years when I was done.

    My time at the Indian School was challenging and wonderful and life-changing. It was a great choice. So was my time in the Catholic Worker.

    I am grateful for that and found that many were called at various ages.

    One of the great Lay Women in a volunteer position was Jean Donovan who was killed in El Salvador (kind of seguing into the post above this about tose missionaries killed for one’s faith).

    I pay attention to our local Catholic colleges (who will of course never be approved by the Cardinal Newman Society) and they send out significant numbers of such post-graduate volunteers each year to work with the poor. I think Catholicism is well-represented on that front through those young people.

  • Lawrence Cunningham

    Many Catholic Colleges encourage service after graduation. Here at Notre Dame 10% of our graduates go on to service in one or another program immediately after graduation. We also have the ACE program (two year commitment to serving in under resourced parochial schools) and ECHO ( two year serve as a catechist in parishes around the country) – both programs have an educational component allowing participants to get an MA when they finish. Interestingly enough, more than half of those who go through ACE (Alliance for Catholic Education) remain in Catholic Education. I should also add that among the 10% who go on to do service, a significant minority serve in Central or Latin America. Finally, the folk choir of Notre Dame has established a center in Ireland to send graduates to work with handicapped or abused children in Ireland.

  • Dan C

    Thank you for that information, Lawrence. I have been a fan of that commitment from Notre Dame for years. This form of service is never the excitement touted in right wing circles when discussing the energetic faith of the youth in our faith.

    The folks I serve with all still go to regular Mass, are in their first marriages, one is a priest…and on. It is data and narratives that are part of the untold story of the half of Catholicism that will not be discussed by Robert Barron.