We have a vocation crisis in the Catholic Church, and everyone, it seems, is focusing on the “shortage of priests” part of it. The Catholic world is praying for priestly vocations and having religious give talks to parish youth groups; the secular world is ragging on us for not allowing married priests (not likely) or women priests (not possible). But that isn’t the root of the problem. We are not just short on priests; we are short on mature adult Catholics making mature adult Catholic vows and living them in a mature adult Catholic way.
The marriage vocation isn’t faring any better than the religious vocation. If you add up all the marriage certificates and subtract the annulment declarations and still-married couples who aren’t living the marriage vocation (lifelong commitment, openness to children, etc.), I think you’ll find a pretty sorry state. How many Catholic couples really take their marital vocation seriously as a vocation – a call from God to a life of self-sacrificial love and, for most couples, raising children? This is part of the vocation crisis, too.
Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy. Either one is, in its own proper form, an actuation of the most profound truth of man, of his being “created in the image of God.” – Familiaris Consortio, Blessed Pope John Paul II
Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely think we should pray for priestly vocations and encourage young men to consider the priesthood. But we also need to encourage them to take women out for dinner. Discerning vocation shouldn’t be a matter of “priesthood: yay or nay?” but one of discerning God’s will for one’s adult life. Is God calling you to the priesthood? To a religious order? To marriage and family? To consecrated singlehood? What sort of vow will you take? There’s a come-and-see event at the Dominicans this weekend; are you interested? Have you met any girls you’d like to take to coffee? When in seminary or when dating: Does this seem like God’s will for you? Is this experience/relationship bringing you closer to Christ?
In one sense, marriage is a “default” vocation – it’s where the majority of Catholics are called. But it’s unreasonable (and unhealthy) to assume that Catholics who don’t become priests will fall back on the healthy, holy domestic church thing. Many wander off and, ignoring the Church’s teaching, take up “alternative family styles.” Others remain faithful to the Church – and single, too, having “finished discerning” away from priesthood. In the words of the inestimable Anthony Esolen, “Some [young adults] are bed-hopping; some are shacking up; some are simply alone. That pretty much accounts for them all. Three options, all bad.”
Furthermore, marriage shouldn’t be treated like a fallback. Marriage is a sacrament, and should entail the spiritual preparation proper to one. Those approaching marriage should pray about their decision and consider it carefully, and the rest of us should encourage this. (I can still hear my mom telling my sisters and me: “Marry a man who you want to be the father of your children,” and “Marry a man who’s as nice to you as your dad is to me.”) The Church has pages and pages written on the theology and philosophy of marriage and sex, and it’s all deep and rich and beautiful. Young adults need this as much as they need the religious-order discernment retreats. My husband had to read Casti Connubii for his high school “health” class. Why don’t all Catholics?
The Church would flourish if more Catholics found their vocations and really lived them. To those who work with youth – parents, youth leaders, teachers, vocation directors – do your part to encourage vocations. Bring in priests to give talks about their vocations, arrange carpools to visit religious orders, and talk about marriage, too. Ask the young men if they’ve considered the priesthood. Ask all the young people if they’re thinking about religious life, and ask them what they hope to find in a spouse. Ask them what vocation they think God is calling them to.
And to you still-unvowed Catholics, whether you’re in high school or college or the office, keep an eye out for a potential spouse, religious order, or diocese. Keep looking for your vocation. Keep praying about it until you find it.
Then live it faithfully and joyfully.
© 2013. Mary C. Tillotson. All Rights Reserved.