Vol 41 No 1
WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR THE CATHOLIC SCHOOL?
THE VOCATIONS PROJECT IN AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND
THE FAMILY IN AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: Christianity's contribution to understanding the family and its role
Francine and Byron Pirola
MARRIAGE IN THE LIFE OF THE PARISH: He sent them out two by two ... Luke 10:1
FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE
Marie Farrell RSM
ECUMENICAL CONSENSUS ON MARY
Desmond O'Donnell OMI
A LENTEN MEDITATION
vocations project in Australia and New Zealand
A DISCUSSION OF religious vocations in Australia and New Zealand (and
similar societies) takes place under the shadow of decreased vocations
to religious life and priesthood as we have traditionally understood them.
The increase in these vocations in other parts of the world does not relieve
us of the need to shape the future of the church here. Discussion of vocations
as a project means we focus not so much on past causes but
on how we should plan for the future. But prior to the more practical
questions of vocations promotion, discernment and education lie our attitudes
to vocations as a whole. Are some vocations better or holier than others
as is often implied in vocational promotion? And if not, why bother with
them at all? Is a vocation an equal choice between religious life, priesthood,
married life, and the single state as seems to be assumed in some discussions?
Is the church moving to a new situation in which the traditional vocations
will be replaced by quite new ones? That we have to ask these questions
at all indicates a need to seek clarity not so much about one or other
particular vocation but about the diversity and interrelatedness of a
range of vocations in the contemporary church.
The Multiple Contemporary Senses of Vocation
Discussion about Christian vocation takes place within a larger perspective
that sees human life as vocation. Understanding human life itself as vocation
is a perspective that regards life as a human response to divine invitation
rather than alternative views such as the view that ones status
in life is inevitable, or the philosophy of choice with its focus on self-promotion,
or the pragmatic approach of just getting on with the busyness of daily
Within this general perspective on life as vocation we enter the more
specific Christian perspective on vocation. And within this Christian
discussion I suggest that we pay particular attention to six important
senses of vocation (cf. the related but somewhat different
typology in Dewar 2000, 2-3):
a) The sense in which being Christian is itself a vocation: Becoming a
Christian is itself a response to a call. We do not know whether everyone
has this call, but those who do have it need to respond to it or it comes
to nothing. This is the sense in which the term vocation or
call (klesis) is normally used in the New Testament. (e.g.
2 Thess. 1:11; 1 Cor.1:26; Eph. 4:1). Since the Protestant Reformation
in the sixteenth century it has become common to use the term vocation
for someones occupation including marriage and parenting (Placher
2005, 6-9). For the purpose of this paper I have adopted the position
that such vocations (marriage, parenting, and a rather long
list of occupational, professional and care-giving services) are best
regarded as implementations of the Christian vocation in a variety of
already existing social roles and institutions rather than distinct and
specific vocations on their own. This is a discussion that would be worth
pursuing in another context.
b) The unique vocation of each individual person: Each individual has
a personal vocation that expresses the persons unique call from
God and their opening out to social responsibility (Alphonso 1990). For
Christians this will be a particular and personalized call within the
more general Christian vocation. It may well be this sense of a personal
vocation that impels a person into a particular occupation or provides
the motivation for a dedication or service to others.
c) The vocation to a particular lifestyle not necessarily tied to a ministry:
This is a call to a lifestyle, either as a single person or in community,
which is more to do with being than with doing. It is a way of living,
such as the contemplative life or a dedication to living simply or adopting
the spirituality of a religious founder, rather than an active ministry.
These kinds of vocation are important in the contemporary church. They
also set the background and interact with the three remaining kinds of
vocation which will be my particular focus for the rest of this paper:
d) the vocation of vowed religious,
e) the vocation of priests, and
f) the vocation to an ecclesial ministry.
Each of us will attach more urgency to clarifying some rather than others
of these vocations. My own standpoint is that of a secular priest, and
from this standpoint it is the latter three vocations that have become
the most troubled in the contemporary church and in this sense command
I make the assumption in this paper that none of these vocations can claim
to be in itself better or holier than the othersas has sometimes
been done in the past. I am not interested here, then, in the ways these
vocations can be ranked but in the ways they are complementary, supplementary
or interrelated. I am interested in the question: What are the features
of each of these three kinds of vocation that make it special, i.e. different
from the general vocation of all Christians and different from the other
two kinds of vocation that are the focus of our attention here? In asking
this question I pursue the quest for clarity about the diversity and interrelatedness
of vocations in the contemporary church (cf. the similar discussion in
a North American context in Hahnenberg 2003).
The Vocation of Vowed Religious: the Three Vows
The most interesting and substantial discussion that I am aware of about
the contemporary interpretation of Religious Life since Vatican II places
the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in response to the
conditions of contemporary society characterised by economic inequalities
and institutionalised selfishness. This is consistent with the contemporary
focus on mission and moves away somewhat from the earlier focus on the
personal holiness of the vowed religious themselves. Vowed religious try
to live out, both individually and institutionally, an unselfish lifestyle
in relation to material goods and ownership (poverty), sexuality and relationships
(chastity), and freedom and power (obedience) (cf. Neal 1990; Philibert
1999; Radcliffe 1999).
The proposal that Religious Life in the contemporary world is an altruistic
and counter-cultural response to the contemporary social agenda of selfishness
and injustice is a powerful and impressive one, especially when we are
aware of vowed religious who have seriously lived out this commitment.
Yet a commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience is not the sole or
distinctive preserve of vowed religious. These evangelical counsels
are a summary of the Christian vocation, a brief summary of the way of
the disciple of Christ. They set out a way of life for all of us not just
for vowed religious. A focus on the three vows of Religious Life as a
response to an unjust society serves to clarify for vowed religious themselves
the new priorities in their mission, priorities that have shifted over
the last few decades.
But this articulation does not yet clarify just in what way the vocation
to Religious Life is distinct from the vocation of the rest of us within
the church. Or again, this articulation tells us how vowed religious are,
or intend to be, different from the rich and powerful, but again does
not say how they are different from the rest of us, most of whom are not
rich, not powerful, and dont subscribe to an ideology of self-interest
The description of Religious Life that makes clear its distinction from
other vocations in the church sees the central dedication of vowed religious
as including two key elements. One is that the religious vow of chastity
takes the particular form of consecrated celibacy. The second is that
the vow of obedience takes the particular form of a commitment to a particular
company of people with a particular charism. The promise of consecrated
celibacy commits the person to Christ in a way that allows the construction
of a particular type of community in which poverty and obedience are creative
possibilities. This particular type of community living commits a person
to a community of equal, free adults without spouses or children, who
practice together a vigorous discernment of the voice of God amid the
confusing voices of the contemporary world and the contemporary church
(Schneiders 2001 and 2004).
These two elements of a celibate community within an existing real tradition
committed to free, adult discernment of Gods voice appear as the
key features of the vocation of vowed religious. This special lifestyle
and mission within the church is frequently subverted from both within
and without, but these seem to me to be the elements that make the vocation
of vowed religious different from and complementary to that of the rest
The Vocation of Priests: Local Church Leadership
In this paper I restrict my use of the term priest to refer
to presbyters only (not bishops or deacons) and to secular priests rather
than priests who are also vowed religious. I shall leave it to the latter
to deal with the overlap between the two vocations.
We usually talk of decreasing numbers of vowed religious,
but we talk more commonly of a shortage of priests. Shortage
presumably means that there are fewer than we think there should be. But
there are several uncomfortable realities that lie beneath this talk of
shortages. The first is that if there is a shortage of priests then its
causes should be attributed to where it most obviously arisesnot
from a lack of generosity in people today, nor a lack of vocations promotion,
nor a failure in the witness of current priests, nor the result of historical
or cultural forces beyond our control, nor an oversight of the Holy Spirit.
It is primarily the result of a decision by church authorities of the
Roman Rite to retain the requirements of celibacy and maleness for priests.
In principle, a shortage of priest should never be more than a transitional
situation caused by unusual and unexpected circumstances. When we look
for candidates for priesthood, we are not short of people who could fulfil
the priests role well given adequate preparation and training, but
we are short of mature, celibate males.
The second uncomfortable reality is a structural pathology within the
institutional church itself. I do not refer here to priestly failures
in morality however publicly unacceptable and discouraging to other priests
that may be (Cozzens 2000). I refer rather to the situation that a) the
priests vocation is confined within the gender discrimination of
the institutional church that excludes women not just from ministerial
priesthood but from decision-making in the church hierarchy; and b) the
priest lives within a hierarchy of decision-making that borrows more from
the Roman empire than from any of the more participatory forms of civil
government whether traditional or contemporary. These structural pathologies
insinuate themselves into everything we might want to say or do to promote
priestly vocations. What kind of person would be attracted to serve in
this kind of organization?
Acknowledging these problems within the vocation of priests, we still
need to pursue the central question of this paper which is to ask what
is special about the vocation of priests as we have it that marks it as
different in its interrelationship with other vocations in the church.
The vocation of priests (presbyters) has changed considerably over the
centuries: from a group of elders, to advisers to a single bishop in a
city community, to pastors of rural and suburban communities, to many
different combinations of priest and community service. The common element
through all this is the vocation to local church leadership, a leadership
that has liturgical, pastoral, and missionary dimensions. There does not
appear to be much dispute about the local leadership role as defining
the vocation of the priest. What is problematic nowadays, though, is the
style of this leadership. Fundamentally, is it meant to be hierarchical
The vocation of the priest is vulnerable to an interpretation of priesthood
that has a very high respect for the vocation of the priest, but rather
little respect for the vocation of anyone else. There are new signals
today of a restorationist and retro-cult movement that seeks to change
backwards to what it sees as the true meaning of Vatican II,
i.e. before things went too far. These are the signals of a return to
a more hierarchical, even autocratic, style of leadership. By contrast,
a collegial style of priestly vocation would include rather a) a strong
sense of the churchs mission on issues of justice and compassion;
b) an appreciation of cultural differences and vocational differences
within the Christian church; c) an ability to work collaboratively rather
than paternalistically with other vocations.
We seem now to be at a cross-road in our understanding of the vocation
of priests. In one direction is a more hierarchical style of priesthood
and in the other a more collegial style. Which of these styles will prevail
depends largely on how clear the expectations of the rest of the church
are for collaborative ministry and a collegial leadership style (cf. Saffiotti
2005; Sofield 2006).
The Vocation to Ecclesial Ministry: the New Energies
I use the term ecclesial ministry here to refer to official
or semi-official ministries in the church that do not involve Ordination
or Religious Profession. This term is not entirely satisfactory but it
still seems preferable to the common alternatives lay ministry
or non-ordained ministry. This is a call to ministry within
the church that may be part-time or full-time, formal or semi-formal,
waged or voluntary, married or single that is mediated through church
organization. It includes the many forms of liturgical, administrative,
care, and outreach ministries that have become common in the contemporary
church. As distinct from the vocation of vowed religious and priests these
ecclesial vocations are:
temporary, long-term, or permanent (not just permanent)
single, married, celibate, or widowed (not just celibate)
local (not transportable throughout in the world)
part-time, full-time, salaried, volunteer.
How many ecclesial vocations do we think there are, or how many do we
think there should be? Catholic Directories give a rough indication of
the numbers of people involved. My own count in the current New Zealand
National Catholic Directoryreaders might like to check their own
states or their own diocesesshows almost half (46%) of the names
recorded there with contact addresses and telephone numbers as neither
vowed religious nor priests. They are in some sense ecclesial ministers.
A National Directory is an inaccurate measure but it does give a rough
representation of the people considered to occupy a position in the church
such that they need to be contacted or consulted on church matters. In
addition, there are many other people not recorded in a National Directory
who are involved in ecclesial ministries at a more local level, in chaplaincies,
social service organizations, and parishes. The New Zealand National Catholic
Directory records only two names from my own parishthe parish priest
and the school principal. But my local parish Directory of its own ministries
with names and contact numbers contains 386 entries (there is some overlap
here where one person has more than one ministry). The point I am attempting
to illustrate here, counter to an institutional tendency to trivialise
these ministries, is that they are too numerous to be treated lightly
and their impact on the contemporary church is substantial.
Ecclesial ministries vary greatly in their required commitment of time
and energy. But many of them are indeed vocations in their sense of call
and response. They normally have some initial and continuing training,
a public liturgical commissioning, and an acceptance that they work under
some community supervision. An ecclesial vocation as I use the term here
is not just a personal or private initiative. It requires public liturgical
recognition that this person exercises a role approved and supported by
the local church community.
The Vocations Project
If we consider the promotion of vocations to be a project worth supporting,
then this project is not primarily about how each of us understands and
promotes our own special vocation. It is not primarily about the survival
of traditional forms of Religious Life or a traditional style of church
leadership, but about how we understand and encourage the complementarity
among the diverse vocations in the contemporary church.
This will require, especially for the established religious and priestly
vocations, some deliberate policies that promote education for the new
ecclesial vocations and that respect the unique personal vocation of each
individual. Vowed religious and priests are the current power-brokers,
the freight-carriers, of the contemporary church. Where they position
themselves in relation to the general vocation of all Christians, the
unique vocations of each individual person, and the large contemporary
growth in the new ecclesial vocations will shape the church of the future.
I want to suggest in conclusion that the decisive element of a vocations
project for a future church will not be a narrow focus on increasing vocations
to priesthood and religious life but the broader pursuit of collaborative
diversity: recognition of the diversity of vocations in the contemporary
church, appreciation of their varied contributions, and the careful creation
of supportive yet discerning interrelationships.
Neil Darragh lectures in theology at the University of Auckland, and at
the Catholic Institute of Theology, Auckland. He is parish priest of Glen
Innes, a suburban parish also in Auckland, New Zealand.
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