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Vol 41 No 1

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James Quillinan

Neil Darragh

Helen McCabe
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

Brian Lewis

Marie Farrell RSM

Desmond O'Donnell OMI




The 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 one’s 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 living.

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 someone’s 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 person’s 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 more attention.
I make the assumption in this paper that none of these vocations can claim to be in itself better or holier than the others—as 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 don’t subscribe to an ideology of self-interest and competitiveness.

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 God’s 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 of us.

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 arises—not 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 priest’s 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 priest’s 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 or collegial?

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 church’s 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 Directory—readers might like to check their own states or their own dioceses—shows 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 parish—the 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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