One of the most frequently prayed for intentions in Catholic circles is “for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.” Sometimes, this can be asked of God almost mindlessly, as if to acknowledge the fact that we do indeed need more priests and consecrated religious, while at the same time being something ‘done’ that we can check off our list of prayer intentions.
While in no way do I wish to dissuade us from praying – fervently even – for more vocations to consecrated life, perhaps the bigger task, as Catholics, is remembering who these people are, why they are called, and to what, exactly, priests, brothers, and sisters are called in the first place. The so-called “vocations crisis” of modern times is not due to unavailability (the Church is larger than ever before) nor because God has begun calling fewer men and women (seriously, why would He do that?). The vocation crisis of our time is basically an identity crisis. Why would anyone become something they know little about, or belong to something that appears to have lost a sense of why it ever existed? Furthermore, this crisis is actually only present in North America and Europe. Seminaries and convents in Africa and the Asian Pacific are bursting at the seams.
What is a priest? Most likely, our minds immediately turn to thoughts of that old guy who says Mass. However, such a thought betrays two things about our modern conception of the priesthood which illustrate the identity crisis to which I was previously referring. First of all, a stereotype emerges – “the old guy” – meaning we associate the priesthood with a person from our experience and memory, not the priesthood’s Founder. Secondly, we identify what that “old guy” does, not who he is. The priest as a man who performs a function is starting with the least significant component of his total identity. When defining who is the priest, the Catechism states, “It is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis…” (CCC #1548). In short, the priest is Christ. If a priest does not take that seriously, it will not change the fact of who he in fact is, but it will change the way he does – or does not – exercise his ministry, which directly affects how his people will grow in awareness of the priesthood. The more a priest learns to live and act in every respect as one would expect Jesus Christ to have lived and acted, the more his priesthood will attract the followers of Christ.
The priesthood is but one stream of consecrated life within the Church, however. It was God’s will that an entirely unique stream would flow from the fount of grace among His people, and these are consecrated men and women religious, more commonly known as nuns and monks. These are people who find that their desire to love God and live in communion with Him is so strong that the force of that love pulls them out of the world into what is more like heaven than it is like earth. If heaven will be a life lived in total and complete unity with God, the consecrated life points out to believers, here and now, that their life currently is our eternal destiny. Through the strict observance of the evangelical counsels (chastity, poverty and obedience), they demonstrate that their relationship with others, things and themselves all take second place to their relationship with God.
Special mention must be made, within the context of any discussion about consecrated life, regarding the specific consecration of women religious. In a unique sense, the femininity of women religious serves as an archetype for the Church herself. Jesus is the head of His Body, the Church – comprised of His holy people through baptism – but He is also the bridegroom of that same Church, who is His bride, perfectly and exquisitely represented through the vocation of consecrated women. These handmaids of the Lord give a face to that mystical reality of one who waits exclusively on Christ.
Priests celebrate the sacraments and tend to the care of souls. Monks live a strict life of contemplation and labour (often giving the world delicious baking and fine beer!). Nuns pray hard and very often serve their communities through teaching and health care. Consecrated religious DO lots of great stuff. But none of that stuff matters independent of who they are first of all: individuals, chosen by God and set apart, to be beacons in the world of our eternal destiny to live a life of perfect union with our Father in heaven. Discerning the call to such a life has already begun when one feels the slightest pull in that direction. It is not natural to be called to the consecrated life in the same way that it is natural to be called to marriage or remaining single. It is supernatural. If the thought has crossed your mind, without a doubt, you are being called to investigate it further.
– Fr. Cristino Bouvette