Why consider a church vocation in times like these?
By Brother Paul Bednarczyk, C.S.C.
In the midst of great difficulties, the church more than ever needs a new generation of priests, sisters, and brothers.
LET’S FACE IT. The past few years have not been the easiest for the Catholic Church. I can run down the laundry list of headlines–sexual abuse scandals, exploitation of trust, church cover-up, bankruptcy of some dioceses and religious communities, calls for revamping traditional church authority and structures, public questioning of clerical celibacy, the controversial role of women in the church.
Although these are challenging times for our church–without diminishing the immense suffering these difficulties have inflicted and continue to inflict–we should not be surprised by the consistency of our church in its imperfection and sometimes shameful history.
While the church has publicly advocated peace, condemned violence, and mediated the prevention of several wars over the centuries, don’t forget that 900 years ago it blessed the worthiness of several crusades to be fought in God’s name. Our church has always taught the importance of the cardinal virtues in leading the Christian life. But this is the same church that gave us Pope Alexander VI, who corrupted his papacy by his lavish lifestyle, nepotism, and mistresses. We expect the church to preach of the dignity of all human beings, but in the early 1800s it was still telling slaves that their servitude was the will of God. While theologians publicly debate the place of Christian ethics and scientific progress in a rapidly changing world, we must recall that Galileo was imprisoned by church authorities for heresy when he said the sun was the center of the universe.
Yet the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” that we know and love has somehow survived these past 2,000 years, despite the actions of the sinners, like you and me, who have always been a part of it. And I have no doubt that the church will continue to survive, hopefully a bit wiser and a lot more humbled by the transgressions of its leaders and followers.
The living church
The church and its people, however, are not just survivors who tenaciously grit their teeth when faced with either internal turmoil or external opposition. The church doesn’t just survive–it lives. It lives today because Jesus Christ lives in and through the church.
In the midst of our present crisis, we must humbly admit that we are the undeserving recipients of the gracious fidelity and unconditional love of Jesus Christ who vowed never to abandon his disciples. “And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time” (Matt. 28:10). The church has lived these 2,000 years because of God’s grace manifested through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
While acknowledging the recent painful events in the church, Pope John Paul II still encouraged the young people gathered in Toronto for World Youth Day 2002 to be open to priesthood and consecrated life. “At difficult moments in the church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent. And holiness is not a question of age; it is a matter of living in the Spirit. . . . We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
While some would argue that this is the worst time to consider a religious vocation, I, like Pope John Paul II, see it as a most desirable time for someone to discern a life as a brother, sister, priest, deacon, or consecrated secular. Why? I can think of several reasons.
First of all, God continues to invite people to a life of service and community, especially when the church faces an unprecedented crisis like the one we presently face. Our history proves this.
In the midst of the injustices of the Spanish Inquisition, God called Teresa of Avila to a life of mysticism and later to leadership in the reformation of her Carmelite order. Francis of Assisi had a dream of “rebuilding” God’s house, and in response, chose to follow God’s call through a radical life of simplicity, penance, and prayer, sharply contrasting the wealth and corruption of the 12th-century church. Two hundred years later, when there was unrest in the church and a divided papacy in Rome and Avignon, Catherine of Siena responded to God’s call to live the Dominican life and later served as a mediator for peace and reunification of the papacy.
Our church still benefits from the virtue of these heroic men and women who heard God’s invitation to live a radical gospel life in the midst of a church in turmoil. I am confident that with God’s lavish grace, we will be telling similar stories in the future of today’s heroic men and women who responded to the challenges of religious life.
Another reason to consider a religious vocation is that our church needs the creativity, idealism, faith, and spirituality of a new generation of priests, brothers, and sisters. The poor in our world suffer from a lack of quality education, adequate health care, and basic social services. In a culture that suffers from inequalities, violence, and disregard for human life, people need to hear the prophetic message of justice, peace, and dignity.
The Catholic infrastructure of schools, hospitals, and social service agencies we celebrate today in the United States was built predominantly by religious men and women who simply wanted to help build the kingdom of God. They saw a particular need, and with sacrifice, hard work, and lots of ingenuity, they figured out how to respond. The needs may look a bit different today, but they still await a response from equally generous men and women of faith.
Witnesses to holiness
But the church and the People of God need more than just service. In a society that glamorizes sex, power, and money, the church needs the continued witness of young men and women willing to give their all for holiness by living a life of chastity, obedience, and poverty. Because we are a sacramental church, we need priests to preach the Word with integrity and to minister to us in times of joy and pain with sensitivity. When our world is plagued by division and polarization, we need the hope for Christian community that is inspired by people who come together in peace to live and share their faith, values, and mission.
By considering a religious vocation, you have nothing to lose. In fact, you owe it to both yourself and the church to consider it!
Through our baptism, all Christians share a common call to holiness, but we are called by God to live out our holiness in different ways, given our individual talents, gifts, and limitations. All vocations are oriented toward holiness and a deepening of relationship with God.
If we are serious about our search for God in our life choices, we must know the avenues of discovery available to us. Marriage and the committed single life are vitally important to the communion of vocations we share in the church. But not everyone has the gifts to be married or single, just as not everyone has the gifts to be a priest or religious. To come to that conclusion, however, we must prayerfully discern our own experiences, desires, and gifts so that we can be true to ourselves and to our church.
There are times I have asked a young man or woman if they have ever thought of a religious vocation. The occasional response I received was, “Are you kidding? I could never do that.” But how do you know that you cannot do something until you have really thought and prayed about it?
In the various ministries I have had as a religious brother, I have been called upon to do many things I never before could have imagined myself doing. Someone, however, challenged me to think “out of the box,” which eventually led me to the discovery of gifts and talents I never thought I possessed. The same thing is true of a religious vocation. Unless we actually take the time seriously to reflect upon the possibility, we may be shortchanging both ourselves and our church. Besides, we can often find God in the most surprising places!
Finally, I would encourage someone to consider a religious vocation for the sheer joy it can provide. Sure, there are challenges and sacrifices, but like any life choice, there is also great delight in knowing that you are following God’s will for you and that you are making a difference in the church and in the lives of others.
This year I celebrate my 25th anniversary as a Brother of Holy Cross. It may seem like a long time, but I still am amazed at how quickly the time has gone. Sure, I have had my difficult moments and questions, and similar to any life choice, I have had to make sacrifices. The church and my religious community can drive me crazy at times (as I am sure I drive them crazy!), but like my own family, they are the heart and center of my being. After 25 years, I know, without a doubt, that I belong. Even in the chaotic moments of my own personal life, beneath the turbulence, there is a peaceful sense of contentment and gratitude for the gift of my religious life. I know that I would be less the person that I am today if it were not for my faith in a merciful God and for my brothers and sisters in Holy Cross.
In the words of Saint Matthew, “Remember, where your treasure is, there your heart is also” (6:21). Take it from someone who has found his treasure. To be a part of something greater than yourself, to bring Christ to others in their despair, poverty, and suffering, to share your faith, hopes, and dreams with others of like mind in community, to deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ is–as the TV commercial says–priceless.
Yes, these are definitely trying times for our church, but they are not the first, nor will they be the last. One of the many heroes in our church from the last century was Cardinal Yves Congar, a Dominican theologian and great advocate of ecumenism. In reflecting on his own personal struggles and questions with the church, he wrote:
“The Church has been a . . . peaceable place for my faith and my prayer . . . Assuredly, there is a lot of narrow mindedness and immaturity, many botched works in the church. We see, too, in many spheres how unprepared the church is to offer answers to the true questions posed by men. But all that, as heavy a burden it may be for us to bear, is of no importance when it is balanced against what I can find and actually do find in the church. The church has been, and is, the hearth of my soul; the mother of my spiritual being. She offers me the possibility of living with the saints: And when did she ever prevent me from living a Christian life?”
Like Congar, let us acknowledge the church’s failures and let us celebrate its many saints, many of whom were priests and consecrated men and women whose lived example of fidelity and service beckons a new generation to follow their witness of holiness.
In the words of Pope John Paul II to the young people in Toronto: “Christ needs your youth and your generous enthusiasm to make his proclamation of joy resound in the new millennium. Answer his call by placing your lives at his service in your brothers and sisters! Trust Christ, because he trusts you.”
With that assurance, what does anyone have to lose?
Brother Paul Bednarczyk, C.S.C. is a member of theCongregation of Holy Cross, Eastern Province,and executive director of National Religious Vocation Conference.