Religious life has had a huge decline in the last 50 years. Yet, I’ve been called and chosen to follow it. What does it mean to be a religious today? What is it like?
I think these questions are important for youth ministry because vocation ministry is an extension of youth ministry. Good youth ministry will produce vocations. Yet most youth ministers aren’t priests or nuns. So, I figure that being one of the few who is both a religious and a priest, I should try and explain both from the inside so you can help your teens if questions ever arise. I want to bridge the gap for you; I want to give you the view from inside, so you can explain it to your teens.
I originally planned one post but as I wrote, it expanded to 3. Today, I’ll focus on the importance of the personal perspective of being a priest and religious then I’ll dedicate a post to my experience of each aspect.
The first difficulty I see is the false dichotomy between “the good old days” and now. There were tons of priests and nuns but now there are few. True. But such an analysis misses a big point: How were priests and nuns seen by others and how did they see themselves. So often the vision was pragmatic: girls become nuns so we have cheap teachers and nurses, priests get ordained just to offer masses for people’s intentions. Religious life and priesthood were seen from a solely objective viewpoint. They lacked subjectivity; they lacked a personal identity as priests and nuns.
If you are just filling some point in the assembly line of salvation, if you are have only an objective role, you can tend to feel empty. For an analogy, this would be like talking of marriage as simply a way to make babies without mentioning the love between spouses or with the children. You don’t marry an abstraction, you marry Joe-honey-bun or whatever you choose to call him.
Even today much vocational work focuses too much on the abstract, objective aspect. A religious community’s website lists the periods of formation, the apostolates, and a mission statement. That’s like expecting someone to fall in love with you because you’re 6’1”, have black hair and an IQ of 123.
If religious life or priesthood is a vocation it is something you need to fall in love with.
This falling in love can be over a long period or love at first sight, just like human love. I am not a priest in the Legion of Christ because I have systematically analyzed every religious community but because I fell in love with this one. I was both slow and fast: the vocation to the priesthood came slowly over a few years but the moment I entered the Legion’s seminary, I fell in love.
I’ve helped several young men to enter the seminary (as a religious brother). I never began looking for vocations and I’ve never been assigned as a vocation director by my superiors, I simply did systematic and deep youth ministry (my assigned responsibility from my superiors) and loved my own vocation. If you have a few good priests or nuns who can transmit their love for their vocation, I think any youth ministry can produce religious and priestly vocations.
Studies consistently affirm that the most common time to start thinking about the vocation is as a teen. When we present vocations, we need to present the needs of the Church and what priests and nuns do. However, the most important thing we can present is the personal experience of happy priests and religious. We each need to love our vocation – marriage, single life, religious life or priesthood – passionately.
Vocations come when we live our vocation to the full. God is always calling, we need to help others respond.