VATICAN CITY—A just-released Vatican document calls for a radical rethinking of how to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In fact, it says the best way to attract new candidates for pastoral ministry is by taking a wider approach—helping each member of the Church discern his or her specific vocation.
“If at one time vocations promotion referred only or mainly to vocations to the priesthood and religious life, now it must tend ever more toward the promotion of all vocations, because in the Lord's Church, either we grow together or no one grows,” the document says.
A new evangelization is needed on the eve of the third millennium, it says, to recreate “a culture favorable to different vocations” and to help guide young people toward making decisions for their future.
The Church believes that each baptized person has a specific vocation—spouse, parent, priest, religious, single—and that this plurality of vocations serves the one vocation of the universal Church: to proclaim Christ, the only savior of the world.
Thus, the new document says each person must be helped to discern his or her individual vocation, should view it as the way to becoming who God wants him or her to be, and should be encouraged to follow that vocation as his or her God-given path to holiness, genuine fulfillment, and happiness.
“Today, true vocations promotion can be carried out only by those who are convinced that in every person, no one excluded, there is an original gift of God which waits to be discovered,” the document states.
The 112-page text, New Vocations for a New Europe, is the result of more than three years of study by four Vatican offices. Although written expressly for Europe, it provides a decidedly “holistic approach” to promoting vocations that could serve as a model for the Church in the United States and elsewhere.
The document notes that today's complex, secular culture has reduced the idea of “vocation” to the choice of a profession, with no reference to a divine plan.
In this “culture of distraction,” it says, young people are faced with a confusing array of choices—sometimes making decisions for their future based solely on economic considerations or emotional satisfaction.
The Meaning of ‘Vocation’
The document says people need help rediscovering the truth that God calls everyone to holiness and that his call is addressed in a specific way to Christians. It recommends vocations programs on the national, diocesan, and parish level aimed at helping each member of the Church discern God's plan for his or her life.
“Promoting vocations must penetrate the entire life of the Church at all levels,” Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and president of the Vatican committee coordinating vocations promotion told the Register. “It is one of the most urgent tasks facing the Church today.”
Seeking candidates for the priesthood and religious life must be carried out in “a spirit of trust,” confident that the Holy Spirit will provide for the Church's needs, the cardinal said. “An authentic culture of vocations” should be promoted which is motivated “not by the fear of extinction, but by the certainty of God's gift present in every person.”
Cardinal Laghi stressed that pastoral work for vocations “knows no boundaries” and that parents, educators, priests, and religious each have a role to play in helping young people recognize God's call for their lives.
The new Vatican document says educating Catholics in the faith must include educating them to the fact that they have a vocation. As the process of education moves along, a presentation of the various forms of living out one's vocation is necessary. Later, wise and well-trained guides will be needed to help each person discern his or her specific vocation.
On the threshold of the new millennium, the text states, “the Church must proclaim again the strong sense of life as ‘vocation.’”
Cardinal Laghi presented the document at a press conference in the Vatican. He said the text includes suggestions made during a meeting last year in Rome on how to attract and educate new priests, brothers, and sisters for service in the Church in Europe.
That gathering drew representatives from 37 nations and dealt with a range of issues, including the qualities of suitable candidates for religious life. It found that materialism, broken homes, and the demands of celibacy made young people reluctant to devote their lives to a religious vocation.
Worldwide, the number of priests and religious has dwindled during the past two decades, while the Catholic population has steadily increased. This has left fewer and older priests and religious to tend to more of the faithful.
Europe, too, has experienced this crisis in vocations. Nonetheless, the continent still counts more than half of all the priests and members of religious orders around the globe.
Signs of Hope
The Vatican distributed statistics at the press conference that showed a dramatic increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life in Eastern Europe between 1978 and 1995—mainly due to the new lease on life given the Church following the collapse of communism.
For example, the number of priests in Ukraine increased by 50% during that period; by almost 200% in Albania; and by more than 500% in Belarus.
Western Europe, however, witnessed a decline in the number of priests and religious during the same 17 years studied.
Belgium and the Netherlands led the countries with the highest percentage decline in the number of priests—both losing more than 30% of their ordained ministers. By the end of 1995, the total number of priests in Europe dropped by almost 13.5% and the total number of women religious by nearly 26%.
However, Cardinal Laghi said statistics on the number of seminarians throughout the continent provide “a motive for hope.” In nearly every country, the number of candidates for the priesthood at the end of 1995 was at or above what it was in 1978.
“This positive development applies across almost all of Europe where the overall increase is 22.73%,” he said. Only Germany and Ireland had significantly smaller seminary enrollments in 1995 than in 1978.
In fact, the new Vatican document says Christian hope is “absolutely necessary for the Church's mission, particularly vocations ministry.” It also lists criteria for vocational maturity, or signs that a person is ready to begin concrete preparations for a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. They include:
• A willingness to be guided by “a bigger brother or sister.”
• A “young” attitude marked by enthusiasm, a desire to do one's best, an ability to socialize, and an awareness of personal gifts and weaknesses.
• Affective and sexual maturity, which includes “the certainty that comes from the experience of having already been loved” and the certainty of knowing how to love others.
• An act of faith that does not rule out mystery or tensions, but places a vocation on the strong foundation of knowing God has called and will give the gifts necessary to follow the vocational path.
Stephen Banyra writes from Rome.