Vocations, New Evangelization and such like

Happy new year, belated though the greeting might be.

The past year has seen a lot of talk, using both ink and air, about vocations, and the culture of vocation, as the Church in this sceptred but Godless isle seeks to repair the damage of the last few decades that has been visited upon the priestly and religious life. For a long time I have been one of those happy to talk of religious and priestly callings as being just two among many possible vocations, such as marriage or single life, or even more narrowly to a range of what are more traditionally termed careers. Some have noted the danger of reducing vocation to career-choice and have changed the rhetoric to centre on vocation as state in life: celibate priest or religious, married, consecrated virginity or the single life. (Yet some die-hards, yea heretics, still hold to vocation being a call away from the normative state of life for humanity as elaborated in Genesis, namely marriage and the raising of a family: marriage is hard-wired into human nature, not a call external to it. Yes – I am a heretic now.)

This rhetorical shift was satisfyingly sensible: job and vocation are not synonyms. Yet still something indeterminate and indistinct gnawed away at satisfaction. Partly it was empirical: all the talk and preaching on vocation, all the initiatives initiated and courses run, the literature and websites produced, the psychology and affective skills employed seemed impressive in scope. Yet if one stopped to look at results, they were meagre. There has been a growth in vocations in the traditional sense, yet it seems to have been almost in spite of the vocations industry than because of it. So many of the vocations that have emerged have come from the more traditional sources, or been inspired by the example and teaching of recent popes. All this feverish promotion of the traditional vocations, situated with an avowed egalitarianism among other states of life now also called vocations, seemed remarkably fruitless.

Perhaps, one thought, the promotion of the New Evangelization was missing link. To promote a culture of faith leading into mission, employing the latest media and insights, going out into the marketplace, and making evangelization (hitherto not a common Catholic word if I remember rightly) a mission, even a ministry, shared by the laity as well as clergy and religious. The implication, and sometimes the assertion, was that this mission flowed from our Baptism, and now it is time to revive it.

However, troublingly, it was easy to detect the emergence of what has all the markings of yet another industry. The industrialization and democratization of vocation and evangelization seems to meet the needs of our 21st century world with its new media, more literate and technologically-savvy laity, especially youth and a revived urge to be doing something.

And here comes my heresy. I just do not see it working, either thus far or in the near future. There is immense goodwill and fervent desire to be righting the listing ship. Yet these positive energies are being directed into what is all too often mere activity. There comes to mind the old tag-line (or was it a poster?): Jesus is coming. Look busy. Busy we are, to what appears no good result.

If we survey the history of the Church, we see readily enough that it had its periods of decline and resurgence, its vigour waxed and waned. At the risk of gross simplification, it seems that most of the decline coincided with the blurring of the necessary distinction between Church and world, with the decay of Christian identity leading to Christians being in the world and all too clearly of the world. Resurgence coincided with the emergence of individuals, men and women, whose initiatives and insights did not emerge primarily from the progress of secular knowledge and its insights. They had a common, unifying thread: a radical, uncompromising return to the Gospel which is ever present in the Church but its lustre too easily tarnished by her members. To put it another way, and to employ the idiom of the Second Vatican Council, it was about the universal (and we must say also, perpetual) call to holiness, of the integrity that comes when the movement of our lips matches the movement of our lives.

All our striving for vocations and for evangelization will mean nothing if they exist merely as techniques and strategies which are effectively the focus of a relentless activism. There is need for relentless activism, but first and foremost it needs to be directed towards prayer, sacraments, the works of charity and of mercy, walking the extra mile, turning the other cheek, offering both our shirts and our cloaks – and these not on some impersonal, macro level. Our Christian living begins on the micro level, wherever we find ourselves, and with whomever: the troublesome relative, the annoying confrere, that hateful colleague, the needy friend, the homeless man sleeping on a busy city street. We are not called to change the world, but we are called to change our hearts by concrete acts empowered by our prayer. This prayer need not be the prayer of the professional religious, or the mystic, but the common, and too often scorned, recitation of set prayers or frequent offering of interior words and aspirations to the God who is ever at our side, or the lighting of a candle, or the tingle in our heart as we read holy scripture.

The more meagre our prayer and our sacramental nourishment, the more tepid our faith, the more anemic our living, the more soulless our activity. Too many like this, and we find our Church in decline, and so too vocations and evangelization. And no amount of talking and self-examination will solve the problem unless they lead to real holiness. Vocations and witness to the faith emerge from a healthy Church, a Church healthy in her members most of all. Too much of our vocations work and evangelization and mission is focused on what are actually symptoms, not causes.

So, most likely, until we rediscover what it is to be Christian both in word and in deed, to be devout in our worship and prayer and brave in our charity and compassion, to be in the world but never one with the world, to value our faith and our sacramental life as more than a conscience salve we compress and cram into an hour before Sunday lunch (or Saturday night on the town) – unless our lives as members of the Church conform more truly to the Gospel call and to the grace ever offered us (and too often ignored by us), then none of these initiatives for vocation or evangelization will ever bear much lasting fruit. At best they may occasionally strike lucky. But is that good enough? Read Matthew 6:33, and think about it a little.

One should never write late at night. The purple passages abound, and perhaps a little perspective is lost. But really, the only activity that God really needs of us now is that daily commitment to conversion that bears fruit in our living, a turning from self to God and to others that ultimately is the gift of God himself. Let us pray that we do not receive the gift in vain. Let us rend our hearts, not our garments. (Cf Joel 2:13)

I do begin to see that perhaps this is what Pope Francis is on about.

Jesus is coming. Be holy.

Words of wisdom (not mine, naturally)

Since recovery from the cold/throat infection etc is slow, and the latest papal offering (11,000-odd words) is too long for me to face at the moment, I will plagiarize a little. Consider it a nod to a great tradition.

With all the renewed guff from campaigners for the impossible dream of women’s ordination; and those who seek to minimize the Church’s teaching on abortion, the admission to Communion of remarried divorcees or publicly pro-abortion politicians, or other moral issues, a decades-old reflection from Frank Sheed seems apt. Frank Sheed was an Australian layman who was doing the New Evangelization before it was even a twinkle in a future pope’s eye, a street-corner apologist who was both remarkably faithful to Church teaching and wonderfully clear and direct in its expression; he was the “Sheed” in the great Catholic publishing house Sheed & Ward.

Invariably when dissenters pipe up, they bring up the matter of conscience, usually a rather skewed version of it. So many of them use “conscience” as a pretext for acting for “justice” outside the earthly boundaries of the Catholic Church, even as they profess to be more faithful to God in doing so. Mr Sheed is dealing with sensitive issues, writing at the time of Humanae Vitae in 1968, and admits that there may be occasions when a rightly-formed conscience might move one to reject a particular precept or teaching of the Church (he is speaking mainly of non-dogmatic, non-infallible teachings). Let what Mr Sheed writes sink in:

Following conscience and acting against some Church ruling might mean being deprived of the Blessed Eucharist. And that could mean anguish. It would not be a reason for leaving the Church: the only reason for belonging to it is the belief that it is Christ’s, and it does not cease to be His because its officials have judged wrongly or acted unjustly. The anguish must be borne, must be offered to God. must not turn into bitterness against the authorities. Seeing things as he does, the man has no choice. He must remind himself that the authorities also, seeing things as they do, have no choice… The troubled Catholic’s belief may be right or wrong, but if his love for the people who have barred him from sacraments is not diminished but increased, then he is suffering not only for his belief but for the Church, and his suffering works for its renewal.  (Is it the same Church?, F J Sheed, 1968)

Again it must pointed out that Sheed has in mind here matters of Church discipline and the consequences of its moral teaching. Nevertheless, it is even more apt for those who deny magisterial and dogmatic teachings of the Church. But the principle is clear whatever the case: if you think the Church is wrong, you will only ever be vindicated and the Church changed (should either actually be possible) not by leaving the Church, not by disobedience to her, but by humbly suffering what you see as injustice. That is what “works for its renewal”. And if you are wrong, as chances are you might be, then you have the merit of obedience to your credit. Why is such suffering obedience so crucial? (Think about that word – it comes from crux, “cross”.) Because Christ could have achieved nothing without his own obedience.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:21

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.     Philippians 2:8

Has the universe known a greater injustice than that worked on Christ by humanity? Yet he endured it, though he was indisputably in the right. How much more, then, should we, so rarely right, endure our petty little sufferings for his sake.

dali Christ

As St John the Baptist so profoundly taught about Christ,

He must increase, but I must decrease.  John 3:30

Until we fully grasp these truths, I suspect we can never fully be Christians.

Pax.

Benedictine Vocations Today

This week the quadrennial Congress of Benedictine Abbots concluded in Rome. Not much has filtered back to us in the ranks thus far, other than that the Abbot Primate, Notker Wolf, was re-elected to serve a third term in office.

The Catholic News Service has produced a short video made during the congress. It deals with vocations to the order, highlighting the attraction that tradition has for the young men today who are discerning vocation. Though not a Benedictine in the sense of being a black monk, Michael Casey, a wise Australian monk and spiritual guide from the Trappist Cistercian abbey of Tarrawarra, who also follow the Rule of St Benedict, offers some insightful reflection  on today’s vocation discerners.

Fr Michael baulks at the label “conservative” usually attached to them (among some more barbed ones!). Instead he says that this generation is not as conservative as many make them out to be. He calls them “adventurous”, people who are “looking for something which they weren’t finding in the world that the previous generation constructed”. They have, he says, “gone up into the attic” and “discovered new ways of doing things”, such as Eucharistic devotion, pilgrimages, confession, things which are “very exciting for them, and they think they have discovered them” (said with a wry smile). All this, he says, does not reflect “a kind of grim return to the past … but a very light and joyful discovery that here’s something that’s been lying, gathering the dust for so many years, and it still has a value to us”.

He seems to have read the signs of the times, and he highlights that far from being a generation of “young fogeys”, the discerners of today have made the wonderful discovery that what satisfies their souls and their ideals was to be found all the time in the treasury of the Church’s tradition and teaching. Thank God they have found it; forgive us, Lord, that we have allowed it to be hidden for so long. The vocations prayer of any monastery, indeed any congregation or diocese, should seek not only new vocations to be sent to them, but that they might deserve those vocations.

Almighty God, who called St Benedict from the midst of an inconstant world to hold fast to You in the school of Your service through prayer and work; mercifully grant that we might be worthy to welcome more young men and women to learn, under St Benedict’s instruction, to prefer nothing to the work of God in the service of the Church, that You might be glorified and the world sanctified. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Urinals and vocation

Two resources for vocation discernment have come into my ken the last few days, and both are well worth sharing.

"Choosing the Right Urinal" Micro BookKyle Heimann is a young married American musician, graphic designer and father, among other things, who has an almost Australian cheekiness. He is just released a micro-book, Choosing the Right Urinal, as a help to discerning a vocation. He finds, as you might have guessed, that a “restroom” can provide more than one metaphor for vocational discernment and indeed for the spiritual side of life in general. It takes no time to read, bears re-reading and reflection, asks some very good questions, makes some very sound recommendations, and it’s free online!

One word of warning: it is a very blokey book. It is written by a man very much from a man’s point of view and experience – the very title gives that away. Nevertheless, women should not feel that they cannot read it with profit. Its principles are universal. But there is no allowance made for feminine delicacy. No blushing please.

The second resource derives from a document given to me by Fr Christopher Jamison OSB of the UK National Vocations Office. It is short essay entitled Vocation Discernment: Three Approaches. The author, Joseph Bolin, examines the insights of St Thomas Aquinas, St Ignatius Loyola and Pope John Paul II and uses them to refocus vocational discernment from “What do I want to do?” to “What am I meant to do?”. The unifying thread is the love of God, both our love for God and God’s love for us. Lest it appear to be rather too theological, I can assure you it is quite readable and accessible. Indeed Bolin gives some excellent practical insights into the marks and signs of a vocation which are eminently sensible and sound.

Some online searching has led me to the website of the author, Joseph Bolin. He is a theologian and now also a seminarian in Vienna. So you can read the article I was given here, though it is actually a summary of a larger work of his, Paths of Love, on vocational discernment which you can read here. His website is excellent and full of resources for those still considering a vocation to religious or priestly life, though the principles apply to the discernment of any vocation. Look through it at your leisure.

And not to forget – HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY!

 

 

UPDATE  2 July 2012 – Joseph Bolin, currently with us for a conference on vocation, is a seminarian no longer. He was ordained by the cardinal in Vienna last week. Auguri, Padre! as the Italians would say. And of course, ad multos annos.

The Pope speaks to consecrated religious

On Friday Pope Benedict addressed the assembly in Rome of the superiors of religious orders and congregations. The full address at the moment is only available on the Vatican website in Italian – the English version normally takes a few days to be released.

The Holy Father reminded the assembled superiors that all renewal in religious life must be based on the Word of God, which is central to the religious life. The living out of the Gospel “every day is what makes the consecrated life intriguing and beautiful”. To provide a true and reliable option for Christians in modern society, consecrated men and women must meet the primary expectation that both world and Church have of them: “to be a living Gospel”.

One aspect of this living out of the Gospel the Pope highlights is fraternity. It is the communal life and its spirit of fraternity that attract young people, and it is the living of community life in a fraternal spirit that is “an important prophetic element you offer to a highly fragmented society”. In a world increasingly individualistic and even selfish, the consecrated religious is called to live a life in community that embodies the Gospel values of mutual service and self-sacrifice. In so doing the religious community, be it apostolic and active, or contemplative and monastic, becomes an icon of the universal Church living in obedience to Christ’s great commandments to love God and our neighbour. By implication, a community that lacks this fraternal and communal spirit, this fidelity to the Gospel in daily life, is one that will not meet the needs of either the contemporary Church or the world.

To avoid this, the Pope reminded the superiors of the need “for serious and constant discernment in order to listen to what the Spirit is telling the community, in order to recognise what comes from the Lord and what is contrary to Him”. It is very easy for a community or a congregation to be so fixated on its own agenda and its own self-chosen set of priorities that it fails to meet the most pressing needs of the Church and world, which are primarily spiritual and moral needs. When a community thus serves itself rather than the Lord who speaks and acts through the Church in the contemporary world then it will not attract others to its life. Therefore, “without discernment, accompanied by prayer and reflection, consecrated life risks basing itself on the criteria of this world: individualism, consumerism, materialism; criteria that undermine fraternity and cause consecrated life to lose its allure”.

Which brought the Holy Father to the concept of mission. Mission is essential to the consecrated life and always involves a mandate “to bring the Gospel to everyone, without borders”. Such an openness to encountering the world will only be fruitful if it is “supported by a strong experience of God, solid formation and fraternal life in the community”. Without these elements, the products of prayer, study and fraternity, the religious community risks being shaped by the world rather than itself shaping the world. A religious community that ruins to a worldly agenda is a failed community. Perhaps here lies part of the reason for the decline in religious life in Europe and the West.

For all its decline, religious life is a constant in the life of the Church: “the difficulties must not make us forget that consecrated life has its origins in the Lord; chosen by Him for the edification and sanctity of His Church. Thus consecrated life ‘will never be lacking’ in the Church”. While particular communities and congregations may pass away, either because they no longer serve a pressing need in the Church in the world or because they have strayed from the essentials of their vocation, the consecrated life will remain a God-given factor in the life of the Church. The consecrated life, be it active or contemplative, always links the spiritual welfare of its members to the service of the Church. Where that service is lacking or mis-directed, the consecrated life becomes sterile and doomed to die.

The Pope has effectively given the religious superiors a particular and pressing task: to discern afresh the role of religious communities in serving the Church. What are the needs that religious are called to meet? Pope Benedict has given us many clues over the last few years:

  • to restore worship as the central activity of the Church, worship offered not only for the Church but also on behalf of all the world;
  • to counteract the increasing materialism, rationalism, atheism and individualism of the modern world by preaching, in word and in action, the reality of God and the primacy in healthy human existence of God’s universal call to self-sacrificial love;
  • to bear witness to the centrality of the Church, not only in the life of Christians but also in that of the world; and
  • to promote the dignity of all human life, from conception to the grave, and beyond.

For those who are considering religious or monastic life, you will probably need to ask yourselves two questions: (1) does this describe the sort of life to which you are attracted and to which you may therefore be called; and, (2) in which community or monastery, given your personal gifts and strengths, will you best fulfill God’s call to you?

Eternity

If you have not yet been to Mass, or have forgotten the readings for today’s Mass, then read them again, in particular the first reading from the prophecy of Habakkuk, and the gospel from St Luke.

One thread running between the two readings is the need to keep before our eyes the big picture, the fuller perspective within which the events of our lives play themselves out. If we refrain from reacting rashly and have faith in God’s will for our ultimate good then we can go about our lives with some degree of contentment. Faith, even in the midst of the most bitter trials, is the key to rising above our trials and not wilting beneath their weight. Faith gives us access to the big picture in which our lives are a scene among many. The big picture is eternity.

Stace caught in the act for the only time

In Sydney, Australia, one man’s mission for almost 40 years was reminding people, in the simplest of ways, of the reality of eternity. From the early 1930s to the 1960s the word “Eternity” would mysteriously appear overnight on Sydney’s footpaths, chalked in an elegant script. Over more than 35 years the word appeared almost 500,000 times on the streets of Sydney. The identity of the one responsible was unknown and became the subject of urban legend. The Sydney city council even sought to prosecute him for defacing the public footpaths. Yet it was not until 1963 that he was caught in the act by a photographer. But after 1967 there would be no more chalked reminders of eternity on the streets of Sydney. The writer had died.

An example of Stace's handiwork

The apostle of eternity was a man named Arthur Stace. Up to 1930 he had been an alcoholic and petty criminal. In 1930 he was converted to Christianity after hearing a sermon at St Barnabas’ church, in Broadway, inner Sydney. From this day he gave up drinking and crime. Not long after his conversion he heard a sermon in which the preacher exclaimed, according to one account, “Eternity! Eternity! I wish I could shout ‘Eternity’ through the streets of Sydney!” The words echoed in his head and he felt a call to do just what the preacher desired – to emblazon “Eternity” across the streets of Sydney, and so after the service he bent down and wrote the word on the pavement for the first of many more times. Remarkably Arthur was illiterate and could barely write his Christian name legibly, yet he wrote the word “Eternity” with the most elegant and consistent script, a phenomenon he could never explain. Several times he tried to expand his repertoire of messages, but they never lasted and he always returned to “Eternity”. It was truly his vocation to write that one word.

Arthur Stace’s life was one little life among millions that formed a part of the big picture that is eternity. Converted to Christianity from poverty, alcohol abuse and petty crime, he proved that it does not require great gifts of mind to grasp the reality of eternity which gives meaning and purpose to our lives, and within which our lives will be judged. A simple man with few skills, nevertheless he has left an enduring impact on a city of millions. On the eve of the Millennium in Sydney, his famous word in its classic script were lit up on the side of the Harbour Bridge.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, 31/12/1999

Perhaps we might spend a minute considering to what extent we live our lives with an eye on the bigger picture of eternity. After all, Arthur Stace spent more than 35 years pondering and proclaiming this mysterious truth of our existence.

On one of the few occasions that Arthur wrote something other than “Eternity”, he showed that he was not without a sense of humour:

Arthur is Jesus’ brother and is the poor devil who cops the lot.

The Pope’s message to the young people of Britain

During his state visit to Britain a few weeks back, the Pope addressed young people of Mass at Westminster Cathedral. The full text of that speech can be found here.

The Holy Father began by reminding young people that we were all made by God to receive love. Pope Benedict is very much the Pope of love: from his first encyclical Deus caritas est (“God is love”), he has consistently looked at matters through the lens of love. It is not romantic love that he is referring to, nor any sentimental niceness or indulgence towards others. Rather he speaks of receiving the love that is God the Trinity, which is itself a community of love so perfect that it makes one God of three Persons. The love that is God is a love that bears fruit in unity among people, and also within an individual, as body and soul live in increasing harmony in living out God’s will.

This means our reception of God’s love must have an impact on our lives, must bear fruit in our conduct. If we are truly to live by God’s will then we must live by his commandments, and Christ himself taught us the greatest commandments, which are a summary of all the others:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

[Matt 22:36-40]

In other words, having received love we are called by God to share that love with those around us. This is not always easy, and indeed it often requires great sacrifice and commitment, as well as the help of God’s grace which we receive abundantly if we ask for it. The Pope told the young people that,

Every day we have to choose to love and this requires help. The help that comes from Christ, from the wisdom found in his Word. And from the grace which he bestows us in the sacraments of his Church. This is the message I want to share with you today. I ask you to look into your hearts, each day, to find the source of all true love. Jesus is always there, quietly waiting for us to be still with him and to hear his voice. Deep within your heart, he is calling you to spend time with him in prayer, but this kind of prayer, real prayer, requires discipline.

Thus prayer is the nourishment of our ability to share God’s love, and so the nourishment of our obedience to God’s will. By means of prayer, especially as empowered by the sacraments, we find the strength to do what we could not hope to do of our own power, and we God’s word addressed to us personally:

It requires time for moments of silence every day. Often it means waiting for the Lord to speak.

Even amidst the business and stress of our daily lives we need to make space for silence, because it is in silence that we find God. And in silence that we discover our true self.

Through the discipline of prayer, itself a true commitment to loving God, God our Creator, who made us for his own particular purpose, not only reveals himself to us, but also reveals to us our true identity as persons made in his image and likeness. In discovering who we truly are, we discover also what God is calling us to do with our lives. Here we find the Holy Father’s fundamental point:

And in discovering our true self we discover the particular vocation which God has given us for the building up of his Church and the redemption of our world. Heart speaks unto heart. With these words from my heart, dear young friends, I assure you of my prayers for you.

So if you are discerning what God is calling you to do with your lives, the Pope is calling you first to pray, to develop a living and active relationship with the Lord. Intimate and personal knowledge of God is the key to knowledge of yourself and your particular mission in this life. In quoting Blessed John Henry Newman’s motto, heart speaks unto heart (Cor ad cor loquitur), perhaps Pope Benedict is subtly inviting you to place your vocational discernment under the special patronage of the holy cardinal, who wrote so eloquently of each individual’s worth to the world and before God.

Blessed John Henry Newman – pray for us!

P.S. Today is the feast of St Therèse of the Child Jesus.  Perhaps she also is a good patron for those, especially the young, discerning a vocation. She died aged, yet in her short life she managed to develop, through prayer fed by the sacraments,  a profound knowledge of God and fidelity to him in the smallest details of life. Though a nun cloistered in silence, her heart went out in love and concern to the mission lands and to all those who had yet to hear of God and his love for them. It was for this missionary task that she devoted so much of her prayer. As Pope Benedict reminded young people that at the heart of any vocation, central to the basic Christian vocation, is the call to share the knowledge and reality of God’s love for humanity, you might also ask the intercession of St Therèse if you are discerning a vocation, that in the cloister of your heart you might hear the call of God.

St Therèse of the Child Jesus – pray for us!