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.