We have been talking a lot about vocations. At the risk of having you dear reader turn the page at
another boring attempt to speak about something that does not seem important, I want to try to convince you that the number and quality of vocations to Church service is of vital importance to you and your family. It is not just another religious topic that has no bearing on daily life. It is a topic of the utmost urgency. It is hard to see the importance of Priests and those in Consecrated Life because we live in a democratic culture where everyone is equal under the law. This means that no one is especially endowed with a qualitative difference. This goes hand in hand with a Protestant culture (the majority of our American Christian population and the faith of our founding fathers) suspicious of titles, ranks and special privileges. “Call no one on earth your Teacher for there is only one Teacher: the Messiah and the rest are learners”. When Luther, Calvin and the other Protestant reformers rejected the Papacy, the Priesthood, the monastic and consecrated life of Religious Orders, they were working out of the aforementioned principle of radical equality under the New Law of Christ.
So we elect a President and do not consecrate one. He lives in a (White) House and not a Palace.
So one of the consequences of this radical equality is that we think we can do it very nicely by ourselves. Why do we need a priest? Or people in religious orders? It seems we are subscribing to a two tiered view of human dignity. The ‘Special Ones’ and the rest of us. This is of course an over simplification but it does reveal what the reformers were trying to get rid of. It comes to a head when we speak of confessing our sins to a priest.
But Catholic theology always saw that within equality of human dignity there is a needed and divinely inspired separation of roles within the body. Those who have a religious vocation are called to a more public form of ministry as an image and teaching for the rest of us so that we may see lived out in public what each of us should try to live in private.
So, for instance, religious are called to the vow of poverty or what we would refer to today as simplicity of lifestyle. But, is it not a good thing if everyone adopted simplicity as a value in how they live with all accompanying benefits (e.g. more to share with the poor). So religious are the public example of what every Christian should aspire to.
In addition, the different roles assigned in the proper functioning of the Body of Christ (the Church) was admirably described by St. Paul in his letters. The image of the body and its differentiation of function (Could everyone be an ear?) is a powerful and clear way of putting it.
These living ‘stained glass windows’ of instruction are essential to the body. But in the priesthood they also are important in a purely functional way.
We are a sacramental church. The Church expresses Herself primarily through the 7 living encounters with Christ that we call sacraments and the Orthodox call mysteries. Only a priest can forgive sins. But what if there is no priest? No priest means no Eucharist. No Eucharist means no Church. Then where are we? You see how essential the Priesthood is to the very existence of the Church? Equality does not mean everyone has the same role in the Body of Christ.
So Priests, to take one example, are essential to the life of the Church.
I read about one example of what happened in a small Latin American town where everyone was
Catholic but they had no priest. Catechists baptized and taught the faith and many devotions, i.e. the Rosary.
But a priest could only come once every 3 or 4 months. So when he came he had long lines of people for confession, group marriages to perform etc. He left a few days later exhausted and repeated the same scenario in the next village.
This went on for many years until a Protestant Church targeted the village for evangelization. With a lot of money from the US they built a Church, a medical dispensary, and sent a minister and his wife to be the preachers in the community. Only a priest can consecrate bread and wine into the living presence of the incarnate Lord.
They gave out Bibles and began to baptize, counsel and offer Worship Services every Sunday to the great delight of the people in the town. They trained some men to be ministers (all married) and sent them off for instruction to the States. When they returned they eventually took over the Church and the American couple moved on to repeat this process in another village.
All of this happened because there was no priest for the Village to answer to their spiritual needs especially in administering the sacraments.
The same is happening in the US and the Developed nations of Western Europe, only they just drift away to a non-Christian Secularism or to a vibrant and robust Islam. Nor is importing priests the answer. A native clergy that comes from the people has always been the aim of the future Church. We, in the West, are going in the wrong direction: away from a native clergy.
The vocation problem in the Church is not a minor issue. It is the issue. Until we recognize this, we are condemned to keep going down the slippery slope. A vibrant faith-filled church will produce vocations. In fact, they are the proof of true vibrancy. But many of us just don’t seem to be interested.
The dangerous fire is not yet visible. It is deep in the hull of the ship. But like all fires deep in the insides of a ship, it will have devastating consequences not in our life time, perhaps, but certainly in the lives of our children.
We need to begin in earnest to pray for vocations and to live our life of faith in the community of the Church with the highest priority. For the Church we produce today with our prayer and moral standing will be the Church of the future that will produce the vocations to Priesthood and Consecrated Life that we need so desperately. For God give vocations in the measure that the Church has earned them by a radically holy life.