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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Why are so many of us misled on religious vocations?"

From the Irish Times
By Paddy O'Meara


I WAS with a small group of students preparing for Mass – the final part of their school retreat. A girl mentioned, in a casual way, that her grand-aunt, then 80, had joined a religious order at the age of 17 and spent the remainder of her life in a convent.

One lad was astonished by this. The idea that someone would make such a choice as a teenager and go on to spend the rest of her days with a religious order was incomprehensible.

“You can have faith,” he said, “but that’s taking things to extremes.”

Others got involved in the discussion, but it was impossible to convince the young man that a religious vocation had merit and could bring contentment.

“You couldn’t get drunk or have sex” was his clinching argument for believing that there was something very strange about a person deciding to make a lifelong commitment to religious life.

The following Sunday, a priest in our local parish gave an inspiring sermon on vocation to the priesthood. There was no doubt about how privileged this man felt to be a priest.

He mentioned notable achievements of his life that most would be proud to have on a CV, but none of these, he said, came anyway close to the joy, reward and fulfilment he experienced as a priest.

Nor did he evade the issue of loneliness. It can be lonely at times, he admitted, but that is not unique to priesthood.

Each of us experiences that emotion – it is part of the human condition: married or single, those who yearn to be married and those whose marriages have ended, because of death or separation.

Sitting in my pew, it was encouraging to hear such a positive sermon on the priesthood and I began to realise that I had swallowed a great big lie about the lonely, disheartened priest, struggling with an ever- increasing workload.

The vast majority of priests I know don’t fit that description. In fact they are the very opposite: good-humoured, outgoing and enthusiastic about life. It was puzzling to understand why and how I had bought into the caricature.

Recent surveys have indicated that clergy are far more contented in their careers compared with other professions and a very big percentage would choose priesthood if they were to live life over again. This however is not how clergy are seen in 2009.

Listening to that priest, I began to understand part of the reason for the high level of satisfaction. He mentioned some of the “peak moments” of his ministry: comforting and praying with those in the final stages of life; supporting those battling with illness; being with families as they joyfully celebrate baptisms and weddings.

But back to that student who could not comprehend someone opting for religious life . . . after two days spent with him and his peers, what was disturbing was the frightening degree of unhappiness among some.

In most cases the problems were caused by misusing drink or drugs or a lack of respect for self and others in relationships. For others the source of pain was in the family. Parents were addicted to alcohol and then there was marriage breakdown or family disharmony. If these students and their parents are the “liberated generation”, then this liberation is not delivering happiness.

Various reasons are suggested for the decline in vocations to the religious life. A factor must be the lack of encouragement for the person considering “the road less travelled”.

Some parents actively discourage a son thinking about the priesthood from pursuing that path. They seem to believe that would amount to him signing up for a lonely, isolated life.

And still, despite the growing number of marriages ending in separation or divorce, romantic love and marriage are considered to be the high road to lifelong happiness.

By comparison, a religious vocation is considered as a risky choice, with hardship and loneliness almost assured. All of which ignores the data and research available on both vocations. Why has this lie such force and persistence? Why are so many of us misled?

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