finds that a new wave of enthusiasm is giving the lie to a vocations 'crisis'
TS THERE a shortage of vocations? Not according to those working on the front line. In the wake of last November's groundbreaking document In Verbo Tuo — New Vocations For a New Europe, people in vocations direction are experiencing a new sense of hope, energy and enthusiasm.
Dioceses across the country are implementing a host of new initiatives, including parish vocations prayer groups, pulpit exchanges, think tanks and enquiry centres. Dozens of new religious websites are opening on the Internet, and are receiving more and more interested "visitors".
"Our job is discernment, not recruitment," said vocations director Sister Gemma Simmons IVBM. A chaplain at Cambridge university for several years, she describes herself as a "small-time operator" in vocations direction, having worked with 24 women and men recently, including counselling people by e-mail as far away as Hungary.
She said: "In my experience there is no vocations crisis. Many people are experiencing a call from God to commitment and service. But there is a crisis of identification and culture. People, particularly women, look around for something that fits the call and they don't see anything in present structures of religious life. We need new models that honour the past and are lived with integrity but accept the realities of post-modern self-awareness.
"I think people are looking for three things: a direct personal encounter with God — the contemplative dimension; community — a sense of connectedness and common purpose; and works of justice and healing — a lifestyle consistent with the Gospel and a modern understanding of global solidarity."
She continued: "The job of a vocations director is to enter into a very deep process of becoming aware of the patterns in a person's life. Sometimes people need to go through this to realise they have not got a religious vocation. Vocation is a calling of people to see their particular gifts of who they are and how they can live their life to the full.
"For me, the religious life is a particular way of living life more abundantly, proclaiming the presence of Christ in the world. As a religious I can have far more impact on the world than I would if I were on my own.
"I am distressed by a certain loss of nerve about vocations work among some religious. There are communities that don't pray for vocations. I know religious who have advised young people not to join, saying the religious life is dead."
Sr Simmons emphatically disagrees with this prognosis, holding that religious life may have to change, but need be no less profound. She said: "I see the future of religious life involving more collaboration between congregations and with lay people. Some expressions have had their day but new life is evolving. New forms of community, lay associate membership, volunteer programmes and temporary commitment programmes are going through a real resurgence. There is a lot of buzz and excitement for the future."
This weekend Westminster considers six men who have applied to be trained for the priesthood. Another eight have already been accepted in the diocese this year. It is a promising start for Westminster's new vocations director Fr Pat Browne. who was appointed by Cardinal Hume last September after eight years serving as parish priest in North London.
He said: "I'm interested in encouraging people to take the long-term view of their lives. Our modern culture tends to just look at the next step, not an overall vision for life. I see my task as a priest to help people stand back and ask the big questions: What am I doing here? What is the purpose of my life? Where am I going? So that when they reach their deathbeds they have no regrets. No sense of an unlived life.
4 1 BELIEVE life is a gift from God. He has a project in mind for
each one of us. The role of a vocations director is to help each person to discover what that project is. I've been given a clear brief not just to concentrate on vocations to the priesthood and religious life but to encourage every person I come across to try to discern what is God's dream for them
— what is the project he has in mind for them. and to accompany them in this process."
Fr Browne said he felt this approach was a far cry from the m ore traditional perception of vocation: "Although it's never been the official teaching of the Church. there is a perception abroad, often unarticulated, that the priesthood or religious life is the Grad A vocation. Second best tc3 those who cannot rise to the, se heights is married life — but those who remain single are really bottom of the pile. NT °thing could be further from t_he truth and at last this is being recognised."