We live in a world where each day seems to reveal new reasons for young people to turn their backs on the institutional Church. The growing legion of “Nones” – those who have walked away from the religious affiliation of their youth – does not bode well for the future of organized religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular. Over 40 percent of Americans under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, and the reasons given for this exodus range from the clergy sex-abuse scandals to not growing up in overtly religious households, but the largest reason given is “I just stopped believing in my religion’s teachings.”
Those of us who feel a close and abiding attachment to our religious communities wonder both what went wrong and, more importantly, what can be done to stem and eventually turn the tide.
Here at Saint Ignatius one course of action being implemented in classrooms throughout this school year is a deliberate effort to pray for vocations – specifically priestly and religious, but also for the married and single life. Through the inspiration and efforts of English teacher Liz Colborn classes are sharing the responsibility of praying for vocations. The goal of this “prayer chain” is that vocations will be the focus for the classes of one teacher per week, and thus during every school day this year over 100 students will be praying for a growth in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, especially among our young men.
When this idea was floated at our opening faculty meeting in August I eagerly signed up to be a part of things, but because of the gap in time between then and now I was not ready for the knock that came to my classroom door on Monday morning. When I opened the door a student gifted me with a chalice – a visible sign of the priestly vocation – and a stack of vocational prayer cards. I am the seventh recipient of these treasures and at the end of the week I will pass them on to Bill Kelley ’62 in the Language Department.
Since Monday was the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux I spoke not only of her vocation as a Carmelite nun, but of the intensity of her call: She personally asked Pope Leo XIII to allow her to enter the monastery at the tender age of 15. Leo’s response to her was, “Well, my child, do what the superiors decide.... You will enter if it is God's Will.” Five months later she left the world behind and lived the rest of her days – a mere nine and a half years – in the Carmel at Lisieux.
Key to this extraordinary encounter with the pope was the phrase “if it is God’s Will.” The call to a specific vocation must always be seen within the providential desire of our Father Who loves us without measure and has given us all of the gifts necessary to live out His plan for us. No one has a “right” to the priesthood or religious life, and the same is true of the married and single states: a call can never be initiated by the one called, it must be initiated by the One Who calls.
So this week I am asking all of my students, young men on the cusp of college, to seriously consider what call God might have for them. In a world growing more secular by the day, this is a request that must seem to their ears alarmingly out of step with the times. To place God at the center of such a life-changing decision seems at best old-fashioned and at worst as relevant as reading tea leaves.
Whether any of my present students will enter the priesthood or religious life I cannot know, but being asked to bring the question of vocation down to the personal level might open them up to the realization that God should be present in every aspect of their lives.
For anyone who might want to add their voices to our petition the vocation prayer is listed below. Maybe through our efforts we can help ensure that none of these young men forsake their Christian vocation.