The number of people coming forward to discern a vocation to the priesthood and religious life in Ireland is stubbornly low. There is some evidence that when vocation-promotion is prioritised, interest increases. A few years ago, after the Church hosted a ‘Year of Vocations’, Irish dioceses saw the largest number of ordinations in many years. Similarly, religious congregations that have put a lot of energy into vocations ministry usually see their efforts rewarded with a greater number of enquiries from potential recruits.
The hope now is that the new national office for vocations – which was launched earlier this year – will focus energy around initiatives to address what we have become used to calling the vocations crisis.
There’s a deeper issue that also needs to be addressed: the fact that the vocations crisis really has at its heart a crisis of faith.
Let me explain. We could see the vocations crisis in isolation if, for example, a high proportion of young Catholics were attending Mass regularly and engaging with their faith but simply choosing not to consider a life-encompassing religious vocation. But, the fact is, with some exceptions, very few young Irish adults are engaged with their faith. That’s not to say that they are not great people – they usually are. Lively social concern – what we might even call a commitment to Gospel values – is very much part of the lived experience of most young Irish people. But, from the Church’s point of view, they don’t translate this into something which leads to a meaningful relationship with Christ.
So, let’s say one in every 100 young practising Catholics might consider a religious vocation, if the overall number of younger Catholics practising their faith is very low, it follows that vocations will continue to be very low.
This means that the vocations crisis cannot be addressed in isolation. Unless the deeper drift away from the Church amongst young Catholics is addressed, numbers discerning a vocation will always be low. This is why youth ministry must be a priority, and in youth ministry, the key concern should be faith formation – helping young people to develop and nurture a personal relationship with Christ by which they know themselves to be loved and called.
This is not to understand youth ministry solely as a vehicle for promoting vocations to the priesthood or religious life (though we should never shy away from asking young Catholics to consider such a vocation), but more as a way of ensuring that the Church mirrors the wider society.
Only a healthy Church that mirrors the demographics of the wider society will be a place where vocations to the priesthood and religious life can flourish.