Everybody has a vocation, a call to service within the Church, not just those in ordained ministry or consecrated life.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, which we celebrate on May 8 this year, is also the “World Day of Prayer for Vocations“.
This year is the 59th such “Vocations Sunday” — as it’s called in many places — and Pope Francis has issued a letter for the occasion titled, “Called to Build the Human Family“.
Traditionally (i.e. for the last 59 years!) we have presented this Sunday as a time to talk about the need for more young (and not so young) men to consider joining the seminary and preparing for ordination as presbyters.
It might be called the liturgical equivalent of an annual recruitment drive. The message is simple: we need presbyters in the Church; there is a shortage; so let’s pray that more young men will (a) think about this as a life choice, and (b) set out to follow it up.
The rationale for having this theme on Sunday seems self-evident: there is a shortage of clergy, so let us combine prayer with some recruitment activity.
But maybe this logic is incomplete – or even missing the point.
As the pope says in his message, “The word ‘vocation’ should not be understood restrictively, as referring simply to those who follow the Lord through a life of special consecration. All of us are called to share in Christ’s mission to reunite a fragmented humanity and to reconcile it with God.”
And so, as we continue preparing for the Synod of Bishops’ upcoming assembly on Synodality, in addition to having a recruitment campaign, it might be just as valuable to ask some probing questions about why there is a shortage of presbyters.
We live in communities
During the pandemic many people discovered – maybe for the first time – that we live in communities: we need and depend on others.
Some people made a basic moral discovery: we are responsible for one another. There are things that I do that can damage you, and there are things that you do that may damage others.
Every act — even something as simple as keeping 2 meters apart when shopping — is part of a moral universe. Morality is not about following rules laid down by the Church, but a matter of being responsible within the group in which I live.
Discovering this responsibility to the community is part of discovering our own humanity – and what each of us is called to do.
This is vocation in the deep sense. And a basic task of every pastor – those intended to help their sisters and brothers along the way – is to foster and affirm such a vocational discovery.
This basic human discovery takes on an explicitly religious dimension when each of us discovers a sense of belonging within a covenant as a community. We are more than just a group with a sense of common values – we are a community, a people, the People of God.
Being part of this covenant, we are called to a moral lifestyle of acting with the same love for others that we have for ourselves (Mk 12:31), and that implies that we have to look out for one another.
Christianity is the opposite of an ethical individualism.
A world up-side-down
Perhaps the greatest discovery about vocation is that capitalism’s values cut right through the Christian view of life as vocation. The sense of vocation is the belief that we are called to exercise our skills for the building up of the whole people. But it is easy to slip into a view of human values that is at odds with this sense of vocation.
It happens when we slip into the view that human importance is derived from earning potential. The value we give to a job is a direct consequence of the amount of salary that it can attract.
In this view, the more I can generate income, the more I am worth in salary, and so the more I am worth in the economy, and so the more significant I am. It seems so logical that we do not question it.
It is only when something goes seriously wrong that we realize that is not the whole human story.
At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak many realized that nurses (and nursing is often seen as a demeaning job because it involves service to others) can make the difference between life and death. Then we saw that this is what is really valuable, rather than the ability to generate cash. Have we forgotten this lesson already?
We also discovered that we need those who empty garbage bins, drive delivery trucks, and do a hundred other humdrum jobs.
But I am not a dreamer who imagines that this realization will last deep down. Capitalism has been too successful over the centuries at bringing material progress (despite its costs) for it to be abandoned now!
Who is Numero Uno?
But neither am I a cynic. We can make deep discoveries about life and about vocation. And, when we discover what vocation means, we often see it involves an inversion in our values.
This turning the world up-side-down often mirrors the inversion of values that is part of the Jesus vision. When this happens, then we not only read this account of an early Christian dispute, but actually hear it:
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (Lk 22,24).
Modelling service, modelling vocation
We could also take notice that for John the Evangelist, the main happening in his Last Supper narrative is about mutual service. Jesus – the Lord and the teacher – takes on the task of a lowest female house slave and washes their feet. This is an inversion of the world values, gender roles, and social order.
Needless to say it was controversial – Peter wanted nothing to do with it – and it has remained so: it is the ritual most frequently dropped from the liturgy!
But it was not optional for Jesus and he did not intend it to be optional for any of us who call ourselves disciples. It was not a display of humility (“the big boss being nice to little people”) as it is often caricatured in our liturgy, but a display of the world of Christian relationship.
Moreover, Jesus did not tell those there to wash the followers’ feet. Rather, each person who wants to belong to Jesus and “have a share in him” should wash the feet of others. They were to become a community of service to one another.
But here’s the problem: a vision of mutual service does not really dovetail with a notion of hierarchy.
We wash each other’s feet!
If we want to understand vocation – as a reality and not as a recruitment drive for clergy – we need to really hear this challenging vision of discipleship:
And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them (Jn 13, 3-17).
If this mutual washing ever really took hold, we would have an image of a synodal Church.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is referred to as “Vocations Sunday” because of the link between the shepherd/flock imagery from Jn 10 – this chapter supplies the gospel in all three years of the lectionary: Year A has 10,1-10; Year B has 10, 11-18; and Year C (this year) has 10,27-30 – and the pastor image used by clergy.
But I believe that “Vocations Sunday” is a misnomer. It should actually be called “Recruitment Sunday”.
Calling it “Vocations Sunday” when the aim is to pray for more unmarried men to volunteer to be presbyters (in most places we never even think about women religious or religious brothers) has two effects.
First, we think that a vocation is equivalent to becoming a full-time religious person: someone who takes on all that is associated with the word “priest”. How often have I heard a man say, “I have no vocation”, when what he really meant is that he did not want to be a cleric.
Second, it forgets that every formal ministry – such as that of being a presbyter – is but a part of an individual Christian’s vocation.
Let’s try to unravel this.
Every Christian has a vocation – it is wrapped up in the particularity of your life. You see the need there in front of you, you know what can be done, and what you can do, and you respond: this is the essence of vocation.
This is constant in that we are always being called to build the kingdom in response to the Spirit’s promptings and empowered for what is needed by the Spirit.
There is no vacation from vocation, but what it calls us to do is ever changing. As we move through the demands of our lives, we are called to use our gifts to build the kingdom of holiness, grace, justice, peace and love.
A skills’ audit
Then there are fixed ministries — skills we need as a Church.
We need those who can read, interpret, and preach. We need people who have the skill to gather a community around them. We need those who can lead people in prayer.
We have to identify people who show these skills, and then help them to develop them and make them better in their tasks.
Instead of recruitment for a special corps of clergy, we should think of finding ministers more in terms of a job-search or skills audit in a community.
If we believe that the Spirit is moving in the community of the baptized, then a “vocations crisis” is nonsense. It is only a crisis of us failing to look, train, and empower. Or maybe – just as in so many other areas of life – we have got it all so confused that we cannot see the wood for the trees.
Our focus on “Vocations Sunday” should not be on clergy recruitment but helping each Christian to see that she/he has a vocation as they respond to needs in their community.
This is a hard process of listening and then there is the challenge of doing. Then later we might find that individuals also have skills in the communities’ worship.
These people would be identified by a process of community discernment (can this person lead prayer, can this person interpret the demands of discipleship for us), rather than by a willingness to accept a priori criteria from a bygone age (e.g. male, celibate, full-time, and willing to belong within a clerical corps).
If we moved to that, then we could really call this Fourth Sunday of Easter Vocations Sunday.
Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International and Thomas O’Loughlin.