No one would dispute that prayers for priestly and religious vocations have been part of lay life for a very long time. Recent times have witnessed an increase in these petitionary prayers as vocations have dwindled. Though tradition has it that God answers our prayers in his own way, it is human to wonder why these long-standing prayers are not being answered.
Those locals who pray diligently for vocations want vocations — that is why people keep praying for them. There are others who want lay life to share something of the leadership power of the priesthood and these people have worked towards that end.
In the eighties, people talked about the exciting possibilities of “priestless parishes” and increasing responsibilities for the laity through parish and diocesan ministry.
This competitiveness within the world of ministry is now ingrained in lay life. Today, there are people who can tell us where our prayers for vocations are going. Apparently, they are being redirected into new lay-led initiatives and organisations. I wonder if those who pray sincerely for vocations to the priesthood and religious life want to think that their prayers are going to some sort of divine mail room, where God is just a postmaster whose work is able to be interpreted correctly by leading lights in the Church.
Petitionary prayers for vocations are part of the tradition of lay life. They arise out of our vocational life. We live this life when we take up the universal call to holiness. It is a call to which lay life is well-suited. Out of our vocational lives, specific vocations arise. The two need to be in communion. When those called out of lay parish life into priestly or religious life give something of their vocational lives back to universal vocational parish life, a connection is made and maintained. Vocations speak to vocations as we nourish each other, keeping vocational soil fertile.
At a grassroots level of lay life, where ordinary mums and dads are getting on with being faithful to Jesus Christ in the Catholic tradition, things grow out of that tradition and give back to that tradition. When we till the soil of lay life, humbly and hopefully our conversion lives take on an evangelical edge. We become God’s tillers taking part in the story of seed and the sower.
Our lives, somewhat unknowingly, receive the seed. Whilst we get on with the business of living, we are nurturing the vocational seed through its cycle of rising and dying.
There is little kudos in this tilling life. It has more the littleness of an offering for the greater good of all the Church. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of the work of our hands, a little bit of a reward. In the ordination of a priest, we see the renunciation of a worldly life, the dying of the self, and the extraordinary life of service for the greater good. Such sacrifice keeps us going, tilling away for the common good of all.
God loves a tiller. And so, as well as praying for vocations, we need to till for vocations because this work is, in itself, a form of prayer, and it helps us to be holy. Pope Francis, when speaking of vocations recently, said of the universal call to holiness, “our life on earth reaches full stature when it becomes an offering”.
We cannot go back to former times. But we can, in a true spirit of lay tradition, accommodate a subtle shift in our perception of vocational life. There are all sorts of ways our lives can become “an offering”, some old, some new. Some will stand out more than others. To accept this, as laity we need to sacrifice our fixation with equality of ministry and begin to appreciate the beauty and godliness of different vocations.
There are two vocations that are important in vocational parish life: the priesthood and motherhood. Both are “an offering” in the vocational sense; the former we still see as an extraordinary example of self-sacrificing life. The latter we pretty much have taken for granted. As Catholics, we accept the life of Mary the Mother of God as extraordinary and we love her. But, at a grassroots level of lay life, the vocation of motherhood has perhaps never been seen as extraordinary — until now.
In a world somewhat dominated by feminism, motherhood is indeed an extraordinary vocation, as much in crisis as the priesthood. Both vocations must be prayed for because they are, in Catholic tradition and in God’s eyes, equally important. In leading us to till, they share equal, yet gloriously different, power.
Sue Jones is a writer from Mahia Beach, New Zealand.
This article was originally published in Issue 573 (September 8 – 21, 2019) of NZ Catholic newspaper.
Republished with permission from NZ Catholic and Sue Jones.