The three approaches that I would indicate are: holiness, as a calling that gives meaning to one’s entire life journey; communion as the fertile soil for vocations in the Church and vocation itself, as a keyword to be preserved and “conjugated” with others – “happiness”, “freedom” and “together” – and finally “declined” as special consecration.
Talking about vocation always leads to thinking of young people, since “youth is the privileged season for life choices and for responding to God’s call” (Final Document of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, 140). True as this is, we must not forget that vocation is a life-long journey. Certainly it has to do with the years of youth in terms of the overall direction we choose to take in response to God’s invitation, but it also has to do with the years of adulthood in terms of its fruitfulness and our discernment of how best to do good. Our life is meant to bear fruit in charity, and this entails the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to everyone, each in his or her own way (cf. Gaudete et Exsultate, 10-11). Very often we have tended to look upon vocation as a personal adventure, thinking that it is only about “me” and not, above all, about “us”. The fact is that “no one is saved alone”; rather, we become saints together (cf. ibid., 6). The life of each is bound up in the life of others, and we need to cultivate holiness that belongs to us as a people.
Pastoral care has to be synodal; it should involve a “journeying together” (cf. Christus Vivit, 206). Synodality is the daughter of communion. It is about living ever more fully our filiation and fraternity, fostering mutual respect, valuing the richness of each individual and believing that the Risen Lord can also work wonders through the pain and frailty that are part of everyone’s life. The Church’s communion will give rise to new vocations. Often in our communities, families and presbyterates, we have thought and acted according to worldly mentalities that have caused division and separation. That is part of today’s culture, and the tormented political history of Europe can serve as a warning and an incentive. Only by acknowledging ourselves truly as communities that are open, alive and inclusive, will we be prepared to face the future. This in fact is what young people are thirsting for.
The word “vocation” is not outmoded. We used it again at every phase of the most recent Synod. But it has to be seen in the context of the entire people of God, our preaching and catechesis, and above all our personal encounters with others, for these are the first step in our proclamation of the Gospel. I know of some communities that have decided to stop using the word “vocation” in their work with the young, because they think that young people get scared by it and may be reluctant to join in their activities. But this is a strategy doomed to failure: striking the word “vocation” from the lexicon of faith is to disfigure that word and to run the risk, sooner or later, of our no longer being understood. What we need are men and women, laity and consecrated people who are passionate, set afire by their encounter with God, redeemed in their humanity, and capable of proclaiming in their lives the happiness born of their vocation.
Happiness – our being signs of joy – is not something that can be taken for granted. Indeed, it is a burning issue nowadays, when the “goddess of lament” has so many followers and people content themselves with fleeting joys. Real happiness is something far more profound; it remains long after the joy or the enthusiasm of the moment vanish, even during times of hardship, sorrow, discouragement and disappointment. Happiness remains because it is Jesus himself, whose friendship always endures. As Pope Benedict said: “Ultimately we want only one thing – ‘the blessed life’ – the life that is simply life, simply ‘happiness’” (Spe Salvi, 11). Some approaches to youth and vocations ministry confuse the happiness that is Jesus with a purely emotional joy, and speak of vocation as full of light and beauty. This is not healthy, for as soon as one comes into contact with the suffering flesh of humanity – one’s own or that of others – that kind of joy fades. Others suggest that discerning one’s vocation or making progress in the spiritual life is a matter of techniques, of detailed exercises or rules to be followed. Life that God offers us is “an invitation to be part of a love story interwoven with our personal stories” (Christus Vivit, 252).
It is true that the word “vocation” can frighten young people, because it has often been confused with something that takes away our freedom. God, however, fully respects the freedom of each person (cf. ibid., 113). We need to remember this, especially when our personal or communal methods of accompaniment can lead to forms of dependence or, worse, of domineering. This is quite serious because it hinders young people from maturing in freedom; it keeps them in a kind of infantile state. Vocations are discerned starting with reality, pondering the word of God, one’s own life history and the dreams that can lead to decisions. Then, at a certain point, we come to realize that our own deepest desires coincide with what it is that God wants of us. From our amazement at this, our freedom is drawn to a magnificent decision of love, while our will expands to collect and channel in a single direction all our vital energy.
A vocation – as I have said – is never just “mine”. “True dreams are dreams about ‘us’”. No one can make a life decision alone; vocation is always for, and with, others. I think that we should reflect more on these “dreams about us”, because they have to do with the vocation of our communities of consecrated life, our presbyterates, our parishes and our ecclesial groups. The Lord never calls us simply as individuals, but always within a community, to share his loving plan, which is plural from the outset because he himself is plural, a Trinity of love. I find it very helpful to think of vocation from this point of view. Especially because it provides a shared missionary outlook, and then because it revives our awareness that, in the Church, nothing is accomplished alone. We are part of a long history directed to the goal of participation by all. Pastoral care for vocations must not be the task merely of a few leaders, but of the entire community: “every form of pastoral care, formation and spirituality should be seen in the light of our Christian vocation” (Christus Vivit, 254).
Vocations to special consecration
“If we are indeed convinced that the Holy Spirit continues to inspire vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life, we can ‘once more cast out the nets’ in the Lord’s name, with complete confidence” (ibid., 274).
I think of all those communities of consecrated life that form a great network of charitable works and of mission. I think of the monastic life, in which the roots of Europe are planted; it continues to attract many vocations, particularly among women, and it needs to be preserved, cultivated and helped to express its true identity as a school of prayer and fellowship. I think too of parishes, working on the ground and filled with evangelical potential for our time. And I think of the whole-hearted commitment of countless priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, and bishops “who daily devote themselves with integrity and dedication to the service of the young. Their efforts are like a great forest that quietly grows”.
Do not be afraid to take up the challenge of continuing to proclaim the vocation to consecrated life and to ordained ministry. The Church needs this! And when young people encounter consecrated men and women who are credible, not because they are perfect but because their lives have been changed by an encounter with the Lord, they will have a taste of a different kind of life, and raise the question of their personal vocation. “The Church draws the attention of young people by being rooted in Jesus Christ. Christ is the truth that makes the Church different from any other world group with which we may identify”.
Today life everywhere is fragmented and at times wounded; the life of the Church is no less so. Being rooted in Christ is the surest way to let him restore our wholeness. The work of accompanying and forming vocations is a way of sharing in the handiwork of Christ, who came to bring good news to the poor, to bind the wounds of broken hearts, to proclaim freedom to those in bondage and sight to the blind (cf. Lk 4:18). Take heart, then! Christ wants us to be alive!
The text is modified from the address of His Holiness Pope Francis to participants of the Congress for the pastoral care of vocations in Europe, June 2019 in Rome.