With the dwindling number of entries into seminaries and novitiates, we naturally ask, "What happened?" And we are inclined to put the blame where it does not belong, on a lack of vocations. It is high time we took a hard look at the facts and draw some obvious, even though painful, conclusions.
In theological language a vocation comes from Christ. He calls some people to follow Him in the priesthood or consecrated life by giving them the graces they need to recognize this call, respond to it, and remain faithful for a lifetime to the special call they have received.
A vocation, therefore, is the grace of invitation. But, like the rich, young man in the Gospel, those who receive the grace may refuse even to accept the invitation; or, like Peter, may struggle for a long time before they fully surrender to Christ; or like Judas, they may be seduced by what the world offers them and betray the master whom they had known and for a time had followed.
When the grace of vocation is freely accepted and generously lived out, this is commitment. Vocations come from God's free choice of certain individuals; commitment comes from our free choice to cooperate with the graces received. Without a vocation, there would be lacking the necessary grace; without a commitment the grace would remain sterile and bear no fruit in the spiritual or apostolic life.
We return to where we began and repeat the question, "What happened? " Why the drastic fall in the number of stable priests and religious in affluent countries like the U.S.? We dare not say that God has been wanting in His gift of vocations. We must say that men and women have been wanting in their commitment.
What we are facing today is a massive failure in every state of life to make a lifetime commitment. And though the phenomenon is familiar from the dawn of Christianity, it has reached an all time low in the present century. Where? wherever Christ and His teaching are dismissed as antiquated mythology.
Chesterton once wrote an essay on "A Defense of Rash Vows " that beautifully describes the modern situation. He explains how modern rejection of vows has tragically affected the historic commitment set down by Christ for the sacrament of marriage. The quotation from Chesterton is long but worth giving -- and remembering:
"The revolt against vows has been earned in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words -- 'free love' -- as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind oneself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favored grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants."
Until we rediscover the true meaning of love, which gives itself -- sells itself, if you will -- to the one it claims to love, we shall continue trying to promote vocations. But the real need, is to promote commitment. Priests and religious, no less than married people, must be taught and trained in the true meaning of love.
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