Recently I participated in an International Conference on vocations. It gathered a wide assortment of persons to reflect upon why less people in the Western world are entering the priesthood and consecrated religious life.
It was a wonderful event, filled with prayer, hope, and energy. It was too a time of reflection on strategy: What might we be doing, practically, in terms of attracting more people into priesthood and religious life?
What became clearer as the conference went on is that, in terms of drawing people into a deep religious commitment of any kind, strategy is not what is ultimately at issue. What is? Depth of commitment and sanctity within our own lives.
Simply put: Those of us who profess to be committed need to give our lives over to God in a deep enough way so that we have the right and power to call others to give themselves over in the same way. Only someone who has, without bitterness and too much compromise, given over his or her life in self-sacrifice has the power to ask something similar of another. What this means is that we shouldn’t expect anyone to follow us in faith, in church, or in vocation if we, in our own lives, are half- hearted, self-pitying, bitter, and forever whining. No strategy can compensate for that.
The concept can best be explained by an example. Mother Theresa had great power in drawing young women into her community and in drawing others, both women and men, into a deeper faith and church commitment. She didn’t do this by any clever strategy, nor by any exceptional theology. She did it by the power that was created by the depth, honesty, and joy of her own commitment. She had the power and right to call others because she had given herself over deeply enough. Only someone who has laid down his or her life in self-sacrifice has the right and, more importantly, the power to ask the same thing of another.
This is an important principle of spirit, even if it is only understood at the level of feeling. This is an equation that works under the surface. People have sensitive radar screens and they are forever picking up and knowing things that they are not aware of consciously. Hence others are always looking at us (who profess faith and commitment) and making deep, unconscious (and valid) judgements about us: Has this person really put his or her life on the line? Is he or she at peace with this? How much blood is this person really sweating? Is this about God or about self-interest and self-protection? Is this about God or about some cause (however noble)? Has this person the right to ask me for my life?
There’s often an interesting irony here: At a conscious level, someone might well like us and be attracted to us and what we stand for, even as, at a deeper unconscious level, they (on the basis of our witness) are unwilling to give anything over that costs real life. The reverse can also be true. For example, a lot of people didn’t particularly like Mother Theresa and wouldn’t have picked her as someone they wished as a friend (though they wanted her as a photo opportunity, to write into their curriculum vitae). Yet, personal attraction aside, underneath they were moved so that she could ask for their blood and they would give it. The power to ask for real life and full self-sacrifice depends not upon the attractiveness of my person, nor even on the truth of my causes, but on the depth of my commitment. Only if I have actually given my life over do I have the power to ask the same of someone else.
That’s a scary thought in terms of vocations today. Don’t get me wrong: For the most part, we (clergy, committed laity, vowed religious) are very good-hearted and generous. The problem is that often we are also half-hearted and given over to a self-pity, bitterness, infighting, ideology, and various modes of private compensations that have us claiming back for ourselves too much of what we once vowed to God. We all know, too well, the truth of Michel Quoist’s famous prayer on commitment: “Lord, I gave myself over to you in the fervour of my youth. I’m your priest. But every day the man in me tries to take back what the priest once gave you!”
A couple of years ago, one of our Oblate provincials, in commenting about his struggle in trying to lead and animate a group of priests and brothers through a painful, dispirited time – lawsuits for sexual abuse, departures from religious life, aging personnel, community infighting, lack of people wanting to join our ranks, and the anger of some of those within our ranks – made this remark: “We would need a saint in a time like this!” How true! Our problem is not one of strategy and marketing, but of sanctity.