Ah, the first week of November. Buckets of Halloween candy are still overflowing. Every four years, an election is taking place. Christmas commercials have begun to sneak onto TVs and YouTube ads while families begin to earnestly discuss Thanksgiving plans. And for every youth group goer, the familiar strain of Chris Tomlin’s, “I Will Follow” resounds alongside videos of priests skateboarding and nuns sledding, all accompanied by whispered threats to start a drinking game if Father says “Be not afraid” in his homily one more time.1
Starting tomorrow, National Vocation Awareness Week is upon us.
For those who aren’t familiar with the week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops defines the first week of November as, “an annual week-long celebration of the Catholic Church in the United States dedicated to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.” And while I write about it with a light-hearted snark, in reality, I am so grateful for this beautiful gift and effort on the part of our bishops. We are all ready to do anything to alter the vocation crisis in the Church, and hopefully our experience of the acrid separation from the Sacraments over the Spring has only fueled this desire in our souls. While seminary numbers remain deeply concerning, Vocation Ministry reports that in 2018, “the United States gained more religious sisters than it lost.” So although effective means of vocation outreach must be discussed and discerned, clearly we’re doing something right.
But what impact does National Vocation Awareness Week have on society at large, if any? The concept of priestly and religious vocations remains an enigma to the secular world, which only has The Exorcist, The Sound of Music, or Lifetime’s The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns2 as context for these ways of life. This week, young people fully immersed in secular culture have the opportunity to tangibly encounter the idea of Vocation, to be presented with the possibility of a radical call to poverty, chastity, and obedience. But at the heart of National Vocation Awareness Week is a call perhaps more radical in the 21st century than any of the above listed evangelical counsels: The call to slow down.
Starting as early as middle school, youth are asked to begin seriously considering their futures. High school freshmen still struggling to find any sense of identity take academic classes with test scores in mind and fifteen-year-old sophomores taking the PSAT for their first time are asked to bubble in a chosen potential major. At an increasingly younger age, students are required to think significantly forward into a hypothetical future, asked to consider not only occupation and academic prestige of college, but desired location to live, possibility for grad school, and plan for paying off inevitable student loan debt. Although gap years have become more frequent, young people choosing this route still face significant judgment and questioning.
Society forces itself further and further into a future that it tries to predict, but is really only known by God. There’s certainly nothing wrong with planning for the future and using one’s present gifts to prepare for the next steps in life, but this becomes problematic when students are led to believe that the next steps are the only thing of value. We’re told that middle school is a preparation for high school, high school for college, college for a job and hopefully MRS degree, post-college for family and job advancement, job advancement for retirement. As society continues to more rampantly advertise “next steps,” young people are led, either explicitly or subconsciously, to equate their value with accomplishments that will aid them in those fleeting and increasingly unsatisfying next steps.
But this is not the case in vocational discernment. The goal of vocation ministry, whether through this upcoming week, a conference-style retreat, or simple conversation with a student, is not to see a drastic uptick in habits, collars, or wedding rings the following week. Although there are certainly exceptions, most vocations aren’t fully revealed until after college. Middle school and high school youth ministers are most certainly aware of that fact. Yet middle school and high school students are invited to openness to marriage, the priesthood, or the consecrated life as a method of planting seeds. Vocation ministry initially sets out to bring a young person in contact with the God of the present moment, and in touch with themselves, not as a future priest in the diocese of Scranton, but as a high schooler who has just heard Christ’s words about “Fishers of men” in a way he never has before.
As I researched for this article, I visited the vocations webpage for the Sisters of Life. The first sentence on that page is not about retreat information or a contact form. It is the simple and profound declaration that, “The God who created the universe and called everything into existence, loved you into being.” A Vocation is a call that emanates love. It is an invitation to lived intimacy and it is something that no grade, test score, or other achievement can affect. It is also something that takes time to discover. This is difficult to impress on us Gen-Zers who have been told to start formulating a life plan since eighth grade. And yet why have teenagers whose brains have not even fully developed been expected to have a career and home life planned before they enter adulthood?
What a gift it would be if the general public took note of National Vocation Awareness Week and its emphasis before anything else on prayer and self-growth. If it saw the Church’s understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person and a soul’s capacity to reflect goodness, truth, and beauty into this dark world regardless of grades or plans for the future. At the end of the day, we are human souls, incarnate thirsts yearning for the Fountain of eternal life3, not numbers assigned by the College board, or transcripts reviewed by a college. How drastic it would be for the education of children to return to the end of cultivation of virtue and love of wisdom rather than the end of a diploma.
One of my favorite quotes about discernment is, “Our God is a God of journeys, not of destination.” A seminarian once explained that it’s celebrated when a young man leaves the seminary, because that means he’s closer to finding God’s will for him. In a world so focused on end goals, let’s spend this week learning from the Church of the easy yoke of our Master who makes our crooked lines and failings straight. Let’s entrust ourselves more fully to the present moment. You don’t know if you’ll get into your dream school. You don’t know if you’ll meet your spouse this year. You don’t know if tomorrow is promised to you. But you do know that regardless of your state in life, today, your Vocation is to love. Let us love as fools in the world’s eyes.
Oh, and while you’re at it, pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood, religious life, matrimony, permanent diaconate, and consecrated single life. Consider donating to your diocese’s seminarian fund or to the Laboure Society, which fundraises to pay off student loan debt for those entering religious life. And if you’re feeling the nudge, reach out to your diocese’s vocation office or a religious community this week. It’s just an email.
1 – Or maybe that was just me
2 – It’s actually better than you would think
3 – Allusion to Thomas Dubay