«Religious Life A NecessAry VocAtioN By Rev. Brian Mullady, O.P. Religious Life A NecessAry VocAtioN By Rev. Brian Mullady, o.P. Institute on ...»
A NecessAry VocAtioN
By Rev. Brian Mullady, O.P.
A NecessAry VocAtioN
By Rev. Brian Mullady, o.P.
Institute on Religious Life
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Cover Image: The Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard or the Vision of St.
Bernard is a Renaissance painting by Filippino Lippi (c. 1485). It is located in the Church of the Badia, one of the oldest churches in Florence. This painting depicts a visit from the Virgin to Saint Bernard as he writes about the Annunciation—it is an annunciation in itself, but with Mary visiting the Saint to “announce” God’s plan of salvation.
Signs &Witnesses to God’s Grace A number of years ago, Fr. Richard Butler, O.P., wrote a book called, Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery. This book has been reprinted and, though written fifty years ago, addresses an issue that is still current regarding the whole idea of priestly and religious vocations. Father Butler’s thesis was a critique of a position which maintains that the call to religious life involves some esoteric experience of God much like a private revelation and that the discernment of this call demands a long and exhausting personal analysis of one’s psychology. Some authors today are “guilty of promoting an unnecessary mystery. The specific crime is that of relegating religious vocation to the realm of Gnosticism, making of it an esoteric private revelation.”1 If this attitude were not a matter of concern before Vatican II, it has certainly become one now when so few people are entering religious life.
It seems important to examine the exact nature and practical tools for the discernment of a religious vocation in order to encourage young people to consider entrance as an ordinary expression of the Christian life of grace. Father Butler uses St. Thomas Aquinas’ analysis, which is still perceptive, to encourage people to know that this vocation is not some strange and unique call given to only a very few privileged souls. “Religious life is not an extra, a luxury, not a peculiar path for exceptional souls in pursuit of Christian perfection. It is necessary for the apostolic work of the Church and for the personal salvation of some of its members.”2 Vatican II Debate Interestingly enough, there was a long debate during Vatican II about the exact place of religious in the Church which addressed this very problem.
This debate took place during Vatican II in discussions about the order of the chapters in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The question was how best to place the treatment of religious life in relationship to the general discussion of the universal call to holiness, a discussion which was very important to the underlining principle that there were not two spiritualities in the Church, one of which was perfect and the other of which was imperfect. One side favored treating religious life together with the universal call to holiness in one chapter. This method of proceeding had the advantage of clearly stating that religious life was an eschatological sign of the next life within the Church herself and was a charism that would always exist in the Church and proceed from the essence of the society of the Church.
There were three reasons that some of the Council Fathers gave for favoring one chapter. The first was theological: The distinction between clergy and laity is essential to the existence of the Church as a society. This was clearly demonstrated in chapters 3 and 4 of the document. Religious life, on the other hand, is a structure in the Church that was instituted by Christ for the perfection of the action of the Church, not the existence of the Church. The second reason was pastoral: Many Catholics thought at one time, and still seem to think, that religious have some sort of monopoly on the life of perfection in charity.
Instead, these Council Fathers wanted to emphasize that religious life is part of the more universal call to holiness which is based on the gift of sanctifying grace and the character of Baptism. The third reason was an ecumenical one: Many of the Protestant reformers rejected religious life because it seemed to set up an impenetrable wall between religious and the ordinary faithful, as though there really were two sanctities, one contemplative and the other active.
The other group, whose view ultimately prevailed in Lumen Gentium, was afraid that treating religious together with the universal call to holiness would suggest that the religious did not have a special place in the Church and it would erode religious vocations. They also thought that the logical order of the first part of the document, regarding the existence of the Church, in which the Church was generally treated as the People of God and then specifically treated as clergy and laity, should be followed in that part of the document which talked about holiness. So, the order used was first to discuss the universal call to holiness, which is founded on the grace and character given in Baptism, and then treat the special way that religious implement this call. “The state of life, then, which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels, while not entering into the hierarchical structure of the Church, belongs undeniably to her life and holiness.”3 Our Lord founded religious life to give religious, whether clerical or lay, the munus (office) of being a sign and witness to the life of grace as a preparation for the life to come. Grace is the means by which we pursue this life to come.
In order that the life of grace might be more vibrant, Christ foresaw the necessity of the life of the profession of the evangelical counsels. So the correct idea of the life of the profession of the counsels must be founded on a correct understanding of the life of grace.
New Theology of Grace After Vatican II, in universities and seminaries there was a new theology of grace proposed, in which there was basically no difference between the world and God. In such theology the distinctions within the Church between clergy and laity seemed to be at best cloudy if not completely denied. A similar fate beset religious life in which religious became indistinguishable from lay people who had some religious affiliation. Instead of a kind of being in which all participate in the life of the Trinity, grace became some peculiar indefinable experience. This has led to a crisis in religious life in which many have left and few are entering.
Sadly, religious often contribute to this malaise by making the requirements for
entrance very difficult and the discernment quite esoteric. Some even suggested:
“The Spirit is calling religious to something. Maybe to the end of religious life.”4 In synod and apostolic exhortation, the Church has responded specifically to this devaluing of the necessity of religious life for the Catholic Church. “Its [religious life’s] universal presence and the evangelical nature of its witness are clear evidence—if any were needed—that the consecrated life is not something isolated and marginal but is a reality which affects the whole Church.
The bishops at the Synod frequently reaffirmed this: ‘de re nostra agitur,’ ‘this is something which concerns us all.’ In effect, the consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church....”5 In light of this clear and positive affirmation of the necessary nature of the religious vocation to the Church’s mission of holiness and sanctity, one may well ask how it is possible that the notion has grown up that very few chosen souls are called to this. Further complicating this is the idea that those chosen souls must experience some very individual particular call. If many religious and theologians seem confused by this, it must be doubly confusing to the prospective vocation when trying to discern entrance.
The “Feel Good” Fallacy Modern people absolutely love very introspective self-analysis. Modern philosophy has generally rejected objective knowledge in favor of subjective need. Emotion is often the measure by which one judges truth. Grace even can become a feeling. This affects all vocations in the Church. People in marriage are afraid to commit for years because they feel this might not be the right person. Of course, “trial marriage” or living together is recommended by our society today as a responsible method of discernment and people seem to think that the love of marriage should render youthful storms of emotion permanent and that one should never be bored or feel hemmed in by a given person or vocation. In marriage, the death of the emotion, and the boring and sometimes crucifying nature of the relationship, can be considered by our excessively self-absorbed culture as a basis for divorce.
When one enters religion, it seems for some communities that vocation discernment is reduced to that of a recruiting sergeant promising unrelieved good feelings but never mentioning that membership in the Army demands a willingness to go to war. As one formation superior put it: “Live your dreams.
Just decide what you want including travel and constant excitement and the community will give it to you.” One vocation director made it almost impossible for prospective vocations to contact him, and then seemed to have no clear picture of how to judge their worthiness except that they needed to feel good with the people in the community. It is no wonder that this order has few vocations.
On the other hand, traditionally the desire to enter was considered enough because it was presumed that people came from stable families where they had not only matured in the Faith, but also matured as human beings in the natural give-and-take that family life demands—and that is so essential to a normal community life. It has become clear that in the last thirty years great discernment is needed of a person’s personal maturity, at least in Western culture. This is because of the breakdown of the family and excessive materialism. Many who enter simply do not seem to have the ordinary human maturity which would be necessary for either marriage or religious life. After beginning with good desires, they easily lose interest when confronted with challenges and loneliness and they sometimes develop real psychological problems, which burden themselves and others in the community.
There is no easy solution to these problems. Several things are abundantly clear though. One should never make entering the religious life so difficult or uncertain as to suggest that it is the lot of only a few strange people who have had almost a mystical emotional attraction to it.
The charism of the institute should be clear enough that the prospective vocation can actually identify the community as a specific example of the life of the evangelical counsels lived in grace according to the understanding of the Church. One is not entering a fraternity or sorority. Also, at least in Western culture, one cannot presume that a person has the necessary maturity to make a free choice without some measure of observation and knowledge of the family life from which the prospective religious comes. In short, religious life obeys the same demands as other vocations in the Church. It is founded as an ordinary gift to the Church by the Lord. The person embracing it must use ordinary means of discernment as one would use in marriage. This includes normal emotional maturity, not mystic visions. Grace perfects nature.
Richard Butler, O.P., Religious Life: An Unnecessary Mystery (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books, 2005) p. 7; 2 Ibid. 3 Lumen Gentium, no. 44. 4 Sr. Sandra Schneiders, St. Louis Review, Oct. 20, 1995, quoted in Ann Carey, Sisters in Crisis (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1997), p.
302; 5 John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, no. 3.
The Subjectivist Idea of Vocation S ince Vatican II, there has been a great lack of vocations in places which were formerly replete with them. This can be attributed to many factors, not least of which is the very fact that in Europe and America, Catholics are having many fewer children than they did before. Yet one undeniable cause is also the fact that many Catholics see religious life as a vocation to which very few people are called. This attitude not only causes a difficulty for the mission of the Church, but also seems attributable to a subjectivist idea of vocation which has become common today. This attitude has led many to recommend that one should not enter religious life without a prolonged search and absolute subjective certainty that one is called to this life.
Seeking Perfect Charity Religious life is objectively a better way of life when it comes to removing the impediments to perfect charity. This truth was taught by the Council of Trent and has been reaffirmed by John Paul II: “The Church has always taught the pre-eminence of perfect chastity for the sake of the Kingdom, and rightly considered it the ‘door’ of the whole consecrated life.”1 Objectively speaking then, it is to the advantage of the mission of preaching the Kingdom of God that there be an abundance of those professing this perfect chastity and the other counsels, that the life of holiness in the Church may flourish.
The subjectivist attitude and quest for absolute certainty finds its origin in European philosophy of the last four hundred years. As is well known, since the philosopher Descartes “turned to the subject” to solve his methodical doubt concerning the possibility of truth being derived from common, ordinary sense experience, modern philosophers have turned more and more to a denial of real objective universal truths. In the more contemporary world, this denial has become so subjective that the very intellect itself has become suspect as to being able to know objective truth.
Truth is reduced to how one feels about it. People today are encouraged to approach life from basic doubts about the truth of the most obvious things and to demand a certitude about human life which many human matters cannot provide, especially when one is dealing with creating the truth from one’s inner subjective needs.