Catholics hear all the time about a “crisis in vocations.” This is usually discussed concerning vocations to the priesthood. But the challenge of discerning a vocation is not limited to the priesthood.
|Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan smiles as he walks with Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, before celebrating Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. CNS photo
Everyone is called to discern what God wants them to do with their lives — be it a young man considering the priesthood, young men and women entering the religious life, a man feeling called to the permanent diaconate, a couple deciding on marriage, or someone recognizing a dedicated single life. Today, however, there are many challenges to hearing God’s call, and the task of the Church is to assist men and women to discern the path that will lead them to true happiness and eternal life.
Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on how to build a “culture of vocations.” He served as rector of the North American College, the seminary for Americans in Rome, from 1994 to 2001.
Our Sunday Visitor: Perhaps the best place to start is with a very basic question: What is the Church’s understanding of vocation?
Cardinal Timothy Dolan: There is the generic sense of vocation. There is a precise sense of vocation. And I don’t think we can talk about the precise sense until we understand the generic sense.
We have to believe — it is part of the Catholic worldview — that God has a plan for each of us. He is inviting us to live a life that will bring us back to him. He is calling us to do that. The Latin word for call is vocatio. So, in a way, in a broad way, the whole sense of discipleship, the whole sense of divine Providence, the whole sense that God has a plan for us, stems from what you might call this generic sense of vocation.
And in some ways that is the most pivotal question that you must answer: How does God want me to spend my life? Generically, we know that God wants us on a path that will get us back to him.
A precise sense of vocation is the very particular way that he wants us to do that. And that is where the priesthood, consecrated life, religious life, married life and consecrated single life come up.
I always think that we miss the boat when we don’t speak about marriage as a vocation. I mean, that is the biggest vocations crisis in the Church today, if you ask me. When only half of our Catholic people are getting married, no wonder we have a crisis in the numbers of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.
I just had a young couple say to me that they had asked their pastor — and he said that they had to ask their archbishop — if it was OK while they were getting married for them to lie prostrate on the floor while they were singing the Litany of Saints. I thought, “Wow, why not?”
Now, that young couple — you talk about having a sense of vocation — they were sealing their vocation. We say to married couples: “What you two are doing is saying that together you want to get back to heaven. You want to help each other get to your eternal goal. And, of course, you want to do that through the vocation of marriage.”
That is the precise meaning of vocation that most of the time we start with, but I always like to start with the bigger one.
I always use the story of when I was the rector of the North American College in Rome. I would always start by interviewing the new men, and I would ask them, “Why do you want to be a priest?”
One seminarian answered, “Well, Monsignor, I don’t want to give any disrespect here, but I think there is a more important question: I want to do God’s will. I want to do God’s will. For me trying to figure out God’s will is the most important thing in my life. That is my drive, that is my goal, that is my vocation, my aim in life. After a lot of prayer, after a lot of consultation, a lot of wrestling, a lot of running from it … I happen now to think that it is God’s will that I be a priest.”
So, he said, “the real question, the real reason I want to be a priest, is that what I want doesn’t have that much to do with it. It’s doing what God wants me to do. And by the way, I am excited about doing it because it is God’s will.”
In a way, I thought what a beautiful approach. There were those two levels. In one way he is saying, “I want to do God’s will, and I happen to think that God’s will for me is to serve him and his Church as a priest.”
So there are two different ways that the Church means the word vocation.
OSV: Why is it so critical for us to discover God’s will and to learn how to live according to that will?
Cardinal Dolan: Well, because, I think, as St. Thomas Aquinas would remind us, the most basic drive, the most raw drive that all of us have in our lives, is to be happy. We are born wanting to be happy. And we know through God’s revelation that the only way to be truly happy in this life and the next is to do God’s will.
God longs for our happiness and has told us the way to be happy. So, in following his plan, in discerning his will, in obeying his law, we will arrive at happiness in this life and in the next.
The Church is always looked upon as saying no to everything, and we aren’t saying no, the Church is one big “yes.” Yes to anything that will make us happy in this life and the next. And we just know from a long experience — and the Lord knows that Holy Mother Church is wise and has learned along the way — that if you go against God’s will, ultimately you’re not going to be happy. The older you get you see that, don’t you? It’s like the Psalms, like the Wisdom literature from the Old Testament. You shake your head and say this is a train wreck waiting to happen. Everybody learns the hard way.
OSV: What do you see as the role of the family in discerning a vocation?
Cardinal Dolan: For a while there, I saw the role of the family in vocations from a negative point of view. Do you know how sad it is when you are talking to a young man about becoming a priest, and we’ll start chatting, and you see there is an interest there, and he has his wits about him, and the know-how and the enthusiasm and the sincerity, and then you’ll say to him, “How can I follow through? Can I give you a call?” And sometimes — it will break your heart — he’ll say, “Don’t call the house, because mom and dad will be upset if they hear I am thinking about becoming a priest.”
There is what you might call the negative side of the family. I happen to think there might be a benevolent explanation for that, and that moms and dads deep down only want their kids to be happy, and they think that priests are unhappy. And if they think that priests are crabs, they don’t want their sons to be that. So that’s why I always say to priests, “We’ve got to be men of joy, or else what parent is going to want his or her son to be a priest?”
I think that is changing, and we’ve got a positive influence. When the family beams, when the family encourages, when the family fosters. You often see me write or speak about a “culture of vocations.” What I mean by a culture of vocations is that when our young people grow up in a culture that encourages you to do God’s will and that affirms one in his desire to be a priest, you are going to get priests.
I grew up in such a culture. I said to my teachers in grade school, “I think I want to be a priest,” and they beamed and did everything possible to encourage me. My parish priest would. My folks would. My neighbors would. The parish would. I can remember as a kid — I must have been 9 or 10 years old — getting a haircut, and the barber said, “Hey shrimp, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “I want to be a priest.” And he wasn’t even a Catholic, but he said, “Hey, isn’t that great?” Now that is the culture of vocations that we need in the Church.
For a while, I am afraid, we had a culture that discouraged vocations. And sometimes families were a part of that. I am always amazed, when I have the ordination of a priest, of how many times that becomes the occasion of bringing a family back to the faith, because they had drifted.
And sometimes, today in the Church, we have young men ordained who are neo-converts. They may have been raised Catholics in a less than enthusiastic way, drifted from the faith, usually in high school and college, and then maybe embraced the faith in a newfound way in their early 20s, from where came a vocation. The family, in the meantime, is sort of left in the dust, sometimes not opposed to it, but just blasé about it. And very often, when I am getting to know seminarians, they will say, “My family is a little upset about this,” or “My family doesn’t know what to make of this,” or “My family keeps trying to get me to change my mind.” But very often the ordination will be an occasion of family unity and the family will come back to the practice of the faith and be radiant in their son’s choice, especially when they see a culture of vocations in the seminary; when they see their son happy; when they see good men around him who share his values and a sense of that call. That’s a miracle there.
OSV: The phrase is sometimes used that we’re experiencing a new springtime in priestly vocations. Do you see that?
Cardinal Dolan: Well, you see it in the Church Universal. You see it in Africa; you see it in Asia; you see it in parts of Central America and Eastern Europe. You see it in some movements.
I think we have to be realistic. I think we might be in early March. So, it is a little too early to say that it is springtime. The Church always lives knowing that spring is coming. But we have to be realistic. Although there is good news that at least vocations aren’t plummeting like they were for a while, the somber news is that they are not going up as much as we would like. We just have to admit that.
I think the real answer is what we started talking about: the renewal of a sense of vocation in the widest sense of the Church. Now, in some ways, I don’t mean this generic, least common denominator preaching of “everybody has a vocation.” I always tell my priests that when we tell you to preach on vocations to the priesthood, preach on vocations to the priesthood bluntly, in an unapologetic way — not watering it down by saying, “I don’t mean to demean this other vocation,” or “I wish we could ordain married men,” that kind of stuff. By the time you get there, people are so confused that how can you give a compelling message for priestly vocations?
Let’s preach priestly vocations directly and bluntly. Yes. But also we can never forget in our regular preaching that if we develop a sense of God’s providence, that God has a plan for all of us, that the most decisive question we can ask in life, as St. Ignatius Loyola reminded us, is that everything we do should be aimed at our eternal salvation. We have providence, we have our eternal goal, and we develop a sense of stewardship.
By stewardship I mean that God has given us everything, including the next breath taken as a totally undeserved and lavish gift. So we want to live a response of humble gratitude for those gifts and a proper care for them to see that they are used to achieve their eternal goal and a love and service to others. If we achieve those three things … a sense of providence, a sense of our eternal salvation, and a sense of stewardship, those are three biblical virtues from which I am convinced vocations will come. So that needs to lace our preaching all the time. And that will lead to a springtime.
OSV: What advice do you give to a young man considering the priesthood?
Cardinal Dolan: First and foremost is a sense of discipleship. You start by nurturing your relationship with Jesus Christ. We get to know Jesus, we talk to him, we tell him we need him, we love him, that without him we can do nothing. We tell him he is our Lord and Savior, but we also tell him we consider him our best friend. We tell him we want to spend the rest of our lives, here and in eternity, with him. We ask for his grace and mercy and virtue. We read his Gospel. We sit before him in his Eucharistic Presence. We long to receive him in holy Communion; we long to hear assurance of his mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation; we long to share that with good friends in wholesome community; we long to meet him in the faces of the poor, in our acts of service. Pope Benedict XVI taught us all in his opening homily, “I am calling you to holiness, which is friendship with Jesus.”
If a guy says to me I really think I want to be a priest, so I had better work on my spiritual life, I think he has it backward. You work on your spiritual life — you try your best to pray, you are frequent at Mass, you love to receive Our Lord at holy Communion and to spend time visiting with him, you love the Scriptures, you are immersed in the lives of the saints, you are wanting to learn more and more about your Catholic faith, you cherish friendships with people who share your values, you love the Church and your parish, you’re involved in acts of service. All of those things intensify a life of friendship with Jesus, which means holiness. If we do that, if we develop holiness, if we develop discipleship, then the call to priesthood will come.
Matthew Bunson is general editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac and editor of The Catholic Answer magazine, in which a portion of this interview originally appeared.
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