I wanted to become a priest for as long as I can remember. I entered the seminary of a religious congregation rather than a diocesan seminary simply because the diocesan seminary closest to my home closed. There was no profound or noble attraction to the Vincentian Community at first. In my young mind I just figured “a priest was a priest,” the Vincentians accepted me, and off I went.
The circumstances of my vocation, in hindsight, were the greatest blessing of my early life. The Congregation of the Mission or Vincentians introduced me to St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), a French diocesan priest who devoted his life to serving the poor, and my vocation grew and deepened because of his words and witness. I became a Vincentian, a priest “of the Mission.”
During my years of seminary formation, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a religious monk, was one of the most popular authors my classmates and I read. In his classic book “No Man Is An Island,” published the year I was born, Merton wrote:
For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary to fulfill our own destiny according to God’s will to be what God wants us to be. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach, but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.
Take a moment and read that again. What a beautiful insight into the idea of a “vocation,” of responding to God’s call. It can and does apply to any path one chooses to walk in life: single life, married life, priestly life, the diaconate and consecrated (religious) life.
The weekend of February 3-4 this year, as every year since Pope St. John Paul II first established it in the Catholic Church on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in 1997, is designated as World Day for Consecrated Life. It is an opportunity for all Catholics to remember and celebrate those women and men in the Church who have committed and consecrated their lives to live in religious communities, leaving their own families to become part of another “family,” to pray deeply and always, to profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, to fashion their lives whether active or contemplative according to the inspiration and example of saintly women and men whose charisms and holiness throughout the Church’s history have graced and shaped the Church to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
At one time in the not too distant past, religious were identified not only by the charisms of their founders but by their distinctive manner of dress, their “habits” and the initials of their religious communities following their names. Although these distinctive “habits” have changed or in some cases have disappeared, their unique charisms endure and continue to make up the fabric of the Church alongside diocesan priests and the laity whom they serve with holiness, grace and generosity of spirit. They are women and men, consecrated religious sisters, brothers and priests, responding to that “voice ‘in here’” of which Merton wrote, calling them “to be the person” they were “born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given at birth by God.”
In the times in which we now live, their numbers have unfortunately diminished; they have grown old and less able to serve as they once did in times past; they are less visible among the People of God; their ways of life compete with other lifestyles in and out of the Church. Those are the facts they and we face and acknowledge.
But their “inner voices” are not silent. Their prayers continue. Their charisms and vowed consecration remain as signs of witness, of service, of holiness, of grace. Their numbers are less but their faith and hope and love are aspirations for eternity to, in Pope Francis’ words, “wake up the world.”
Women and men still and always will be called to consecrated life in the Church. Again, Pope Francis reminds us:
Every consecrated person is a gift for the People of God on a journey. There is much need of their presence that strengthens and renews the commitment to spread the Gospel, to Christian education, to charity for the most needy, to contemplative prayer; the commitment to a human and spiritual formation of young people, of families; the commitment to justice and peace in the human family (Angelus Message, Feb. 2, 2014).
As Catholics, please pray for vocations to consecrated life. Cherish this call and speak of it enthusiastically and heedfully to young people in your families, in your parishes, in your schools, in your communities as a sign of and opportunity for lasting joy … the joy of observing, of walking within a rule of life; the joy of being led by the Spirit, never unyielding, never closed, always open to the voice of God that speaks, that opens, that leads us and invites us to go towards the horizon (Pope Francis, Homily, Feb. 2, 2014).
For video interviews with religious women on the subject of their vocations, go to dioceseoftrenton.org/ministry-of-consecrated-life.