I can’t let today go by without giving you a little snapshot of a wonderful gathering of committed religious, and a bit of an epiphany, that happened this weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. (Which I was told several times was pronounced not Loo-ee-ville, and not even Lou-a-ville, but in fact, Loovul.) The National Religious Vocation Conference held their biannual meeting on the shores of the Ohio River. Our former editor, Thomas J. Reese, S.J., used to say that the worst kind of article was the “review of a conference,” with the writer talking about this speaker or that speaker and this seminar or that seminar. That makes for deadly reading. So instead, I want to focus on the spirit of the gathering. Imagine being with hundreds of men and women from religious orders from all over the country: a dizzying array of initials (CSJ, OFM, OSFS, SSJ, OP, and so on), many different habits (black, powder-blue, navy blue, and “mufti”) all united in their desire to spread the good news about religious life.
Now these people are realists: they know—better than anyone—that vocations to religious orders have been “trending down,” as sociologists say, since the Second Vatican Council, in most orders. But are numbers the best gauge of success? “God calls us to be faithful, not successful,” said Mother Teresa. The men and women with whom I was able to break bread were full of joy and hope: they enjoyed being religious and they enjoyed spreading the word about their various congregations, orders and communities, and the charisms of their founders and foundresses. I asked one member why it seemed that everyone seemed so cheerful, given the declining vocations. She said, “Well, orders usually choose upbeat people to be vocation directors!” Then she said, “Plus it’s wonderful to be able to work with so many young people and help them discern their path to God.”
Speaking of vocations, on Sunday, I paid a visit with a friend to the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton had lived, and is now buried. My friend, who works for Maryknoll in Chicago, and I attended the monastic prayer for the hour, “Terce,” and I was later invited to concelebrate Mass in the abbey church, thinking all the while that just a few feet from where I stood Merton had been ordained. His former secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, gave us a little tour of the hermitage in which Merton lived for the last three years of his life. How astonishing it was to see his desk, his bedroom, and the glorious view of the Kentucky countryside that Merton saw every day.
But bear with me! Later that day I met up with yet another friend, who runs the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, along with his three children. After a lovely lunch at a restaurant, all three of us hung out in a playground, and we watched his children run across a field and climb on monkey bars. How wonderful it was to see so many different vocations that weekend: the active religious life, the contemplative religious life, and vocation to the family life. God calls us of us to be who we are. And, as Merton said, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.” Sister or brother, clergy or layperson, active or contemplative, father, mother, brother, sister, or friend.
James Martin, SJ