Postcard from Louisville

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.” 

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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

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9 years ago
I am one of the vocation directors who was at the conference. It was indeed a lifegiving conference in Lou-ville! And the talk given by you, James Martin, was a splendid way to end the conference! The genuineness of who you are was evident and your analysis of how humor can affect our lives and relationships sent me home with renewed vigor and hope. Thank you!
9 years ago
James, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your wonderful contribution to our Convocation in "Loovul" which as a vocation director I attended. What I most treasured were your words about how humor can be a powerful tool to help us deal with the most difficult and painful moments in life. How true that is! Incidentally there is a little Passionist spirituality input for you. As a Passionist once said, "Celebrate Easter in the midst of Passion" Your words are very timely for the challenging moments we live in. Thanks also for being so down to earth! That was very refreshing!
9 years ago
Years ago I remember reading a comment Pedro Arrupe, SJ made. I think Arrupe was asked about who Jesus Christ was for him. Arrupe's spontaneous comment was 'tantas cosas!'('so many things!'). When I think of what Thomas Merton has meant for me, I also want to spontaneously say, 'tantas cosas!' Thomas Merton has meant many things for me. I read Thomas Merton's book The Silent Life when I was about 13 years old. Since that time I have been interested in monastic spirituality. Merton has continued to be a companion of mine. I didn't have a vocation to be a monk. However, in time I came in contact with the Camaldolese Benedictines. I am a Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate. My friends who are monks tell me that the monastic vocation can also be a prophetic vocation. Monasticism can open our hearts and minds to God’s endless truth, endless goodness, endless beauty. Monks have taught me to look at the thickness of life. The world, in its gratuitousness, invites us to welcome life with openness and love. Praising and thanking God lead the way.
8 years 12 months ago
Your comments make me think of how our vocation ministry gives witness to an essentially religious view of the human person and his/her present and future life. If we believe that God is a real and present and active mystery in a person's life, then our role as vocation ministers is to help others bring that forward, look at it seriously, and take just one step forward in response. The church wins no matter what. We vocation ministers live out real faith, abiding hope, and personal charity by constantly reaching out to others with full knowledge that individual 'results' are way beyond our sight. Some may join our order, but most won't, and that's okay. We and they are still called to be God's own. Maybe that's why we tend to be so joyful. We are privileged to spend our efforts and energy on the 'seeding edge' of the church.

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