Making a Mark: Attracting young adults to priesthood and religious life
Luke is a smart philosophy major who attended both a Jesuit high school and university. Good with people. Attends 10 p.m. Mass on Sundays. When I tell him he should really think about being a Jesuit, he is moved. “Honored” he says, stumbling as he strives to formulate a response. “Wow, Father. It’s really awesome that you’d even think of saying that to me. I’m really kind of amazed. There’s just one thing....” I’m thinking, celibacy? Poverty—an even bigger issue for young adults raised in a materialistic culture? Obedience? Luke goes on: “I don’t believe in God.”
Another young man, Matthew: a superlative Jesuit Volunteer, an Irishman filled not only with charm and blarney, but also with the virtues of hard work and persistence. He has put in a long year in an inner-city Catholic grade school; and the kids, teachers and staff all swear he can walk on water. He once stopped a food fight among the fourth graders by singing a song that made the kids laugh so hard they forgot why they were launching ketchup-dripping Tater Tots at one another. I ask him if he or any of his friends from the Jesuit college he attended had ever thought of being a Jesuit. “No,” Matt replies matter-of-factly, as if the answer is self-evident. I follow up, “Why wouldn’t a young man consider being a Jesuit today?” Matt: “I guess that as a priest you really can’t make your mark.”
To say we could use a few more priests, brothers and sisters is not meant to disparage lay people’s generosity and expertise in service of the Gospel. Thousands of young men and women are preparing for lay ministry in the church, and they may well be the model for future ministry. But vocations to the priesthood and religious life play a crucial symbolic and cultural role in the life of the people of God. In 1965 there were 299,349 priests, seminarians and religious for 46 million Catholics in the United States. In 2006, for 69 million Catholics, there were 120,938, and the vast majority of the priests and sisters were well into their 60s and 70s.
What can we do to foster in the imaginations of young adults the possibility that they could be priests or religious?
1. Engage young adults in the fascinating pursuit of God. We might assume that young adult Catholics know who St. Francis and St. Ignatius were. We do so at our peril. Few have ever heard of Catholic social teaching, let alone the Catholic intellectual or spiritual traditions. Contemporary young adults often know more about other faiths than they do about their “own” religious tradition.
And young adults, like many older Catholics, have difficulty grappling with the intellectual demands of our faith tradition. I tell undergrads that chemistry is easy compared with the intricacies of theological and biblical studies. Learning that Jesus may actually have been born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, or that other ancient figures were “born of virgins” rocks the thinking of those who cannot understand the differences between the communicative truth of metaphor and literal truth. To suggest that the good Samaritan may have been a figure only of Jesus’ imagination confuses those who cannot think on the complex levels necessary to understand the ramifications of parables.
Still, Catholics in their 20s can be energized to pursue the joyful intellectual undertaking that understanding the faith actually is. How? Give a young adult Catholic a good book on the faith, like Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God, James Martin’s A Jesuit Off-Broadway, or John Dear’s autobiography. Sit down with a young person and watch a movie that deals with religious issues (“Places in the Heart,” “The Mission,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Groundhog Day,” “Dogma” or oldies but goodies like “The Nun’s Story,” “The Cardinal,” “A Man for All Seasons” and “Chariots of Fire”). Further, engage young adults in what Tom Clancy, S.J., called the “conversational word of God.” Share with a young person what you believe and why. Accompany him or her to a good talk or workshop on the living of our faith and discuss it. Get them asking theological questions, and they may even rise up to read the Gospels, the catechism and Catholic social teaching on their own. We can even dare hope they engage Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner! Once they are turned on to the sheer wonder of good theological thinking, they will discover that reflecting on God is much more interesting than the mind-numbing hours they spend pushing the buttons of Halo 3 or Guitar Hero.
2. Service is often a way into conversations about how young adults will spend their lives. Vowed religious and diocesan priests should hang out where the young people are. Many years I spend a few weeks in August with J.V.C. volunteers as they prepare for their year of service. Chatting and hearing what is on young adults’ minds, one quickly realizes that latent in their year of service is often a deep desire to discover God’s will for their lives.
Those desires often need to be teased out and discerned, which is not an easy task for young adults who have lived in the blizzard of seemingly chaotic cultural changes. But conversations with such young men and women about their deepest, truest desires can transform imaginations. In such chats, we let the Matthews know that religious life is a way to allow God to help us “make a mark” on our world. The stories of our lives are filled with such marks.
3. Listen to stories and tell them. Culturally, we are the stories we listen to and tell. So pay attention to the tales that young adults consider important. Reading Harry Potter novels gives one common ground with millions of twentysomethings. “What’s your favorite movie?” is always a conversation starter. Young adults live in a media-filled world foreign to those of us who can remember when there were only three television channels. Do not decry and dismiss this virtual world of 30-second ads, Facebook, constantly texting cellphones and blinking video games. Rather, pay attention to what these cultural currents reveal about the young people immersed in them. God’s transformative loving grace pulsates in cyberspace. Those striving to seek God in all things must develop ways of conversing with the young adults who live there.
Listening to stories of people was the mission of those who carried the faith to lands where customs and languages differed from their home turf. Christians listened to people’s tales and told the story of “the Son of God [who] became one of us so that we might become God” (St. Athanasius).
Knowing that we are listening, young adults will eventually ask about, and listen to, the stories important to us. Just as we priests and religious men and women need to be ready to share our narratives, we need those who have had good experiences of brothers, sisters and priests in religious life to share with young adults the stories of how those people affected their lives. Parents, you can tell your son or daughter about the Jesuit who kept your life on track, or the Sister of St. Joseph who consoled you when your mother died. Aunts and uncles, you can tell your nephew or niece about the Sister of Mercy who serves the poor and homeless in your city, and how you support her work. Grandparents, you can tell your grandson or granddaughter about the nuns and priests who took your lower middle-class Irish or Italian or Polish immigrant community from poverty to comfortable lives by providing a thriving parish and school as the hub of neighborhood life. The young hunger for your history.
4. Be upfront and frank about chastity and sex. Celibacy does not pose the obstacle it did in the midst of the 1960s sexual revolution. Young adults, although tempted by an easy culture of “hooking up,” also yearn for the meaning and deep peace that comes from the practice of sexual sanity and fidelity. Love commitments that are congruent with our nature as persons, whose relationships mirror and monitor our relationship with God, are perceived dimly by those who have been burnt by the murky meaning of “friends with benefits.”
Religious should speak openly and often of the joys of the vow of chastity and of its challenges. The church’s teaching that chastity is the integration of our sexual powers (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2337) comes as good news to those oppressed by the “six-pack abs” and “body to die for” dictates of Maxim and Cosmopolitan. Celibate chastity grants one a freedom to be available and to love across a wide spectrum of friends and families that is less possible for those whose lives are lovingly focused on spouse and children. A celibate lifestyle also allows one to be present to others without the murky miscommunication inherent in lives lived at loose ends. When one is clear about who and what one is, others are better able to drop defenses and trust.
Most importantly, the embrace of celibacy’s gift of solitude opens one for commitment to the transformative practice of contemplative prayer. Someone who sleeps alone, whose nights will never be interrupted by a small child’s fear of monsters, has more time to pray every day. Prayer practiced regularly brings an abiding awareness of God in our lives. Prayer makes our desires and choices more easily and authentically attuned to God’s loving, leading guidance. Through prayer we learn who we deeply desire to be and what we truly want to do, revelations of who God wants us to be and what God needs us to do. Daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina, Ignatian contemplation, centering prayer, the rosary—all such ways of prayer help us discover our true selves and thus to know God as companion and challenge.
We must also talk more openly about the challenges surrounding chastity and sexuality. Early in Jesuit life, celibacy was more of a front-burner issue for me. The thought of sleeping with a loving spouse could seem the solution to all life’s problems.
Today I listen to friends who are two or three decades into their marriages, and I am sure my life is no more challenging or difficult a path. Still, even though raising children can be demanding, the fact that no child of mine will ever live, play tee ball, or draw pictures for the refrigerator, tugs at my consciousness at times. One Jesuit I know said he did not really miss children, but he found himself missing the grandchildren he never had. For some, the peace and joy of solitude can become a real struggle with loneliness. Community life provides support and companionship, and as a Jesuit, I have been privileged to live with great men I would probably have never met otherwise. On the other hand, St. John Berchmans said he did no great penance: Jesuit community life was sufficient.
Christ calls us to live our lives heroically. Our sexual choices should make us admirable and authentic people, persons committed in love. Our faith is one of the signs and symbols pointing beyond the mere empirical realities they embody. In an overly sexualized culture, those who freely choose celibacy are indicators that there is much more to life than we can know or imagine. We are like fingers pointing to the mysterious moon, calling people to know that there is more to life than pleasure, possessions and power. Sexuality is part of who we are, but does not by itself determine who and what we become as persons. Relationships of all kinds, from family to friends to those we serve, much more make up the total reality of our lives.
We also have to speak openly and honestly of the “elephant in the living room,” or in the sacristy, as the case may be. In every diocese and religious community, there are gay men and women living and working as brothers, sisters and priests. In the wake of Donald Cozzens’s book The Changing Face of the Priesthood, and others’ reflections on homosexuals in the priesthood and religious life, many may think that religious life or priesthood is only for those who are homosexual. One young heterosexual man I know, on telling a friend he was entering a religious order, heard the reply, “Oh, I didn’t know you were gay.” This impression is troubling. If the perception is that religious life and priesthood are “just for gays,” many may never consider it as an option.
In my 30 years as a Jesuit, I have not found the issue of sexual orientation very discomfiting or stifling. Despite Jay Leno’s and Bill Maher’s jokes, religious life is not dominated by a gay subculture. In fact, in most cases I would not even know men in my community were gay unless they told me. Many heterosexual priests and religious have learned to be more appreciative and understanding of the gay men and women among us. Homosexuals are called and generously give their lives in service to a community where they are forever a minority. It is not an easy cross to bear. At times I have been challenged to learn and grow as a heterosexual called to a community where a number of my brothers in Christ were homosexual. But that has never been a major stumbling block or difficulty. Ultimately it does not matter whether one is gay or straight, as long as a person wants to live the vows, serve God’s people and proclaim the Gospel.
Furthermore, attitudes towards homosexuality and gays are radically different for those in their 20s than for those in their 60s. For the millennials, gays are an accepted, admired and liked part of their social and cultural lives. Gay characters are a staple on many popular television programs, and every college campus has a gay and straight club of some sort. Young adults are consequently much more interested in and able to handle these realities. It is our silence on such matters that is more likely to give them pause.
5. Be willing to talk about the hot-button issues honestly and creatively. More difficult to address, especially among college-educated Catholics, are the attitudes of some in the church concerning church teachings on birth control, homosexuality and women’s ordination. As a vocal minority of conservative Catholics trumpets its opposition to a “culture of death,” a large majority of young Catholics quietly walk away, unwilling to engage the self-righteous in debate on such matters. Many young Catholics see the gray in areas that a relatively small number of Catholics paint as black and white. The 30 million former Catholics in the United States, 10 percent of the country’s population, are often those who were never offered a subtle, intelligent and convincing presentation of the meaning of the faith. All they ever heard is what the church is against, never what the church is for.
As diocesan priests and religious, we support and accept the wisdom and guidance of the magisterium’s teachings on birth control, abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality, while pastorally dealing with the cultural situations the people we are sent to serve must confront. Sending a message that one can be just as pastoral and creative in applying the church’s teaching on these issues as we are on the teachings about social justice will attract many who, at this point, would not even consider a vocation to priesthood and religious life.
6. Five practical things we can do to help young people consider religious life or priesthood. (1) Pay for a young adult to go on a silent retreat. Religious life is at root a life of prayer. Many young people have never had an experience of the mysterious challenges and joys of silence. Giving them time and space for God to touch their consciousness is an invaluable gift. (2) Offer to help pay off college loans. Many never even consider priesthood or religious life because they come out of college carrying crippling debt. Give the gift of financial freedom to young adults, and see where God leads them. (3) Think about paying diocesan priests more. Salary in our culture is a measure of a person’s worth. Diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty, so pay them what they are worth. (4) Lovingly confront issues of race and class in your dioceses and communities. The United States in the not too distant future will be a society without any one majority group. Our religious communities should reflect the economic, ethnic and racial diversity of our society. (5) Strive to make the priesthood and religious life truly distinctive forms of living. Young adults want to give their lives to great and radical responses to the issues of our age.
I have found being a Jesuit priest a fascinating and extremely satisfying way of responding to life and God. As a young Jesuit, I met Bill Byron, S.J., the author of many books who at that time was president of The Catholic University of America. In casual conversation during a coffee break at some Jesuit meeting he said something I never forgot, “This is a great life, if you’re called to it.” Religiously tone deaf, too many young adults are missing the opportunity of a lifetime.
From the archives, Bernard Haring reflects on the priesthood.