“The harvest is full, but labourers are few”, Our Lord is recorded as saying in the Gospel of Luke. There is much work to be done to re-evangelise the west, and yet here we see a frightening decrease in number of candidates to the priesthood. Since the late 80s, entrants into formation in the UK have diminished from the hundreds to under 40 per year, and in the last five years, the figure is closer to a mere 30. Looking outside these Isles, there has been a 60% drop in Italian priests under the age of 30 since 2000. These numbers are discouraging to say the least, and may reflect a more universal trend in young people today being afraid to make any form of commitment. The paradox is that no commitment can be made without active discernment, whether to the married state or religious life. An abstract thought process is not the same thing as taking steps to discover what God is calling us to. Active discernment requires concrete steps towards a goal, because if nobody enters seminary, there is no potential for future priests.
Discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life can seem a daunting thing, accompanied by feelings of being unworthy to such an exalted call.
Entering seminary should imply entering a community upheld by camaraderie. Yet although community life was vital for my formation, I learnt that, ultimately, God calls us as individuals. During my four years of discernment, I found that the rigours of a daily structure with ancient pedigree was an invaluable way of facing the call I had heard. Still, when I joined the religious community I had chosen to enter, I was told by one resident, “you have to be comfortable being on your own.”. A vocation to the priesthood means facing a solitary personal life, allowing for a closer personal connection with God. The call is personal, and one has to discern it with care, for in the end finding your vocation requires individual action, not only in discernment but in commitment to a path. The very word vocation comes from the Latin “vocare”, meaning “to call”, which originates from the ordination rite when a candidate is called forth by the ordaining bishop. Until the consecrated hands of the bishop are placed on the candidate’s head, he is purely on a journey to discover what God is calling him to do.
No doubt, taking such an active step into discernment is of great significance, but based on my own experience I can only recommend any young man or woman to set out on this journey and find what God is calling them to. More forcefully, one might say every Christian has a duty to actively seek out what God is asking of them. Sometimes he reaches out His hand to you, but asks for your entire being. Sometimes he asks you to join a seminary or religious community to deepen your faith and relationship with Him, before sending you back out into the world.
Every Christian has a duty to actively seek out what God is asking of them
The reasons for a decline in vocations over recent years are various, ranging from a lack of supernatural faith in an ever more secularised western world, abhorrent abuse cases, rightly scandalising the faithful, and as the Holy Father has suggested, addressing the Congregation for Consecrated Life in 2017, the contemporary demand for instant gratification of all our desires. Whatever the main reasons may be, it is clear that the call to be a faithful priest is a countercultural and in many cases unpopular decision to make. In places where traditional forms of worship are more countercultural, the numbers seem to be somewhat less alarming. The modern world celebrates expressions of originality, which ironically inspires some young people to seek a long-known but recently forgotten form of life.
We might come across people who speak of having a vocation to be doctors or teachers, but traditionally this term is reserved for a state in life and not a career. A career can be changed after a few years, but a vocation is a call to live in a certain way, married or unmarried, as a consecrated person or as a layperson. This is why making such a long commitment as a vocation implies must take time. It takes years of seminary formation before one is ordained, and similarly it conventionally takes years of courtship before committing to marriage. With these processes we navigate our journey, bringing with us our own history while forging our future. Once discovered our vocation is our path to communion with God in Eternity. However, there is infinite value in the very process of discernment, wherein we come to ever greater clarity both of ourselves and God’s will for us.
Karl Gustel Wärnberg is a writer and philosopher based in London and Stockholm
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