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Why vocation programs don't work


The solution to this problem is so fundamental that it is often overlooked and misdiagnosed, but the remedy is as old as the Gospel itself.


For some time now we as a Church have been scrambling in an earnest attempt to remedy our vocation problem. The vocation of marriage has taken the worst beating, as over half of the marriages in our country end up in divorce, Catholic marriages included. Rare are the women who are entering religious orders, which seems to be a big part of the reason the Vatican is conducting their current visitation of women's religious communities; men's communities are doing a little better. Our diocesan seminaries finally seem stable, although our numbers are far from what they could be. Candidates to the permanent diaconate appear to be the lone bright spot, although they have their own issues. And then there is the vocation to single life, which, like the sacrament of confirmation, in some sense still seems to be searching for a theology. 

Millions of dollars have been spent by vocation offices on prayer cards, lesson plans, vocation week activities, homily helpers, discernment brochures, websites, and an array of other vocation promotion materials, but have these approaches really made a significant impact on our young people? Sadly, the answer is no. For all the effort that has been put into vocation awareness in recent history, our returns have not been very good, but it is not for lack of effort. Bishops, vocation directors, DREs, catechists and parents, have been working diligently to address the lack of vocations in the Church, but very little has changed. Sure, there are some orders and some diocesan seminaries that are doing better than others, but the overall vocation picture remains the same. It seems to me that the real problem is that we've misdiagnosed the vocation situation, and therefore, we've been spending all our time, effort and money on the wrong things. In other words, we've been treating the symptoms without ever recognizing the disease.

The root of our current vocation problem is a lack of discipleship. Of course, a disciple is one who encounters Jesus, repents, experiences conversion and then follows Jesus. All too often those of us in positions of Church leadership presume that all the folks in the pews on Sundays, all the children in our grade schools, high schools and PSR programs, all the kids in our youth groups, all the men in our Men's Clubs and all the women in our Women's Guilds, and all the members of our RCIA team are already disciples. Many are not. (The same can be said of staffs and faculties of Catholic institutions.) Our people may be very active in the programs of our parishes, schools and institutions, but unfortunately, such participation does not qualify for discipleship.

If the root of our vocation problem is a lack of discipleship, then the remedy is to make more disciples, just as Jesus commanded. But how is this accomplished?

First, an important principle to keep in mind is that disciples beget disciples. In other words, if we are really serious about fostering better marriages, holier priests, more devoted religious, and generally a more faithful and dedicated Church, then those of us who are already married, ordained, and consecrated, and who identify ourselves as Catholics must take a good, hard look at our own lives and evaluate how our discipleship measures up. How long has it been since we last experienced real conversion and transformation? How often do we repent of our sins? Do we really allow Jesus to rule our lives, or have we fallen into the ancient trap of Pelagianism, ultimately believing that we save ourselves? Do we really know Jesus? Do we allow him to really know us? These questions are important ones, for unless we as a Church can offer true models and exemplars of discipleship with our own lives, very few will seriously consider living the kind of life we live.

The inspiration to consider a vocation rarely comes from vocation literature; it comes from real people living out their vocations in the real world. In order to know what it means to be a good family, a good priest, a good religious, and a good Catholic, one needs to have living, breathing examples of each. I would have never considered the priesthood if I had not known some great priests as I was growing up; the seminarians I teach continue to tell the same story about their call. Disciples beget disciples – good marriages beget good marriages, good religious beget good religious, good priests beget good priests, and good Catholics beget good Catholics. When discipleship is modeled well, it becomes an invitation for others to become disciples themselves.

Second, we need to reevaluate how our parish groups, ministries, and programs operate. We have to ask if these groups are truly fostering discipleship, or if they are simply social groups that happen to meet on parish grounds.

It is true that young people tend to stay out of trouble while socializing with peers from the parish, and that service projects help build character and allow young people to move beyond themselves, but without being disciples, such activities never allow for true transformation and human flourishing.

Let us take the example of a parish youth group to serve as a microcosm for our current situation. A youth group has a similar structure to most parish groups, in that most parish groups identify themselves in four ways: spiritual, service-oriented, social and catechetical. For a parish youth group to be what it is supposed to be, the first priority of the group must be to make disciples of young people who do not know Jesus, and to make stronger disciples of the ones who already know him. Such a suggestion seems quite basic and even simplistic at first glance, but this is precisely the point. Far too often we as a Church have failed with the most basic principle of discipleship while loading up on service projects and social activities, and the parish youth group becomes just one more line on a young person's college résumé, without ever calling that young person to real conversion. 

It is true that young people tend to stay out of trouble while socializing with peers from the parish, and that service projects help build character and allow young people to move beyond themselves, but without being disciples, such activities never allow for true transformation and human flourishing. Over and over again we as a Church have fallen into the subtle trap of settling for results that can be easily calculated, photographed, and documented in a parish bulletin or website, rather than getting down to the basics of discipleship. Granted, opportunities for socializing and service projects are goods that the Church offers young people, but young people can find these goods outside the Church as well, which is why youth groups that don't get beyond social gatherings and service projects aren't very good youth groups. A youth group that is primarily about the work of making disciples is another story indeed. 

Youth groups that are filled with disciples and are about making new disciples are youth groups that allow their young people an opportunity to fall in love with Jesus. Again, I realize such a claim seems simplistic and perhaps a bit pious, but nonetheless it is true. Coming to know Jesus is foundational; not just knowing his ideas or teachings or his history, but really coming to know him. If a youth group is able to offer a young person an opportunity to know Jesus, to know transcendence, intimacy, depth, and a real sense of mystery and being part of a something greater than himself, it will be hard to find a space big enough to gather the young people together. 

If youth ministers and, more specifically, priests take the time to teach their young people how to pray alone, in community, liturgically, before the Blessed Sacrament, with an icon or crucifix, in nature, with Scripture, or with a journal, disciples will emerge. Don't be fooled; young people desire to learn to pray and to pray well, and they want their leaders to teach them.

Moreover, it's all too common that those working with youth soft-step around difficult or controversial Church teachings in an attempt not to drive young people away. Gone are the days of young people defining themselves as liberal or conservative Catholics. The stakes are much higher today: either you believe in God or you don't. As the Southern novelist Walker Percy said upon his Catholic conversion, these days it is either Rome or Hollywood, there is no more middle ground. As such, young people want to be challenged. They want to think and understand and wrestle with big ideas. So why not spend time teaching them about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, the Liturgy, and the Last Things? It is no secret that the Church's teachings on sexuality are counter-cultural, but this is precisely the draw for so many young people – that the human person is more than simply an object of pleasure, and that there is something beautiful about God's creating us male and female, in his image and likeness, and that there is a divine plan for the way we express ourselves.

For a parish youth group to be what it is supposed to be, the first priority of the group must be to make disciples of young people who do not know Jesus, and to make stronger disciples of the ones who already know him.

When young people come to know Jesus, they will develop a deeper appreciation for the Eucharist. And when young people finally find their identity in the Eucharist (and not a pizza party, bowling or laser tag), young people will naturally want to socialize and do service projects, because these activities will flow out of their discipleship. When their lives are formed by the self-giving love of Jesus in the Eucharist, they will want to make themselves a gift for others, and their service projects will take on new meaning as acts of justice. Once young people become disciples, they will want to come to Mass, to spend time at the parish, to serve those in need, to gather for recreation, and to read good books and articles about the faith, and to really help build the Kingdom of God. But none of this can ever happen without the most foundational, and often forgotten, principle of discipleship.

Take any parish group or any Church institution and apply the discipleship principle, and the story will be the same as it is with the youth group. No matter how well-crafted a mission statement is, or how well group facilitators have been trained, or how well-developed a program may be, no matter how much time and effort and money was put into a lesson plan, workshop, meeting, or retreat, it is all for naught without discipleship. We may get things done, but that doesn't necessarily mean that things are being done for the sake of the kingdom. 

The real sign of discipleship ultimately shows up in vocations. So why don't vocations programs seem to work? Because vocation programs all too often presume their target audience to be disciples, and many are not yet there. The real remedy to our vocation problem isn't a bigger and better vocation program. Rather, the remedy will be found at the most basic level of discipleship, the universal call to holiness: knowing Jesus. Once people come to know Jesus, repent of their sin, experience conversion, and become disciples, they will naturally draw others to follow him too, in whatever vocation they are called.

Disciples beget disciples. If more married couples, priests, religious and faithful begin to take discipleship seriously, there won't be a vocation problem, because ultimately our vocation problem is a lack of discipleship. The solution to this problem is so fundamental that it is often overlooked and misdiagnosed, but the remedy is as old as the Gospel itself. If we, as Christ's Church, take the call to discipleship and evangelization more seriously, the vocation problem will be lessened. Let us continue to pray for reform and renewal and, ultimately, for the Holy Spirit's pouring himself out on his holy Church, the Bride of Christ.



Leonard Franchi. "Why vocation programs don't work." Homiletic & Pastoral Review (February, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Father Damian J. Ference.

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The Author

Father Damian J. Ference is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an assistant professor of philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio. Father Ference graduated from Borromeo Seminary-John Carroll University in 1998 and Saint Mary Seminary in 2003. His theological essays on Catholic identity, priesthood, and youth culture have appeared in America, Catholic Universe Bulletin, Commonweal, Dappled Things, Emmanuel,, Human Development, Pastoral Life, Seminary Journal, The Priest, and U.S. Catholic.

Copyright © 2011 Father Damian J. Ference
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