Celibacy and Vocation

The crisis in France concerning the Church and paedophile clergy festers on with discussions on TV (which I don’t watch except occasionally on YouTube) and Facebook threads. One such is to be found on a group dedicated to the Ordinariate.

From what I have been reading, including some participation from me, there are different schools of thought. One is that it is all about libido and desire for sex: let a priest get married and he won’t bugger choirboys any more. Another is that tempted priests are not spiritual enough in their observances or sufficiently orthodox. What about a woman involved with such a man whose attitude would be Nach dem guten Essen, eine Zigaretten nicht vergessen. Nach dem guten Rauchen, eine Frau gebrauchen! – This bit of German doggerel suggests that a woman is no more than chattel to be used once a man has had a good meal and a good smoke. The idea is quite appalling. How many men are so basic, especially if they are priests, that it would almost be better for them to go to a prostitute.

To lay aloft in a howling breeze
May tickle a lands man’s taste,
But the happiest hour a sailor sees
Is when he’s down
At an inland town,
With his Nancy on his knees, yeo ho!
And his arm a round her waist!

It is almost the idea of a reward after hardship or a long day’s work. With such a notion of marriage, we have the idea of a very selfish man who cares little or nothing about the suffering of the woman who is stuck in a relationship with him. If the priest has no more nobility or virtue than a rough fisherman or a drunkard press-ganged into serving a naval vessel in the days of Captain Bligh, then what are we to think of the priestly vocation?

At this point, we arrive exactly at the purpose of this posting. Vocation. The priesthood and ministry are a calling, the sense, purpose and meaning of life. Marriage and family life are also a vocation. However, we need to peel away the layers of meaning behind this word, often used superficially by clerics and seminaries. Someone once said that they were afraid that she would “catch” a vocation (like a disease) that would make her want to become a nun! A vocation is not (or extremely rarely) an e-mail from God, but something that comes from within (which can be caused by God, by grace, by illumination of some kind).

There are certainly many theological studies on vocation beginning with the call of Abraham, of Moses and others through the ministry of an angel or directly by God’s voice in the veil. A call to priesthood is one thing, another is celibacy and monastic chastity. It is not only repression of the sexual urge but also the acceptance of a solitary life.

I was ordained a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and “contracted” the obligation of celibacy. I was in the Latin Rite. My superior put me into a situation where I acutely sensed the contradiction between what was expected of a cleric by the laity and their utter contempt and lack of care. It all brought out in me what the institution calls “instability”. As a psychotherapist once said to me many years ago, a person cannot keep his or her sanity when deprived of human affection, attention, empathy and opportunity to give. He related a story of patients in an asylum in Dresden when the Allies bombed the city. The building was damaged and the patients suffering from severe psychiatric disorders wandered out into the city. They found suffering on an incomprehensible scale, and began to help children, injured people and those trapped in bombed buildings. They seemed to have lost their mental illnesses and found their humanity. When they were rounded up and taken back to the asylum, their psychosis returned and they again lost their sanity. This gave me a very profound notion of vocation and our own spiritual health. This profound desire can bring an isolated and despised priest to desire marriage and some degree of normality.

I have already mentioned Le Journal d’un Curé de Campagne by Georges Bernanos in other blog articles. This is the story of a young priest in the 1930’s with stomach cancer and an inconsolable Weltschmerz. I know priests whose lives have become almost a living hell, perhaps through their fault, but also through that existential dilemma between the vocation they believed they received from God and the utter contempt and indifference of hypocritical parishioners.

The obvious problem with the RC Church opening the priesthood to married men is who is going to pay a stipend big enough for a family. Then the priest’s time has to be divided between earning his living and doing his ministry. The Orthodox and Continuing Anglican churches have married priests, but also priests who earn their own living through secular work. Consider the dioceses here in France. They don’t have the money or means to employ married men with their families. That is the practical consideration.

Very often, those who are the most opposed to the married priest are the women themselves. It can be a challenge to the woman’s self-esteem to become higher in importance to the priest’s vocation. Have him give up the priesthood and become a layman might be a very appealing idea to some women. Not all women are the same, but it is frequently in the feminine psychology to remove any sense of vocation or meaning of life from her husband other than her and the marriage. It is existential and depends on the degree to which she might be a narcissistic personality.

Other women are prepared to accept her husband’s dual vocation. It is no different when the husband is in the armed forces, the merchant navy, a lorry driver doing long hauls, anyone who works more than 9 to 5 in an office job. With the priesthood, there is the added element of a complete philosophy of life and something that might be perceived as serious competition for her love. The natural instinct is to make sure that the husband will “have no other gods than” her. However, it would be wrong of me to be too sweeping in my generalisations. The experience of many priests is different, in which the women truly support their husbands’ ministries in a self-effacing and altruistic spirit.

One aspect of a Bishop’s ministry is looking after his priests. Few films give justice to this inner conflict other than The Cardinal from 1963.

The Cardinal of Boston was in no hurry to laicise this suffering priest who after a time returned to his calling as a priest. See this film from 1 hour 22. The drama unfolds in two parts, the second of which shows the agony Fr Fermoyle was going through. The Cardinal allows him to take time off, get a teaching job in Vienna and work through it all. It is a beautiful study of pastoral flexibility in dealing with a profoundly difficult situation. That is the discernment that comes from being deeply human and spiritual.

I have seen these conflicts in others and experienced them for myself. Taking time off without making a new commitment can help us find ourselves. A priest going through this suffering needs support from his Bishop and professional help if needed. He should not be laicised too quickly but allowed to take a rest from clerical life, live like a layman and get a job or start a business. He needs hobbies that change the mind and give rest. Lastly but not least, he should spend time as a working guest in a monastery and go through a thorough spiritual overhaul or “catharsis”. During this time he should above all avoid getting involved with another person, learn about true solitude and self-acceptance. Then go and see his Bishop with his enlightened decision.

Few lay faithful will take responsibility for a priest breaking or burning out. Priests have been known to commit suicide. It is not unique to the priestly vocation, but also that of any married man, depending on whether the woman is an empath or someone who is so deeply selfish that she has no care for the suffering of her husband. The human person is as deep and ineffable a mystery as God himself. I often reflect when I go sailing and look down into the sea. We know less about the depths of the sea than the far side of the moon or another planet. We will never understand what goes on in the other person. It’s hard enough to know ourselves. The mystery of the priestly vocation or the vocation to be a husband and father is just as deep and beyond the answers we think of giving to the questions. I am constantly confronted with my inability to understand many things about others, doubtlessly because of my autism. I have learned that we must find strength within ourselves where we find the Divine Kingdom within. This is what I learn from solitude and doing almost as much work in self-knowledge as Jung did in order to find something of an understanding of others. Beyond a certain stage the man can become so spiritually and mentally maimed that there is no coming back. We retreat into our eccentricities and live in our little lodgings from one day to another.

I don’t think there is any one solution for the well-being of priests in any Church, Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican. Most need some kind of community life, either a religious community of some kind or marriage. Isolation and loneliness are true sources of suffering for those who have not learned self-reliance and the art of the solitary life. Like the priestly life, marriage is a place of giving and receiving the fruits of that oblation.

I recommend The Academy of Ideas in general. It can give many ideas for building a solid philosophy of life – for living as a priest, for being a husband and father of a family, for recovering from a broken vocation or a broken marriage. Please take the time to explore the many videos these people have made, and see what we can learn.

It is not about celibacy or marriage, but the deepest meaning of vocation, what makes our lives intelligible and meaningful. We should try to delve into the philosophy of everything and to be truly ourselves.

I will leave you with this delightful evening with Quentin Crisp.



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13 Responses to Celibacy and Vocation

  1. Caedmon says:

    To allow married priests in the RC church would require a revolution in finances, as people would either have to give more, or money now being used for something else would have to be diverted towards funding priests.

    There are other problems as well. If they allow priests to marry they will also have to deal with clergy marriage break up. There is also the question of birth control. If priests have large families they will be even more expensive to support, and if they practise birth control like other middle-class couples it will lead to juicy headlines in tabloid newspapers about priests paying no more attention to the rules than anyone else. It’s difficult to imagine the bishops having any enthusiasm for dealing with any of these problems.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful comment. My own experience biases me to favour celibacy for all priests. Our Bishop Damien Mead of the ACC is single and celibate, and earns his own living. However, I hear the opinions of priests who have had positive experiences of marriage and family life, and it has enhanced their vocations as priests. So, what can I say? If I were a Roman Catholic bishop with the option of ordaining married men, I would want to talk very candidly with the wife and find out her ideas about it. I would then want the priest to earn his own living with a marketable skill, preferably running his own business. I could only offer the priest the same meagre stipend as a single priest. I would have to be very clear about these points.

      I have been through a marriage break-up myself, and my Archbishop and Bishop Mead have been extremely supportive morally, knowing about my exact situation. That said, I do not have charge of a parish. My wife and I had no children for reasons over which neither of us had any influence. The matters to which you refer in your second paragraph can be a cause of many difficulties, especially in a RC context. Perhaps if there were more discernment on a case-by-case basis assuming the couple in question to be perfectly sincere….

  2. Stephen K says:

    An absolutely delightful evening.

  3. raitchi2 says:

    I’m a proponent of at least allowing the option of married men to become priests for two reasons. First, the current party line is that “we only accept men into the priesthood who also have a vocational calling to celibacy.” Have we bootstrapped the vocational calling of celibacy to priesting? Doesn’t this mean there are some men who have a calling to the priesthood, but do not have a calling to celibacy? I suppose the counter would be the that God isn’t calling any men to the priesthood without celibacy. However, if and when the RCC allows married men to be priests will God have suddenly changed His mind in regards to the men at that very moment who apply?

    Second, largely the abuse crisis is one not of child abuse (although that is horrible), but rather one of cover up. I don’t think people would be scandalized if each abuser had only abused one child and was immediately out the door and in a police car. People are scandalized by the institutional cover up again and again over decades. Married men in the priesthood would help this crisis, but not because the wife would be an outlet for sexual energy that would (presumably) have been spent on a choir boy. Rather married men would change the social order of the priesthood and seminary by being individual high level employees who have a nexus of support outside the institution.

    Let’s look at an average diocesan priest in the US. He enters a semi-monastic isolated training center for ~7 years in his early 20s. He spends most of his time discerning with other isolated men. He’s trained by his future co-workers. Often times many dioceses now want a technology fast (phones, internet etc) in order to help these men discern ostensibly to help them “detox” from our terrible culture (pornography, rage inducing social media etc.); however, now he can’t text home or send an email to an old romantic from high school. Then he learns skills that are really not marketable to the outside world. He’s then socialized into a world where his main support network is other coworkers (priests). He then earns money from his boss (bishop), lives on company property, receives promotions and demerits from his boss and has his retirement planned and managed by his boss–on top of all that at least in the US his boss has incredibly broad powers to make changes to any of the above without any real recourse. He also has internalized the idea that he can’t just get another job at another company (wither within the Church by hopping to the next diocese or outside of it by becoming some other Christian minister). Additionally in the USA he’s uprooted and moved from parish to parish ~every 7 years so that distance makes it hard to form concrete lasting relationships with those outside of the priesthood coworker club. Finally he’s often encouraged to keep his work persona as his only persona. He’s encouraged to wear his uniform when on non-work errands (buying groceries, going to the doctor’s office etc.)–There’s never a time that he’s not in his work persona.

    This is a situation where a man’s entire life is centered on his job and his role will be to protect the company at all costs since the company is his source of: personal meaning, friends, retirement, finance, social life, social status, religious meaning etc. When something comes to threaten his persona and the corporation at large, it is a direct threat to everything he is.

    Now imagine this world with married men as priests. Naturally some of them would have children. These guys couldn’t spend 7 years isolated from their wives and children, they’d have to be connected to them (sometimes families have emergencies and you’d have to leave theology class unexpectedly), he couldn’t live on seminary grounds unless his wife and kids lived with him, his main support network like many families would be his family, he may earn enough money from his bishop or not, but he couldn’t be reassigned every few years since this would uproot his children, and naturally he’d make more friends with his family’s social world and the interactions that come with having children (school, sports etc.).

    This is a guy who has a nexus of personal support outside of his job (priesting). He wont look to defend the company at all costs since it is one of his many treasured interactions (family, friends etc.) Even having a handful of these employees in a diocese would change the culture immensely. Additionally having situations where these men can change roles (being a priest to just being a dad) will give them a way to let off some of their “work pressures” especially since it would be odd for them to wear clerical garb while mowing the lawn or having a 5 year old’s birthday party. I’m a healthcare worker in the US, I love my job, but I get to take my scrubs off after my shift and blow off some steam in my non-professional life. I can’t image what it would be like if I went to the movies dressed in scrubs and white coat and my stethoscope on my neck. The pressure to keep up the professional appearance would be too much for me.

    Admitting married men would change to social dynamics of the priesthood such that scandals like the child abuse would become less common since you’d essentially be hiring people who are for lack of a better term “not 100% committed” to the corporation–this is not a bad thing. It’s great to have commitment to your job, but it’s a very different thing when your work become the only thing you do, think about, and from which you derive any meaning in your life. Married men in the priesthood would at the very least open the doors to whistle blowers inside the institution.

    • Stephen K says:

      OMG, raitchi2! How succinctly you have put the issue. There is nothing in what you have said that I disagree with. The mental stumbling block here is accepting that the way things have always been must be the way they must always be. The problem is the conflation of the vocation of “priesthood” with celibacy. I was instructed many years ago that the vocation to be monk had nothing to do with either but had everything to do with brotherhood and community. The same applied to sisters. So-called obstacles to celibate priesthood are culturally- and historically- based, not metaphysically-derived. As Father Anthony alludes to, not everyone is called to the same expression of mission or faith or apostolate.

      The core issue, I think, is how does each individual feel called to be a Christian? Let that be the starting point.

      • raitchi2 says:

        Hi Stephen,

        My thoughts are just a product of thinking about the priesthood for sometime. I’m a married layman in the RCC. However, I’ve often felt a pull towards the priesthood and did all the things 20-somethings do when you think you’re called to be a priest (seminary visits, discussions with religious and diocesan directors, vocational exploration groups, angst with girlfriends and dating). Ultimately I got married and have a career in healthcare which I see as a ministry all on its own.

        However, I still feel a pull toward the priesthood. I’m what in the middle ages would have been a cleric–I’m relatively devout, I consume religious devotional and educational content in my free time, I practice a liturgical morning and evening prayer as per the rubrics, I attend communal worship on appointed days. I’ve often thought it would be great if I could use my skills and knowledge to shepherd a small group (even just a 5-6 people who meet once per week for divine office and fellowship and maybe even some pastoral counseling), because I really do think I have some sort of calling in this field. I suppose I could do that as a layman, but at least in the RCC there’s an essential difference between the laity praying together and having a cleric to make it a ritual of the Church.

        You write, “…how does each individual feel called to be a Christian?” This is a great question. I think for the RCC there’s a real struggle with the essential difference between the laity and the ordained. We need a more robust theology of what’s the role of the laity. I mean currently it feels as if the RCC’s stance is “Laity! Do your best, and take what we give you–but [as the pandemic has shown with church closures–nearly a year in my own diocese] when ‘shit hits the fan’ you’re on your own.” In my own case, is there something to what I feel or am I just a sad adult version of the suck-up teacher’s pet? Should I just be smart like the other kids and blend into the background, do the minimum and get good enough grades to pass [into heaven]? It’s odd for me as an adult professional to think that despite the interests in religious material that I truly have no vocational calling to this thing and am merely fantasizing about a career like the majority of five year olds who say they want to be an astronaut. Perhaps the instituted lay-ministries (lector, acolyte and now catechist [and now open to women]) are the answer to the role for the religiously literate laity who don’t quite have the composition to sacrifice by entering some of the above noted social dysfunction for “real” vocations (priesthood/ religious life).

        I don’t know what would happen if the RCC were to suddenly allow married men to become priests. Currently by the party line I have no vocational calling to the priesthood as evidenced by my valid marriage. However, if the regulations were to change and my wife and I discerned it would work for us, could I do both–would I apply? I don’t know. Some might claim that I just have sour grapes about getting married and I in reality have denied my true calling (priesting) for my apparent “vocation” to my wife and career. However, I think the graces that I’ve received in my marriage and to an extent in my career are real and beneficial–at this point in my life, I would be dumbfounded at the pearly gates if st. Peter were to inform me that the whole marriage, healthcare, home, family thing was a giant failure and I should have suffered through what I felt in my 20s and still feel is a sociologically toxic culture to fulfil my real vocation to priesting.

        Perhaps all of this angst largely stems from what I feel is a broken theology of vocation. We currently have a theology that each male is born with a calling from God to the priesthood, religious life, or marriage (or in rare cases some specific combinations of the three); each female with a calling to religious life or marriage. Discerning this calling and nurturing it is your chief goal as a young Christian. The problem I see with the whole theology here is that we don’t have great epistemology to help individuals finding this calling. In essence all we have is an internal nudge that one route might be better for us than another, we wont really know our assignment until the exact moment laying on of hands or saying “I do”–making a different decision prior to those exact moments is just proof that you never “really” had a calling to that apparent vocation.

        After that inflection point in our Christian calling, it seems like we muddle along in our life trying to fulfill this role as best as we can trying our best to steer our boat of a vocation in the fog of this life in the direction of what we think is our safe harbor of salvation. Some of us will hit the rocks [laicization from priesthood / religious life, or divorce]. I suppose under the current party line these people have failed in their life calling by not nurturing it, being on guard etc. or they were lying phonies the whole time during their supposed ‘vocation’ (despite no one being the wiser). These two assessments are true in some cases, but I think the largely these are not the case. From my own outsider point of view, it seems like these unfortunate events are a subtle cross or opportunity for grace. I don’t really know how to assess what it means when a particular vocation falls apart–there is some disconnect between the internal forum [known only to God and partially to the individually] and the external forum [observable by all].

        On top of all of this we haven’t even touched upon what our secular careers for those of us that have them mean. Is there some “vocational” calling to a job? Is there a Catholic doctor’s calling? What about a Catholic landscaper? A Catholic fast-food burger flipper? I feel like there’s something to shining the light of Christ in your employment no matter what it is–some Zen like state of being the best burger flipper making each patty with care and attention because it will temporarily feed another soul created and loved by God the Father. It’s easy to see this light bearing in the “professional” jobs (being a caring doctor, a just lawyer, an honest banker, a good teacher), but can we see it in the ‘lesser professions’ (garbage collector, fast food attendant, etc.)? I think it exists, I’m just not sure how to articulate it.

        I fear a formal articulation of this “job vocation” would partially diminish the major vocational callings above. I.e. what would it mean for my calling to my marriage if I also have a calling to being a healthcare worker, a calling to being a good son, a calling to being a good citizen of my country, resident in my town. I fear describing these job-vocations as callings would pigeon hole my marriage to being limited to a calling per the 1662 BCP to the threefold: procreation, licit outlet for sexual urges and [a distant third] ‘mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other'” If we define each of these as callings from God, then aren’t we boiling the theology of vocation down to “in whatever of the many roles you find yourself, do you the best you can do while you’re in it?”

        Alright that’s enough for now…This “non-priestly vocation haver” has just spent the large part of his morning theorizing on a theology of vocation. I’ve got to get ready for a shift.

      • Dear Raitchi,

        I have found your reflections quite fascinating, and I greatly appreciate this reflection on a problem that is obviously extremely complicated. I belong to an institutional Church (Anglican Catholic Church) that ordains married men and accepts the marriage of priests. This is made possible by all of being non-stipendiary and looking after our own affairs like anyone, priest or not. We don’t have the RC Church’s problems of being an employer.

        We also don’t have the Counter-Reformation method of training priests in seminaries, involving studies and a monastic-like life in community such as I myself have lived when I was a Roman Catholic seminarian. We have been blamed for not training priests sufficiently or imparting a “clerical” attitude or philosophy of life. Now, we insist on university standards in theological learning and an “apprenticeship” in a parish. Our parishes are few and far between, so that is sometimes complicated. Some universities do correspondence courses, but we need books. Internet makes it possible to get pdf scans of books from libraries, done in such a way as to respect copyright laws. There are ways when there is the will.

        The Roman Catholic Church is blighted with what we call clericalism, which is to be found in any institution. It is fuelled by human lust for money and power – the 3 Temptations Christ faced in the desert. This clericalism is changing its form from a pseudo-monastic priestly caste to anonymous and dehumanised bureaucracy – like all non-religious institutions. What is our reaction if we are not self-aware? Nihilism.

        Money, power and elitism. Those who are not “up to scratch” don’t have the benefit of any compromise or concession on personal grounds. They are made to give up by means of grinding down their morale. All the same, it is better that they become atheists or people who don’t care rather than join another church (God forbid!) or another religion. That sounds awfully cynical, but that is how it is. You have to be competitive and motivated by that lust for status, just as working as a cog in the machine of a big business company. At the stage where things are now, it seems that the only reason for not maintaining celibacy (with a few special exceptions) is financial and practical. Single people are able to live a hard life – not families and women.

        It is not enough to be spiritually motivated, interested in the liturgy or theology, philosophy, a life that is different from the “normal” Rat Race. They don’t care if you make a little shrine or prayer corner in your house, however beautiful it is. What matters is raw power!

        Another aspect, in common with the modern world, is collectivism. John-Paul II developed his personalist philosophy as a reaction to the Communinist regime. Now, Communism is forgotten and is slowly returning in the form of “Cancel Culture”, “groupthink” and everything being done by teams. A person has no more importance than a single ant or bee. Humans are both a part of the community and transcendent persons. Priests are chosen from those who conform in every way to the group. No eccentricities are tolerated like in old-fashioned Anglicanism. Institutional Anglicanism has gone the same way.

        I have translated enough documents about corporate management to know about the methods which are now implemented in “mainstream” churches. The combination of nihilism and extreme individualism in young people and collectivism is creating a situation like in late 19th century Russia, the result being the Revolution and dystopia.

        I am not qualified to talk about marriage, since my own ended up in a “handful of dust” (cf. Evelyn Waugh). Many are happily married and are exemplary wives, husbands and parents. They too have to come to terms with the brave new collectivist world and the expectations (hyper-consumption) to which they are exposed.

        To the institution, the laity are a source of finance and at the same time are dispensable, a necessary burden to maintain the clerico-bureaucracy – just like in the civil world.

        I am a priest, but I have no clerical status in terms of temporal benefits. I have no traditional parish ministry. I often wonder what I am doing as a priest other than sharing my thoughts and writings with you all. Shepherd a small group? That is possible if you are connected, like working in a hospital, social care, etc. Talking with other people about anything above the level of small-talk is only possible through common interests. People who are interested in religion are extremely rare, but one can often get through to philosophical reflections and round-about paradigms close to Christianity. What is important is to teach people to think for themselves, know themselves and not be deceived by ideologies.

        I leave it to those who are “successfully” married to give a more positive view than I could ever give. I could almost say the same for priests who have a real ministry with real people attending their services in a proper church building. But we come round in the same old loop. Those things are financed by the clerico-collectivist system. We have to change our paradigm of ministry and our own social lives.

        Cuius regio eius religio – the Church follows the prevailing temporal regime. Since the fall of Communism, it is Keynesian capitalism and raw money. I suspect the advent of a new form of fascism under the appearance of angry young nihilists and a descent into something like communism. There are no charismatic Hitlers, Mussolinis or Stalins. The symbolism will be completely different so that we find it harder to recognise unless we have some notion of epistemology and the meaning of humanity. You touch on the meaning of life and vocation.

        I recommend reading authors like Thomas Mann and Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit. We have to find the meanings of our own lives. I haven’t found that easy with my break from the RC Church and my broken marriage. Fortunately, I am under the jurisdiction of a very sympathetic archbishop who ratifies my vocation as a priest and gives me my Mission. Most jobs aren’t vocations but a way of earning a living. Choose wisely to avoid becoming a slave! Your marriage is a vocation, not “Nach dem guten Essen (…) eine Frau gebrauchen”!

        Yes, get ready for a shift, and be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”.

      • raitchi2 says:

        Just a brief follow up on vocations that I saw on new liturgical movement. I felt it helps illustrate the current disconnect of the religiously literate laity who have no vocational calling to the priesthood/ religious life.

        Apparently this layman who has this home altar set up also lacks a vocational calling the priesthood under the current system. /s


      • Stephen K says:

        Thank you, raitchi2, for your thoughtful and forthcoming reflections. You raise relevant questions, particularly about the way we are trained to think about “vocation”, and whether it is useful or harmful. Here are some thoughts which your post has suggested to me.

        I was educated by firstly nuns, then brothers, and the latter school was regularly visited by recruiting priests. In my experience, “vocation” was nearly always spoken of in the context of a ‘vocation to the priesthood’ or a ‘vocation to the religious life’. Marriage was less commonly spoken of as a vocation. Marriage was perhaps for the also-rans. Bachelor or spinsterhood was not spoken of as any vocation in my recollection. I don’t want to overstate the characterization, particularly as I am remembering how it came across to me as a young boy and then youth, before I heard or appreciated the subtleties or nuances conveyed to adults. Nevertheless, there was a taint of inferiority, if not quite failure, if you settled for the normal state of affairs, or just simply never felt any desire or interest in religious or priestly life.

        And, in the case of most religious sisters and brothers, they are traditionally been regarded as technically laity too, because, unlike vowed monks – and cloistered nuns too (correct me if I’m wrong here) – they are termed lay religious, which I suppose is a kind of hybrid status. Whatever, the sisters and brothers who taught me, in their long black (or other colour) habits, were considered by the Catholic community with a similar, though not quite equal, kind of respect as afforded to priests.

        So, in my religious formation, the term vocation was first and foremost presented as a religious thing. It was often presented as a response by us to a prompting by God taking the form of an interest and curiosity.

        As you point out we also speak of a vocation in secular contexts, which I think stands for any pursuit that reflects our passion and talents, or a cause for greater good. So we might think of someone who pursues a teaching or nursing or welfare career, or a medical or legal profession – particularly where there is a pro bono element present – or even a lifelong traveler and explorer. I mean, surely Charles Dickens’ vocation was to be a writer? Or Sir Alexander Fleming or Madame Curie to be scientists? Or Winston Churchill or FDR to be politicians? And what was Bernard Moitessier’s vocation? Etc.

        So what is the common element if any? Someone is curious about machines from a very early age and ends up as a motor mechanic; someone is interested in how people think and feel and is drawn to psychiatry or psychology. Someone feels that making music brings such sense of completion they become a professional musician. So it is with religious attractions. It depends a lot on who we encounter in our early and growing lives and what influence they have on us. Sometimes parents can, for their own reasons or failings, prevent or discourage their children from developing their interests and so the would-be composer ends up as an accountant in the day-time and spends private time listening to records or CDs. That’s the way it can work too.

        In my case, I remember being quite un-attracted by the notion of priesthood when I was at altar boy age. I think there was so much separateness about priests and the way people treated them then that I never really ever overcame a certain sense of self-consciousness or even at times discomfort around them, even though I ended up in a seminary! I was certainly, in my teens, growing to feel attracted to the idea of explaining religion to others, through the pulpit (I was a debater and public speaker at school), and to the idea of bringing peace and comfort to others, through the confessional. I have ended up in my life doing these two sorts of things in secular contexts and I attribute this to my personality. I am of a philosophical bent, and an irenicist at heart, and this has certainy helped form my mature-years ideas about what “priest-ness” is and how it is expressed.

        One of the ideas I have come to is that every person can act like – indeed, as – a priest, as a channeller of God’s grace to others in the encounters we may have, and it only requires an habitual awareness or openness to these possible events and transactions. I had one the other day, where a young woman I did not know revealed a concern she had. It was a very personal thing and I tried to make an appropriate and helpful and empathic response. I can only attribute this to two things: my casual comment to her as we crossed paths was such that she felt she could trust me and for the rest ,I just think, in hindsight, that it was an “angel” (or “priest”) moment, and it is in such uncontrived encounters that we can connect like Jesus encouraged us to do, to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth, and by which we give expression to our inner self, and our true unique personality, which God wants us to be. The idea of a part-time priest is entirely a sensible one I think in the sense that I think priesthood is better understood as a way of acting rather than a status or caste that is independent and separate from the things one does in each moment.

        Continuing the idea of religious vocation – I think that we often lack sufficient variety of examples. I think I have a spiritual yearning, a desire for pared-down simplicity and the idea of equal brother-and sisterhood has always been attractive to me. But our options are perhaps frequently constrained by the forms we know. I did enter a Benedictine monastery for a short time, but I think that my religious vocation endeavours suffered from the same problem of young idealist or romantic men going off to enlist in the war to end all wars. Cannon fodder. I think that in the past, and even today, inexperience and youthfulness make fertile but often catastrophic recruitment material. I don’t regret any of my religious vocation endeavours and I now understand where they fit into my life and being. Maturity brings hindsight wisdom.

        If I – the person I am – had been born in Delhi or Calcutta, or in Indonesia, I may have had a similar trajectory as a Hindu or Muslim respectively. In our early years we are all accidental Christians, Hindus or Muslims (name your religious tradition).

        Finally, I think of all the people I have encountered and who have in one way or another taught me something. I have people in my life I love. They are in my life because of the different choices I made at different times. As I heard Spike Milligan say once, there is no dress rehearsal for Life”

        I think that rather than speak the language of “vocation”, or “calling”, whether in religious or secular contexts, it is far better to think in terms of learning who you are and what is the best you think you can be, and working on that project.
        Hope this makes sense.

      • Thank you, Stephen, for this. Words in any language are woefully inadequate to describe metaphysical realities. “Vocation” is one of these words that often becomes a euphemism of some completely foreign meanings. In my understanding, it would be something like being ourselves, finding our purpose in life and living / working according to it. Our ability to do so is not as “stable” and constant as others would expect of us. From where comes “that man is unstable”, therefore to be rejected from the clerical life.

        Most people I know, myself also to a great extent, have to make pragmatic decisions. One is to find a marketable skill and earn our living from that, spending a good part of the day doing it. Its only purpose is to earn money to pay our expenses, housing, bills, food and so forth. Most people in full-time employment are so committed to their job that they are exhausted as they return home, eat something, watch something on TV and go to bed. Someone whose work corresponds with his idea of meaning of life is extraordinarily privileged. Add to that the fact that most people have not become individuated to use the term of C.G. Jung. Most of us become cogs in the machine or ants in an ant hill. It would take little to bring about the ultimate Orwellian dystopia.

        For many of us, the idea of vocation will simply be to discover ourselves as persons and live according to a set of values in which we believe as something good for ourselves and others around us. Sometimes, someone can be a teacher, a priest or a doctor – working to do good in the world and not just earn the money we all need. In my experience, failure and brokenness are the things that push us to seek our own reality to prevent us from failing again. Life is short and there is an increasing sense of urgency as we grow older and reach the point where we have to let go.

        For the question of the Church, I live in France and have heard about many alternative ministries as parish life became gentrified from the early 20th century and the anti-clerical era. Priests learned to work during the day with ordinary people and forego the cassock. Continuing Anglicanism has also learned the same lesson, and most of us appear to the world as “ordinary guys”, just like Orthodox priests outside the parish context. It has been a bitter lesson to learn after my time in a traditionalist seminary. However, beware, there is a new form of clericalism with priests stereotyped in a particular way (suit and tie with a little cross pinned to the lapel) and lay bureaucrats. Rod Dreher has his ways of expressing things, but the idea of an underground church to stand firm in a hostile world is appealing. On condition that we avoid clericalism and pride. I too battle with the idea of priestly vocation when I am “that priest in northern France with no congregation“. This is why I often think of Fr Charles de Foucault in the Algerian desert where there were only Muslims, no Christians. He was a true “hard bastard” as Foreign Legion men are sometimes called.

        The Church is de-institutionalising. The very Christian idea is dying in most places in the west and being replaced by nihilist ideologies that could lead to a new form of communist revolution like in 1917. We face post-Christianity, post-modernity, post-rationalism, post everything, a new dark age. We now have to look within, at the Kingdom of God within ourselves. The more we do this, the more we can hope for the New Middle Age – the spirit of those who built the cathedrals. It is up to each of us, and that is our vocation – not to persuade other people and “evangelise” using commercial marketing methods, but to discover and live that mustard seed within ourselves. We are called, but also we yearn and are motivated to move forward. Novalis – the one who clears new ground.

    • Caedmon says:

      I have often thought that the Roman Catholic way of training priests is deliberately designed to make them as institutionalised as possible. I wonder has any research been done on how different the level of institutionalisation is among clergy of other churches. Does having a wife and family really make any difference?

      • Institutionalisation is essentially based on a noble idea which becomes self-serving as the salt loses its savour. It happens with any new and noble idea. I observe what happened in many of the non-conformist churches founded in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Methodism was essentially 18th century high Anglicanism with a pietist dimension like in many German spiritual traditions. All these churches become institutionalised and times have changed. The original idealism of someone like John Wesley is forgotten or misunderstood, and now the institution is dying.

        With the current crisis of the uncovering of decades of sexual corruption and perversion, institutions are being blamed, not only churches but every institution including politics, law, education, business and everything else. The current movement of nihilism is rejecting all institutions very much like my generation did in the late 1960’s. What would life be like without institutions? I suppose it would be a return to the jungle!

        Obviously in medio stat virtus. There have to be institutions. The Anglican Catholic Church is an institution and will go the same way one day. It just happens to be new enough for the motivating ideal to be at the forefront. I am not sure that this inevitability of birth, growth, complacency and demise can be overcome. The RC Church has been semper reformanda by the lives of its saints and mystics and idealists. However, the word reform also has many layers of meaning and euphemism. Making the Church more institutional and based on bureaucracy and “meetings about meetings” to replace clericalism is no solution.

        I suppose we just have to remain small and rely on our own strength and integrity, keeping things human and discerned by human intuition and not only by rational criteria. I don’t think the question is decided by being married or not, but the remaining “half-life” of what is biblically symbolised by salt or baker’s yeast in the institution in question.

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