MEETING OF THE SUPERIORS AND VOCATION DIRECTORS, PART ONE
Last week the Vocation Directors and the Superiors of our monasteries of the United States Region met to consider the current vocation crisis and what response our communities might make. Our nuns and monks convened at Holy Spirit Abbey, Conyers, Georgia, bringing together sixteen vocation directors and thirteen superiors. Usually, when our novice directors or junior directors meet, they prefer that the Abbots and Abbesses not be present to allow the freedom to discuss pastoral, confidential situations. This was a very different sort of meeting to raise consciousness about the current state of religious vocations and to disseminate data to all our community members. The presence of the superiors also underlined the current importance of the vocation directors’ role.
You will find no mention of a vocation director in St. Benedict’s Rule; until the end of the twentieth century, most monks and nuns found their own way to the monastery. At one time, the novice director and the superior interviewed the candidate. When I inquired about a monastic vocation in 1976, I first spoke to the Guest Master about how to proceed and then I was directed to the Vocation Director, a role already in place. After one interview, I began speaking to the Novice Director who carried the rest of the process through; it was only during my observership that I first met the Abbot. How things have changed! Today a candidate may be corresponding with the Vocation for a couple of years and speaking to him whenever he makes a retreat at our Guest House before he actually begins an observership. All the while, they are getting to know one another, the vocation director is providing support and advice while considering the candidate’s potential for this vocation.
The vocation director is the face of the monastery to the candidate and must keep the monastery’s good in mind; his or her job is not only to welcome new members but to keep unsuitable, disruptive candidates out of the community. Vis-a-vis the candidate, the vocation director has the responsibility to help discern to which vocation God is calling that candidate; it does no one a service to push people into the Abbey’s novitiate if they don’t belong here. Often the suitability of the candidate cannot be proven before hand; it must be tried. An observership can tell a lot–both to the community and the candidate. Even after an observership, a likely candidate then needs the experience of the postulancy and novitiate. An individual grows into this vocation and is not pre-packaged or picked up off an assembly line! Most of all, even the most likely, the most capable candidate must be willing to accept the challenges of commitment to a particular community.
On that score, the commitment is not unlike that to a marriage: each member of the partnership must be willing to work through the problems that will inevitably arise. If the candidate doesn’t want the inconvenience of being stretched by the challenges of this vocation in general or of the community in particular, the vocation isn’t viable. If the community is unable to respond to a candidate or dealing with its own problems, there would be no viable milieu to support the vocation. Clearly, all the factors that feed or frustrate a vocation deserve careful and concrete consideration.
The first two days of the meeting in Conyers were devoted to input from Br. Paul Bednarczyk, CSC (Holy Cross Congregation). Br. Paul is the executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC). Because his conference deals with religious vocations, it is not under the US Bishop’s National Conference but works closely with the US Bishops and the National Vocation Office. When Br. Cassian of the Conyers’ community approached NRVC for a speaker, Br. Paul jumped at the chance to take on the job himself, bringing with him his experience in vocation work in his own Congregation and now on a national level.
One of his observations, that should not be underestimated, is the importance of the vocation director today for any institute of consecrated life, but especially for monasteries like ours. If in the past people found their way to communities, that is no longer true. Most Catholics do not know that we exist or where we are located. Gone are the days–as was the case in the 1950’s when I was in Catholic grammar school–when the teaching sister told the class about religious life or the different forms of religious life. I grew up with the image of a monk as a possibility for my future. I’d heard about monks turning swamps into arable land and about the daily round of prayer and the beauty of the liturgy. And it certainly made a difference that I was taught by someone who had professed vows. How many religious still teach in our Catholic schools? Who is evoking the images of consecrated or monastic life in young imaginations?
Many of the Abbey’s friends, so many visitors to our Retreat House have told me of their prayers for vocations to Holy Cross and how important it is that we continue here and share the fruits of our life through our hospitality. But how many of you would actually want to picture your grandchildren or children as monks and nuns? How many of you would prefer someone else to make that sacrifice? Would you actually cultivate the possibility of a monastic vocation on a young person’s horizon? Would you actively discourage the contrary values of our society that stifle such aspirations?
These factors mean that we must seek vocations, even stimulate them and not wait for people to seek out the monastery on their own.
The other factors that complicate the picture deserve consideration but I’ll save that reporting for the next post.
to be continued…