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The Question of Vocations: Old and new issues

Marc Rastoin, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Oct 22nd 2021


The now clearly fragmented nature of the global Catholic world means that there are some very diverse situations regarding vocations to consecrated celibacy, both for  diocesan clergy and for those in religious life. Asia and Africa have slow but steady growth, while vocations continue to decline in the northern hemisphere and, in an almost similar way, in Latin America. Bishops, as well as superiors of religious orders, are writing letters to raise awareness of the issue.[1] Everywhere there is talk of making greater efforts to promote vocations. But is the problem really one of communication? We will try to offer some elements of an answer to this question, driven by the conviction that the situation calls for an in-depth analysis of social and ecclesial realities.

We will do so by paying particular attention to the case of the Society of Jesus. After all, it may perhaps represent a significant model, being widely involved throughout the world and the largest Catholic male religious Order.[2] That said, it is also the Order that has experienced the steepest decline since 1965, as Jesuit numbers have fallen from 36,038 that year (the highest number in their history) to 14,893 in 2020. Other Orders or Congregations enjoy a better vocational situation. The Discalced Carmelites, for example, had the same number of religious in 2019 as in 1965, namely, 4,000. The Catholic Church depends heavily on its consecrated ministers and also on its men and women religious who, in recent centuries, have contributed so powerfully to the development of the Catholic mission and its enterprises throughout the world. How can we understand the decline in vocations, at least in the lands of ancient Catholic tradition? It seems that a combination of factors, both ecclesial and sociological, must be taken into consideration.

The demographic factor: families with fewer than two children

Humanity has entered an unprecedented demographic situation. Many countries in the world have a fertility rate well below two (the threshold that guarantees the renewal of previous generations) and the percentage of elderly people has reached levels equally unprecedented in the long history of the human species. Is this something worth considering? We think so, as large families have always been an important source of vocations throughout history. On one of my trips to India in 2016, I saw that Jesuits over the age of 60-65 often came from families of 5-7 children, several of whom were also religious. Brother Jesuits in their 30s came quite often from families of three children, while their siblings usually had only one child. Even in a country where the vocation to the consecrated way of life is as widespread and socially valued as India, the number of consecrated persons cannot but have, mathematically speaking, a tendency to decline.

Similarly, the few vocations in Europe come mostly from large families. In the case of the French-speaking Western European Jesuit Province, the average number of brothers in a family from which vocations have come is about four, more than double the national average.[3] This is one of the reasons for hope for vocations in France, as in other countries (United States and Spain.): Catholic families there have more children on average. Their small number will not prevent the overall population of these countries from decreasing significantly in the decades to come, but this also gives us hope that there will be vocations due to the presence of young people in practicing families. The more the global ecological crisis grows, the more people will choose not to have children, and the more decisive the trust of Christians in welcoming life will become. But as pertinent as the demographic consideration is at the global level, we have not yet reached the heart of the matter. Other, more theological and cultural elements play at least as important a role.

The post-conciliar theological context: the weakened status of the priest

The post-Tridentine Catholic Church was based on priestly ministry, which was given great emphasis. This extreme clericalization led to the Second Vatican Council’s desire to emphasize baptism and the common priesthood of all the baptized. It is legitimate to affirm that the Council re-evaluated the role of the bishop, as well as that of the laity, but reflection on the ministerial priesthood remained in a rudimentary state. The post-conciliar period was followed by a profound crisis, with abandonment of ministry by a large number of clerics in a cultural and social context critical of tradition. All definitive commitments, including both marriage and consecrated celibacy, were emphatically called into question. We will return to this point. The fact is that vocations became fewer in the traditionally Catholic world of Europe and North America, while they increased especially in Asia and Africa. In these regions the traditional clerical model remained very persuasive.

The new model of the married permanent deacon, proposed by the Second Vatican Council, was only really implemented in countries where vocations were declining.[4] The choice of celibacy for the Kingdom became increasingly countercultural in the West, while questions about its relevance gained ground in most of the Catholic world. Should priestly celibacy be called into question? Should married men be ordained alongside celibates? Is it not necessary to revise the Tridentine model of large seminaries detached from the world? Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger[5] came to the conclusion that it was necessary to form seminarians in small communities closely linked to parishes, a model that has been implemented in the Paris seminary since 1985. In addition, he thought that it was necessary for priests, even diocesan ones, to live in small communities if the rule of ecclesiastical celibacy was really to be maintained. He expressed himself in this sense at the Synod on the formation of priests convened by Pope John Paul II in 1990. In the same year he created La Fraternité Missionnaire des Prêtres pour la Ville to enable diocesan priests to serve as a team in the poorest dioceses. This became ultimately a communal, missionary and local version of the approach of Pius XII’s encyclical Fidei Donum (1957).

Undoubtedly, the question of the identity of the priest has become a real issue in the post-Vatican II Church. As a result vocations today in the West are numerous in families and circles theologically close to the pre-conciliar vision, which have maintained a very high conception of the priest. In France a significant number of seminarians belong to groups linked to the Tridentine rite or who strongly emphasize the traditional image of the priest. There is a kind of “pincer effect”: if families from more liberal backgrounds are less inclined to foster vocations to  the consecrated life in their children, the more traditionalist families provide an increasing share of new vocations.

The fact that certain Catholic circles seem to be leaning toward the ordination of married men, or the ordination of women – which would certainly constitute a major sociological and theological change – further weakens the mindset of young Catholics who might be attracted to the consecrated missionary life, but who reject giving up the sexual dimension of their lives for it. How can one choose a lifestyle that is so difficult and, moreover, so contested? In short, a certain theological and ecclesiological crisis of the role of the priest in the Church is detrimental to vocations in the circles that have welcomed the conciliar reforms more favorably, while the strong reaffirmation of the fundamental significance of the priest in traditionalist circles encourages vocations within them. This brings the risk of perpetuating forms of clericalism that there is a tendency in some circles to denounce, especially because of the crisis of sexual abuse. In fact, it is difficult to talk about vocations without talking about the crisis caused by such abuse, which has been at the forefront of debates and media coverage about priests for more than 30 years.

Clericalism and abuse

Indeed, the latest studies on the issue of sexual abuse clearly emphasize that it often has its origins in a clerical culture that places the priest in a dominant position, characterizing him as a man whose authority cannot be challenged. In addition to the demographic issue, it has been widely noted that many cases of abuse dating back to the 1960s and 1970s involved the numerous vocations of children who entered minor seminaries at a very early age, or those who entered major seminaries at a young age, and who had almost never had ongoing contact with the opposite sex. There was a whole sense of sacredness around the figure of the priest. When one examines the case of certain notorious perpetrators of abuse, such as the brothers Marie-Dominique and Thomas Philippe or Marcial Maciel, one finds that the figure of the priest was considered completely sacred in their circles and that they used this to perpetrate abuse.

How can we present the priestly figure in a more evangelical and less clerical way? How can we speak to young Catholics today about vocation and its beauty after so many excesses of over-idealization and so many instances of abuse? Many young people in the West may legitimately wonder if they will be assisted spiritually and humanly to persevere in their choice. It is here that another factor comes into play that is little mentioned in the documents on vocations: the question of perseverance.

In fact, one might have thought that after the great clerical crisis of the decade 1968-78, which saw thousands of priests and consecrated persons leave, greater attention would have been given to the accompaniment of vocations, the normalization of later vocations and greater personalization of formation paths.  These would have led to a much lower rate of abandonment. It is a fact that abandonment continues to occur at a rapid rate. This is so not only for one or another diocese or religious Order, but almost everywhere. If we consider the case of the Society of Jesus, we see that from 2011 to 2020 it recorded an average of 270 abandonments per year. When one compares this to the number of entries (400 per year on average, over the same period) one sees the scale of hemorrhage this represents. Does this happen because formation is neglected or spiritual accompaniment is poorly managed or not present? One would not think so, because this is a pressing concern of major superiors and those responsible for formation. And yet, all congregations and dioceses experience numerous cases of abandonment. Other weighty cultural factors also make perseverance more difficult.

Young people today, like their married brothers and sisters, feel less bound by the commitments they have made before God. They more readily accept that they will be challenged. The attitude of those who stay is generally benevolent. Those who leave are wished well on their “new journey” in a very natural way. Of course, one might consider that, unlike marriage, no other human being is being “harmed.” However, that would be a mistake, as abandonments affect the entire body of the Church. But why is it considered normal that so many young men who have been accompanied for so long, so many young priests who have been able to make several Spiritual Exercises focused on their vocation, abandon this primary commitment? Is it a commitment to God that has been carefully considered and freely assumed? It does not seem that many do so when threatened by deep depression or the awareness of a serious error made in their initial discernment. No: they say that it is time to turn the page, that they have taken a good look at the situation, that they no longer have the incentive to continue,[6] that the commitment to celibacy is too hard, that a new and more attractive prospect is opening up for them.

On the other hand, this phenomenon can also be observed in some separations of married couples, in which it is no longer so much serious faults or intense psychological suffering that led to breaking the bond as the desire to open a new chapter, a certain boredom, an existential dissatisfaction, where the search for one’s own personal fulfillment occupies the most important place. It is not a matter of condemning individual attitudes, but of recognizing that it is the general ethos of society as a whole that is not conducive to fidelity, in the sense of the ability to endure difficulties, to bear frustration and disappointment.

The cultural context

Any reflection on the question of vocations, as well as on preparation for marriage, must take into account the new reality of young adults, first of all in the West, but increasingly in the rest of the world due to the globalization of practices and customs. The American psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has been reflecting for 25 years on young people in the 18-28 year age group.[7] They are no longer adolescents, but neither are they adults. The concept of young adulthood, or emerging adulthood, seems very appropriate for understanding the reality of the new generations.[8] Arnett studies these young people, who are continuing their education or still living with their parents, having difficulty finding housing and jobs, or who do not intend to make a lasting commitment to a life choice before the age of 30. Why has it become so difficult – and so time-consuming – to become an adult? The psychologist explains that these young people are often uncertain about their own identity and are therefore quite narcissistic – without necessarily implying moral judgment – quite unstable, and feel they are not up to the demands of the “adult” world. Consequently, they multiply their options and experiences and delay as long as possible the moment of a definitive commitment, perceived as difficult or impractical.

There are no longer established rites of entry into adulthood, nor is there compulsory military service (for men). In an increasingly service-oriented economy, studies are lengthened, and the generalization of university education leads to an inflation of diplomas that further accentuates the phenomenon for the upper classes. Choosing the consecrated life after having studied for a long time and having lived through various affective experiences seems more difficult but not impossible. In fact late vocations have increased in the First World. But their small number does not allow dioceses or congregations to carry out their functions. Moreover, the process of formation was not really designed for people who enter the process between the ages of 30 and 40.

‘The elephant in the room’: the taboo of renunciation

It is surprising that only a few debates or documents on the issue of vocations mention the role of sexuality. As is often the case in the Catholic Church – but it is not the only one – the question of continence for the Kingdom, the “vow of chastity” for religious, is a sensitive topic. However, it must be addressed clearly and without ideological assumptions.

The entire evolution of Western culture since 1968 has placed the question of sexual fulfillment – including the possibility of choosing or assuming one’s gender identity – at the center of individual identity and struggles. An ascetic and mystical life choice based on continence is now more than ever a radically countercultural choice, with the exception of traditionalist-style circles that make it a point of honor to maintain the ancient conceptions of virginity before marriage and the valuing of consecrated life. The more society as a whole places sexual gratification at the center of its values, the more spiritual searching values intimate and private mysticism and meditation practices aimed at accompanying the individual in his or her search for personal well-being, the more difficult the voluntary and tranquil choice of the vow of chastity becomes.

Vocation is often presented as a positive choice of great generosity for Christ and for the Kingdom. Images of young people accompanying refugees or street children, or a group climbing mountains and practicing sports are proposed. All this is fine, but it is impossible to deny the dimension of self-denial that consecrated life entails. The Spanish theologian Gabino Uribarri has shown this masterfully in a text of great density, entitled “El celibato del Señor Jesús y vocaciones.”[9] He observes that it is extremely rare for preachers and formators to connect the miracles and social commitment of Jesus and his focus on the Kingdom of God with his commitment to celibacy for the Kingdom. And he goes so far as to say: “If one keeps to the way of living faith in Jesus that many committed Christians allow to emerge, one gets the impression that their image of Christ would not be any different if he had not been celibate. In fact, I would even go so far as to include in this group of Christians a certain number of religious men and women and priests.” Uribarri calls a spade a spade: “Celibacy is one of the most obvious identifying features of religious life. It goes against the culture and against nature.”

The Spanish theologian seeks to restore importance to the provocative expression used by Jesus to speak of this eschatological choice for the Kingdom, that of “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom.” In the ancient world, eunuchs were despised and barely deserved the name of men. To assume or accept such a definition for himself was an incredible statement on Jesus’ part. “Jesus the eunuch appears completely against the grain, scandalously so, in this cultural and religious context. Moreover, Jesus’ celibacy could not have been something marginal to his faith, with the significance of an anecdote or a matter of record. On the contrary, we are faced with one of Jesus’ most mature, most decisive, clearest, most provocative and most innovative options. For him, at the origin of his option for celibacy there must be what proved to be fundamental to him: his sense of the Kingdom and his sense of God. Jesus’ celibacy flows from the center of his life and message.”

The urgency of the Kingdom and the mystical choice

One cannot separate the proclamation of the Kingdom of God from this existential choice made by Jesus. As Søren Kierkegaard clearly understood, the Church of Christ could not be itself without the possibility of consecrated celibacy.[10] In other words, the only thing that can induce a believer to make such a choice, today as in the past, is the fact of sharing this burning sense of apostolic urgency, of making one’s own the inner feelings of Jesus, of accepting death and dying on the cross, personal and social humiliation, the absence of a tenderness that expresses itself sexually and the absence of descendants. It is a choice that can only be made on the basis of an inner experience of a mystical nature, analogous to that of Christ himself. In this sense, the pastoral guidance of vocations can have only one aim: to permit a young person to live an intimate spiritual experience of Christ,[11] an experience so strong that all other created realities pale in comparison.

It is the Kingdom that has first place. It is God in majesty and in God’s incomparable existence where the Absolute is found. As Uribarri writes: “Jesus does not explain his celibacy on the basis of the functional character of the proclamation of the Kingdom. He is not celibate because in this state he is freer to move from one place to another, or freer to consecrate himself to prayer: he is celibate because the times are fulfilled; he is celibate because of the eschatological character of his proclamation of the Kingdom, not because of the need to consecrate himself in a more concrete and vigorous way to this proclamation. This is how I understand the passage in Matthew: ‘There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 19:12). To express in their lives and in their flesh the presence of the Kingdom in our midst is the greatest, most important, most definitive reality, which relativizes everything else.”

Vocations will perhaps arise naturally in believing families and communities in which faith and the service of God are the principal values and which make this their countercultural choice. In the global social cultural context, which is very prickly toward any religious affirmation – at least in Europe[12] – it will therefore be a question of avoiding entering into a logic of neo-orthodox or traditionalist retreat, in which distancing oneself from the world would become a value in itself. The challenge for the Church today is that the choice of celibacy should not come primarily from the sociological logic of some circles to maintain themselves as a living counterculture, but much more from an acute sense of the Kingdom, from a faith born and nourished by strong interior experiences, similar to those that the Spiritual Exercises seek to promote in the exercitant. After all, for Jesus, as for us, it is a spiritual, mystical question: “Jesus experienced a seduction by God that filled his life and soul, absorbed him entirely, conquered his heart, making him truly incapable of reconciling the mission he had received from God, his tender and affective relationship with the Father, with the other healthy and good dimensions of life. In a mystical way, God took possession of his whole being and all his aspirations, and it is on this that Jesus concentrated all his affectivity, to open himself to people of every category.”

The question of consecrated vocations is not primarily a question of communication or means. It confronts the Catholic Church with the burning problem of its institutional and ordinary functioning. Does the Church want to maintain the priest as the cornerstone of its ministerial task, while eliminating the risks of clericalism and abuse of power? How can it continue to propose a path of formation both in Western countries, where vocations are rare and very different from what they were half a century ago, at the same time older and more traditionalist, as well as in countries with a population that is still young and with a still traditional conception of the priest? What place is given to religious sisters, whose numbers are also in sharp decline, and the question of the role of women in the life of the Church? The absence of a theological discourse on women religious should also be noted here.[13]

Even in Jesus’ day, celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom was by no means an easy or common choice. The reaction of the disciples to the way Jesus talked about it is significant. Although we know with certainty that many of the early apostles were celibate and itinerant, it is no less certain that a good number of community leaders were married, as the pastoral letters explicitly state. And in the later history of the Church, the institution of clerical celibacy was never overtly enforced or unchallenged. In a sense, it was perhaps the 19th and 20th centuries – centuries of strong population growth and greater clerical emphasis – in which celibacy was most chosen and experienced by many priests. This era, however, is over.


The ecclesial, theological, demographic and sociological context that favored the evangelical choice of celibacy on the part of a large number of consecrated persons has undergone a radical change in recent decades, and there will be no turning back. Any realistic discourse on vocations must take note of this. How can the choice of a consecrated life still be made, despite its increasingly demanding aspects, both socially and ecclesially? Ultimately, it is a matter of a mystical, radical and countercultural choice that can only be made in the context of the most intimate prayer, in a personal relationship with the Lord. That is why everything that will promote the prayerful intimacy of a young person with Christ will help to make this choice, crucifying in itself, yet possible and lovable. The question of the formation of young Catholics, from adolescence to young adulthood, becomes a key element in the equation. What places of formation will foster the emotional and psychological maturity capable of keeping them serene in their ultimate life choices?[14]

As we can see, the question of the consecrated vocation is inseparable from that of marriage, and both have to do with the question of formation and the ethics of virtue in a society in which the choices demanded by the Kingdom have become more countercultural than ever. How can aging societies – which hold individual fulfillment and consumerism as key values and where young people struggle to find their identity – still form young people capable of a radical gift of self? And, above all, how can we prevent the reduction of Catholic believers to small, fervent and neo-Orthodox nuclei from making the only possible solution a necessarily reactionary return to an ancient Tridentine model?

Dealing with the question of consecrated vocations in the Catholic Church presupposes a rigorous analysis of present-day societies at the demographic, sociological and cultural levels. It also leads to radical questions of a theological and ecclesial nature, which concern the Church’s conception of herself. This probably will lead to the discovery of a new way of approaching the issue of vocation in its radicality and evangelical freshness. Perhaps we have not yet finished writing the Second Vatican Council in the “flesh” of the Church.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.9 art. 4, 0921: 10.32009/22072446.0921.4

[1].      For example, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Arturo Sosa, wrote a letter on this topic on April 12, 2021.

[2].      For only a short time because current trends will see the Salesians (14,476 in 2020) within two or three years becoming largest Catholic religious congregation.

[3].      At the same time, the number of vocations coming from converts or from families with little religious commitment is also growing.

[4].      In some regions of Latin America, the permanent diaconate appeared as a possible response to the evangelization needs of indigenous peoples. But in this case it was not a question of a decrease, but rather an absence of vocations to the priesthood.

[5].      He was Archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005.

[6].      Younger priests, who are scarce and often overloaded, are often affected by burnout. Cf. G. Ronzoni (ed), Ardere, non bruciarsi. Studio sul “burnout” tra il clero diocesano, Padua, Messaggero, 2008; P. Ide, Le burn-out: une maladie du don, Paris, Quasar, 2015.

[7].       See J. J. Arnett, “Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties”, in American Psychologist 55 (2000) 469-480; Id., Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach, Boston, Prentice Hall, 20104.

[8].      It is interesting that the French term adulescents was coined by advertisers to designate, in a rough way, this age group. The Italian equivalent “adultescenti” seems to be little used. Cf. M. Ammaniti, Adolescenti senza tempo, Milan, Raffaello Cortina, 2018.

[9].       Cf. G. Uribarri Bilbao, “El celibato del Señor Jesús y vocaciones”, in Promotio Iustitiae 59 (1995) 25-27. All the following quotations are taken from this text.

[10].    The distinction between religious consecration and presbyteral priesthood should be noted. Celibacy is intrinsic to religious life, but the relationship is of a different nature for the presbyteral priesthood. In the latter case, rather than an absolute necessity, it is a matter of profound theological convenience.

[11].    It is always surprising to note that young people reflecting on the priesthood – or religious life – have often thought about a vocation or had a personal experience of God (in the form of consolation) when they were young.

[12].    Actually, the evolution in the United States has been very rapid over the past decade, with the percentage of  those without religion(Nones) increasing from 15 percent to 26 percent of the surveyed population. See

[13].    As one religious sister pointed out to me on reading these lines, the question of female religious vocations would require a specific article.

[14].    In a country like France, the large number of vocations coming from the scout movements makes one think of scouting as a good school of renunciation and learning to live a life “for” others.

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