Obstacles and successes in British vocation ministry

Obstacles and successes in British vocation ministry

By Cath Lloyd R.S.C.J., Paul Smyth C.M.F.

There may be a great fire in your soul, but no one ever seems to come to warm himself at it, and the passersby see only a little bit of smoke coming through the chimney, and pass on their way. Now… one must tend that inward fire, have salt in oneself, and wait patiently, yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down near it, to stay there maybe. Let him who believes in God wait for the hour that will come sooner or later.

These words attributed to Vincent Van Gogh at a time when his work was being ignored or completely disregarded, resonate deeply with the experience of many religious congregations in England and Wales. Van Gogh’s image of tending inward fires and waiting for others to come round to our world view, is a powerful image for describing the general picture of vocation ministry in England up until about three years ago. Today there is a greater sense of optimism. But a few years back, Van Gogh’s picture of passively waiting in hope for someone to step off the road and join us by the fire, seemed fitting.

Many congregations had ceased active vocation ministry altogether. The number of individuals named to this ministry were few and far between. They fit their vocations job (and it was often regarded as a job, not a ministry!) around another full-time ministry. Many spoke of the frustration of trying to work without a budget, of the lack of congregational support and the perception that they were “recruiters,” failing badly as no one was joining religious life. The mood among British vocation ministers is more hopeful today, but first, let’s look at the context in which the ministry has been operating.

A snapshot of religious life

The dismal state of vocation ministry reflected the general feeling of malaise that had permeated religious life in Britain for some years. In common with other Western European countries, we have experienced a steep drop in the numbers of those seeking to enter priesthood and religious life. While there has been an upsurge in interest in new movements, this seemed to embody a particular vision of church that did not resonate with the vision of congregations that have undergone Vatican II renewal. For many in our society the increasing secularism and the acknowledgement that Britain is a post-Christian society has left people feeling that institutional religion is irrelevant. Of a population of 56 million, it is estimated that only 7 percent of the nation now regularly attend a weekly act of worship. The expansion in possibilities for communication and travel and the influx of immigrants from around the world have all served to make people aware of the wide range of possibilities that exist for spiritual expression. It would be more common to describe Britain as multi-faith rather than Christian. The growth of interest in New Age spirituality has resulted in a postmodern experience of religious practice expressed in a pick-and-mix society.

Within religious congregations, two trends have contributed to religious becoming almost invisible, leaving room for stereotypes to flourish. One trend has been the revision of apostolic commitments which led many congregations to leave the large institutions and projects through which they were easily identified. The other is the loss of religious habits. Many young people in Catholic schools in England might never come across a religious. The aging demographic picture of those in religious life reflects the aging of the population nationwide.

Another trend in Britain at the moment is that there are very few Catholic novices to women’s orders. In 2004-5, for the first time since it began, there were no Roman Catholic novices in the inter-congregational novitiate program. A significant number of participants in the programs during recent years are novices brought here from abroad to undergo formation, or foreigners who have settled in England and Wales and have decided to enter religious life here. While a few years ago the majority of entrants to religious life were older people (some even grandparents), in recent years the age profile appears to be going down.

The social context

Following are just some of the elements of the British social context that forms the background from which prospective candidates enter religious life:

  • current and constant threat of war,
  • pop culture,
  • growth of violence,
  • growing drug culture,
  • family break up and co-habitation,
  • information technology revolution,
  • terrorism (IRA and post-911),
  • technical and medical advances,
  • growth of feminism,
  • economic boom,
  • culture to sue,
  • lack of respect for authority,
  • green issues,
  • broad career opportunities,
  • education, university,
  • Star Wars, threat of nuclear war,
  • one-parent families,
  • permissive society,
  • awareness of pedophilia and abuses of power,
  • debt culture,
  • mass communication (mobile phones and Internet).

These changes in society provide the context for vocation ministry, and religious congregations are challenged to find ways of expressing their values and mission in ways that inspire others to explore joining them. Some would say that there is apathy among the young from 18 years of Thatcherism, which spoke increasingly of there being no such thing as society.

When Tony Blair was elected prime minister, it was by young voters, energized by the Labour promise. Less than 10 years since that initial victory, more 18- to-25-year-olds regularly vote in the reality show Big Brother than voted in 2001 general elections. Young people are politically aware but profoundly disillusioned with party politics and institutions. To counter the charge of apathy, there are signs of tremendous awareness and support for social and green issues. Within the church many young people seem to find their religious expression in relation to religious movements or pilgrimage experiences, rather than through participation in regular parish life. In recent years campaigns such as Make Poverty History, antiwar marches and the trade justice movement are capturing the imagination of young people.

Vocation ministry today

All of these social factors affect vocation ministry, which itself has undergone something of a sea change in the last few years. The reasons for this are many and varied, but it would be fair to say that a new mood of optimism prevails in religious life in Britain, with a clearer understanding of who we are and what we are about. With this comes a new confidence about inviting others to join us.

The Ferdinand Benedictine sisters vocations workshop held annually in Indiana has captured the imagination of many congregations around the world, and Britain and Ireland are no exception. Many congregations have sent representatives to this program, and clearly this has helped congregations to re-build the culture of vocation in their own contexts.



In February 2005, 12 brothers from seven British congregations gathered in Westminster, England to review the reality and meaning of the vocation of brother today and ways to promote it.

The gathering grew out of frustration with brothers’ public image and a desire to shape a positive future. “It was our common experience, even at church gatherings about vocations, to find that the vocation of brother was either ignored, forgotten or mentioned as a hasty and apologetic afterthought when someone whispered to the speaker!” wrote Benedict Foy, FSC and Michael Newman, OH in a report on the meeting. “We feel we are at a point of choice for each of us— to opt for life by really being brothers, or for death, by hanging onto traditional structures and perceptions.”

Participants started the day by reviewing an informal survey about brotherhood and how it might be promoted. Foy and Newman reported these conclusions from the discussion of the survey:

1) “Being a brother is fundamentally about being relational, about ‘standing alongside others.’”

2) “Lay spirituality as brothers is an important gift for the church and for society in these days, where so many, especially young people, are unchurched or alienated from the formal structures of society.”

3) “We wish to stress we are counter-cultural to many values in society and the church, that we are incarnational rather than hierarchical.”

4) “We want to promote this view of brothers....” The group concluded that brothers need to be “far more pro-active in introducing ourselves, in offering our services and in cooperating with local initiatives,” such as career days and vocation days. Participants decided that brothers should be telling who they are through booklets, leaflets, video, Web sites, etc. They discussed a collaborative Web site depicting brothers as real people, living real lives in the ordinary world. The meeting concluded with gratitude for the sense of encouragement participants found in coming together and a commitment to further meetings and collaboration.

—Carol Schuck Scheiber


Many congregations are now investing in Web sites and updating and improving publicity materials. Most have appointed a vocation ministry team and in some cases, a full-time vocation minister with a budget and a clear brief of his or her role. There is an increasing awareness that vocation ministry is the responsibility of all members of the congregation.

Vocation ministry teams within congregations are becoming increasingly creative about how they approach this ministry. They are, importantly, collaborating more with other congregations and bodies in the church to foster vocations. Furthermore congregations are inviting lay people to play an important part in congregational programs.

All of this is happening against a broader backdrop of what has been taking place in the last few years with regard to vocation ministry in the Catholic Church in England and Wales. One of Cardinal Basil Hume’s dreams was to rebuild a culture of vocation in a society which had lost sight of the meaning of that word. He and his successor have wanted to promote a deeper understanding of the vocation of all people as children of God who express their sense of God’s love through choices to live as married, single, clerical or vowed Christians. This dream led to the establishment of the National Office of Vocation, which works to raise awareness of each individual’s vocation at both the local and national level.

Some might argue vocation ministry today is the last bid for life of a dying organism! In England and Wales the statistics would suggest that religious life in its present form is changing rapidly. There are about 9,700 apostolic and contemplative religious men and women, of whom about 800 are under 55. These figures have profound implications for the future shape of religious life in these islands.

It is important to explore the motives behind renewed congregational interests in vocation ministry. Are we tending our inward fires motivated by a desire to survive, or are we motivated by the desire to continue the work inspired by our respective charisms? Is the struggle to be visible about being seen and identified, or is it about who we make visible and which Gospel values we communicate? The answers to these questions, if we are honest, are complex and probably lie along a continuum between the two ends.

Timothy Radcliffe OP, in a recent interview, spoke about vocations to religious life: “If people see religious life as just a comfortable option, they are not going to be attracted to it. We don’t want recruits because we want to survive. It is not a valid reason. We want individuals to join because we want them to preach the Gospel in China, for example. We want them to do something jolly difficult.”

Raising difficult issues

The increasing awareness that religious life in Britain in its present form is changing rapidly invites us as religious to face the possibility of our own congregational demise in these islands. Facing the possibility of death and change, which takes us into the unknown, is not an easy process, but it brings a degree of inner peace and releases an energy unencumbered with anxiety. In a recent gathering for religious under 60, space was created to explore the reality of “living in the meantime”—this moment in between the expression of religious life as it was and the expression it will take in the future. “The meantime” was identified as a space of “hoping and coping,” a place of energy and grace. What was clear was the need for networking and collaboration between members of different congregations.

Vocation ministers not only work with potential members but invite congregations to reflect on issues and questions related to call and response. Sometimes these invitations touch raw nerves and hook into doubt, questions and a low-lying depression that sometimes prevails in our communities and congregations. Vocation ministers move their communities to reflect on tensions and questions about living religious life in a post-Christendom secularized context. One superior general recently suggested that vocation ministry requires a degree of asceticism. “It is a tough job, but because it is tough it doesn’t mean it is not essential or indeed holy.”

We are also faced with the reality that at the moment, despite renewed efforts in vocation ministry, there have been few improvements in the numbers of people entering and staying in religious life in recent years. Perhaps it is too soon to judge? Perhaps we need to begin asking more fundamental questions related to the nature of how we understand our religious life in Britain and how we live out that understanding.

Pilgrim model and new forms of collaboration

One of the models which has captured the spiritual imagination of the 21st century is that of the pilgrim. The pilgrim embodies a deep sense that there is a journey to be made. Pilgrimage is traditionally a journey to a sacred place—a place where saints and other holy people have walked. A place where God has met people as they are and blessed them. Pilgrimage suggests leaving behind what encumbers and what is known and safe. It involves journeying with others, not usually chosen companions. Through shared conversation and silence we can reflect on our lives and our journey toward God.

The image of the pilgrim is important to these islands and seems appropriate as a model for vocation ministry in Britain. It contrasts with Van Gogh’s passive image from the beginning of this article, in which we tend our own fires and wait for others to come to us instead of taking our fire out to others and lighting a way forward with companions. Pilgrimage implies movement, risk and discovery. One way vocation ministers are lighting a way forward with companions is through increased collaboration among religious orders on vocation projects. Some examples are:

  • Web sites A general Web site operates as a gateway to sites of individual congregations. It also presents information and resources to help in vocation discernment. See www.godknowswhere. org.uk.
  • School vocation project Recognizing that many young people have no contact with religious, materials are being created for use in schools to offer teachers good-quality presentations and information about vocation and religious life.
  • Discernment program An inter-congregational program called “Compass” is being offered to those discerning their vocation. It offers participants the opportunity to experience community life.

Public focus on Catholicism and religious life

In this year a number of events have been quite remarkable in focusing positive attention on Catholicism and religious life. Three events were particularly noteworthy. First, the media coverage of John Paul II’s death was extensive. Prince Charles postponed his wedding in order to participate in the funeral. Secondly, as part of the Make Poverty History campaign, 1,500 religious made their way to parliament on May 18 to talk with members of parliament about their experience and concerns regarding world poverty. Finally, the three part reality television series, “The Monastery,” followed the experience of five men who spent 40 days and nights in a Benedictine Monastery. The program beat its rival “Celebrity Love Island” in the ratings.

These events remind us that while traditional patterns of religious practice have disappeared, there is still an interest in spiritual matters and church life. Religious life has something important to offer.

The future

In looking to the future we do not want to minimize the challenges and risks we face as religious. What we had known has gone, and we are in a time of transition as new ways of witnessing to the values that underpin our lives find expression. As Timothy Radcliffe has said, “Sure we have a crisis, but we mustn’t be afraid of that. The Last Supper was as much a crisis as anything we’re going through now. Judas had already sold Jesus, Peter was about to betray him. We were born in crisis. The church periodically endures crisis, but this renews us. They shake us up and make us supple again. It would be awfully worrying if we didn’t have periodic crises, so let’s not lose our nerve.”

In our experience of meeting religious in workshops and conferences, we are always energized and encouraged by the sense of hope and energy we experience.


Grace Davies is a professor of sociology at Exeter University. She wrote Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging, Oxford Blackwell.

The Timothy Radcliffe, OP quotes are from lectures and talks quoted in Briefing.


Cath Lloyd, RSCJ is a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart. She is involved with formation and vocation ministry in her own congregation, as well as with congregations at home and abroad. She works on the pastoral formation team at the Claret Centre, Buckden, Cambridgeshire, UK.

Paul Smyth, CMF is a member of the Claretian Missionaries. Director of the Claret Centre, he has also been involved in formation and vocation ministry.

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