Will the pope inspire a vocation bounce?

Will the pope inspire a vocation bounce?

By Andrew, Andrew O’Connell

Will young people who are committed to service and social justice also be drawn to religious life under this papacy? Pictured here is a volunteer for L’Arche, Syracuse, New York, making Valentine cookies with a resident of L’Arche.


"A MIRACLE OF HUMILITY in an age of vanity”— Elton John’s description of Pope Francis remains, in my book, the most succinct and perceptive explanation for our Argentine pope’s massive, global popularity. And, at the outset, I must admit I’m a big fan of this pope. While we’ve heard of increased church attendance in some parishes, many will wonder what this hugely popular pope will mean for vocations.

First let’s not overburden the pope with unrealistic, messianic expectations. Secondly let’s be careful to calibrate the role a pope should play in any discerner’s vocation journey. Certainly he might be an inspiration, but he should never become a substitute for a deep and meaningful relationship with the Lord. That said can we look forward to a Pope Francis-inspired vocation bounce? It’s still early, but here’s a look at factors that may influence the answer.

1. Identity issues

The NRVC’s landmark 2009 survey of new and recent vocations confirmed the observation that many young adults seek out “firm markers” of identity when searching for a religious congregation. Many discerners appear to be particularly comfortable with a distinctly Catholic culture which contrasts with the secular nature of postmodern society. The pontificates of Pope Benedict and Pope St. John Paul encouraged young Catholics to see themselves as countercultural witnesses with several hot-button social issues acting as defining reference points. These young Catholics have been formed during what some commentators have termed “The Culture War.” Indeed the church’s own language, with expressions such as “The Culture of Death,” has supported this dualism.

This cohort of young, evangelical, orthodox Catholics cannot be ignored or dismissed by vocations directors: they are prominent among those most likely to discern a religious vocation. I know some religious communities who have returned to some traditional practices in an attempt to attract vocations from this pool.

But things have changed with Pope Francis. While he has supported the traditional understanding of marriage and voiced his disapproval of abortion, he has called on Catholics to focus on mercy and the essentials of the faith. Some media have caricatured this position as a “truce” in the Culture War or, at least, a respite.

What will this change of tone mean for more traditional discerners? Could it pull the rug from under them? How much of their identity is wedded to the “culture warrior” model of church? How necessary is strong papal approval for their Catholic identity?

Some conservative Catholics are already suspicious of Francis—take a look at some Catholic blogs and you’ll discover that not all Catholics are smitten with this pope.

However, will this be offset by a new wave of interest from young people previously uncomfortable with an “us against the world” paradigm of church?

Pope Francis, just like his predecessors, is encouraging young adults to “swim against the tide,” to be “revolutionaries,” to “rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary.” The difference is that the reference points for his counterculturalism are not immediately understood as limited to divisive social questions.  

Could Pope Francis, then, encourage a new and vibrant source of vocations, who will find a home in the church’s many apostolic congregations concerned with the poor and social justice?

2. Image of religious life

Pope Francis, a former Jesuit provincial, knows religious life inside out. Indeed, his messages to religious suggest he is particularly aware of the shadow side of community living! His words to religious have been blunt: There is too much gossip, grumpiness, materialism, and hypocrisy; and not enough joy. His concern highlights the importance he places on the role of joyful religious witness in the life of the church. This pope cares about religious, and they will have to take his critique seriously.

However in offering such a public “examination of conscience” for religious, is it possible that he reinforces an unfair caricature of the cranky nun and the pompous priest? Indeed is he suggesting this is not a caricature at all but the uncomfortable reality? And what do discerners make of these stark portraits of religious life?

In addition this pope is not impressed with excessive traditionalism or liberalism in religious life. He is reported to have bemoaned a religious sister who was no longer praying in the morning but spiritually bathing in the cosmos instead. Sound familiar? Pope Francis is calling religious life to Christocentricity and away from the extremes.

There is always a danger in the spiritual life of carving a Christ to suit ourselves. Similarly we risk carving a Pope Francis to suit our own ends. We should all feel challenged by this man. Will he end up more admired than imitated though? Will he become merely a convenient locus for the world’s vicarious altruism?


3. Expectation management

Pope Francis, based largely on media reporting, is feeding an expectation of change in church teaching on several issues. Could young discerners postpone the decision to follow a religious vocation in the expectation that the church might look very different in five or 10 years’ time? In particular could predictions of optional celibacy for diocesan priests encourage discerners to watch and wait? Of course this will have little bearing on religious life, but early-stage discerners might be unaware of this.

This has a parallel in economics. During a period of deflation, prices fall, and while this is popular among the public, it ends up suppressing economic activity as people stop spending in anticipation of even cheaper prices later. Similarly, if discerners hear signals suggesting change in the future, the result might, counter intuitively, mean fewer vocations in the short term.

Finally, while some religious are celebrating this papacy as the long-awaited sequel to “the Spirit of Vatican II,” the key challenge for vocations directors is to watch how young people respond to Pope Francis’ message in the cultural context of our day and accompany them accordingly.

Pope Francis is amplifying the Ignatian and Franciscan charisms of the church. It will be intriguing to see how our young people respond!


Andrew O’Connell is the communications director for the Presentation Brothers in Ireland. He has published articles in HORIZON and VISION, and he is a member of the Editorial Board of the National Religious Vocation Conference.

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