Measuring the ‘Francis effect’ on vocations

We shouldn’t overburden Pope Francis with unrealistic expectations

Will Pope Francis inspire more people to follow a religious vocation? Will there be a ‘Francis effect’ to match the ‘Benedict bounce’ – the phrase used to describe a rise in vocations in England and parts of America since 2005?

At the outset, we shouldn’t overburden Pope Francis with unrealistic expectations. The vocations situation in the Western world is the result of decades of secularisation, among other processes.

A two-year old papacy can’t be expected to suddenly turn the tide.
In addition, while a Pope can certainly inspire vocations – there are plenty of priests in our parishes today for whom John Paul II was a defining influence – the most fundamental and irreplaceable dimension of a vocation is a personal relationship with Christ. Vocations rose in the years after the 1979 Papal Visit, but ordination classes years later did not necessarily reflect that jump – a warning to be cautious of potentially short-lived enthusiasm or too strong a personality cult.

That said, here are three aspects, among many, worth considering: Firstly; compassion, simplicity and concern for the poor are the hallmarks of Pope Francis. Mercy is his motto. Might his example encourage new vocations with a particular concern for social justice? Could these discerners find a home in our many religious congregations ministering to the poor? Or will life as a committed lay person be more attractive? Could it even happen that this Pope will be more admired than imitated?
Is it likely that vocations inspired by Francis will be less inclined towards an ‘us against the world’ model of Catholic identity? And how will this impact on ‘conservative’ young Catholics from whose ranks many vocations are drawn today?

Secondly, Pope Francis has been very demanding of priests and religious. He has spoken, for instance, of how gossip is the greatest short prayer in some religious houses. He bemoans the absence of joy and berates cultures of clericalism and materialism. In offering this helpful but public critique, could religious life and priesthood just sound too unattractive to discerners?  

Finally, in the gospels, those called by Christ respond immediately. With a growing expectation of change on the issue of married diocesan clergy, is it possible that some discerners will delay or postpone a decision in anticipation of a future change? Will there be a ‘wait and see’ approach that could, in the short term, contribute to a stalling of vocations?

I don’t know the answers but I think these, among others, are interesting discussion points.


Off the cuff

Pope Francis created an uneasy stir earlier in the year with his comments on the Charlie Hebdo massacre and, more recently, on spanking children. Some explain it as the natural result of one who speaks honestly and spontaneously. 

Within 24 hours of his election, we had a taste of that candidness. In his first homily, during the Missa Pro Ecclesia in the Sistine Chapel, delivered without a verbatim script, he described the danger of the Church becoming a ‘pitiful NGO’. While he didn’t say NGOs were pitiful, I remember flinching as I listened, wondering how friends who work in these organisations might feel.

It didn’t generate any controversy at the time, but it was a sign, right from the start, that this pontificate was going to be different.


Reality check

What effect is Pope Francis having on teenagers? I was chatting with some students before Christmas and I asked if they knew what country he is from. None of them did – even though this is in the realm of general knowledge.

They were only vaguely aware of his existence. 

It was a helpful reality check – while we may be effusive in our response to this remarkable Pope, for many younger people, he simply doesn’t appear on the radar at all.

Later, I met a group of students, also from a Catholic school, whose teacher had clearly made a strong effort to interest them in the pontificate.

They had, for instance, downloaded the Pope
App onto their smart phones and had peppered their social justice
project with Pope Francis quotes.

One could see how he was fuelling the best of their youthful idealism.

It’s worth noting that it was the efforts of a committed teacher that had interested these students in the work and message of the Holy Father.

One person can make a big difference.