Vocations ministry is certainly tough but also essential

Promoting vocations is a challenge to be faced

Michael Kelly’s recent articles on building a vocations culture in Ireland have put the spotlight on how our promotions efforts are faring.

Even accounting for the reality that numbers today will be smaller than the past, many feel we could be doing a bit better than we are. It’s good to subject ourselves to critical examination: low expectations must never become an excuse for poor performance. We should be careful to avoid the circular firing squad though and a culture of blame. These only result in defensiveness and demoralisation.

I’ve been involved in this ministry for several years so here’s my tuppence-worth.

Firstly, this is frustrating work. A vocations director in the United States tells the story of how he went on summer holidays in the month of June several years ago having had five men interviewed and accepted by the provincial council for entry to that autumn’s novitiate programme. On the first day of September, the first day of the novitiate, not one of them showed up. All five got cold feet. Many vocations directors will identify with this experience.

Lloyd George memorably described negotiating with De Valera as like “trying to pick up mercury with a fork”. That’s a good synopsis of what vocations promotion work can sometimes feel like.   

Secondly, the colossal impact of post modernity has not been fully appreciated. To say that the culture is very challenging is not a lazy excuse for our own failures or a distraction from our own poor witness to the Gospel.


This is an era characterised by chronic indecision and delayed adulthood. There’s also the hyper-sexualising of our young people. Then there’s the ridiculing of religious belief and the resulting syndrome of embarrassment.

The culture is a challenge that cannot be trifled away or dealt with in only a perfunctory manner in our analysis.

Thirdly, vocations directors are often not provided with the supports they need for their ministry. Vocations directors are often expected to be social media gurus, advertising and marketing managers, counsellors, spiritual directors, youth ministry coordinators, strategists, animators for their own congregations, as well as being articulate about the worth of their own vocation. In addition, they frequently end up being assigned work that has no relevance to vocations ministry.

Compounding this problem is the reality that some vocations directors have no passion for the job. They obliged their bishop or superior in taking the portfolio but the heart just isn’t in it. To be effective, vocations ministry needs highly motivated self-starters.  

Finally, I would love to be able to say that at least we all share the common ground of wanting more vocations to priesthood and religious life but here’s the rub; we don’t even have agreement on that anymore in the Church.


The ongoing theological discussion about the nature of ordained priesthood coupled with a new appreciation of the ‘priesthood of all baptised’ has led to some uncertainty about the place of the ordained priest in the leadership of the parish community. This seems to have taken the wind from the sails of some diocesan efforts.

There are also those who resent the promotion of ordained priesthood, unless it is always accompanied by the promotion of religious life, married life and single life. It’s a well intentioned demand arising out of a desire to be inclusive but are we really so insecure that the promotion of ordained priesthood is interpreted as a slight against other vocations?

There is an analogous issue in religious life. For decades now some religious have argued that the Holy Spirit is no longer calling people to their own congregation or indeed to religious life as we have known it.

Some writers hope that a new expression of religious life will establish itself beyond the canonical margins of the Church altogether where it will be free to exercise a truly prophetic role. This is happening at a time when many enquiring about religious life seem content with a more traditional ecclesiology.  So, this business of promoting vocations is more complex than it might initially seem!

But here is the most fundamental point: the Lord continues to call and there are people out there who would love to be priests, religious sisters and religious brothers. I know that to be true because I meet them all the time: at the moment I’m in touch with five men discerning a religious vocation. Numbers are small but the people are there.

In a Vocations Sunday message John Paul II once wrote: “Let no-one, by reason of our negligence, ignore or lose this gift.”

Whatever else let it never be said that we were negligent.