Yesterday in Dublin the annual general meeting of the religious vocations directors of Ireland took place. It is an important meeting for the organisation (Vocations Ireland) that represents these vocations personnel because it is intended to take a look at the activities of the last year and plans for the year ahead. It is also a significant event for a large group of religious women and men who have been entrusted with the task of promoting vocations for their respective orders to meet in a supportive environment to reflect and share. The meeting yesterday succeeded in these tasks.
However, there is a great need for a body such as Vocations Ireland to be more than an organisation that supports vocation directors and attends exhibitions throughout the country for the purpose of promotion. In fact, the group could do so much more and be at the forefront of breaking new ground regarding the question of new membership to religious orders in Ireland. One wonders, however, if there is enough energy and enthusiasm to do this.
Given the situation regarding vocations to priesthood and religious life in Ireland, there is a clear need for a vocations strategy. This blogger has been advocating this for some time and many have asked what such a strategy might look like. Below, then, are five possible and attainable goals that could be used to start a discussion regarding a national strategy for vocations in Ireland. Any strategic plan covers a defined period of time. A five year timeframe is appropriate here.
(1) Amalgamate the Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors and Vocations Ireland and their resources. Having two large organisations managing vocations personnel in a country as small as Ireland is unnecessary. Unifying both bodies would give a stronger thrust to vocation promotion and would eliminate the fragmented and diffuse efforts of both entities.
(2) A key element of the strategy must include that each diocese and religious congregation appoint a named individual as vocation promoter/director. In doing so, each named indivuidual would have that portfolio on either a full-time basis or that it be the primary ministry above all others. Many congregations and dioceses in Ireland do not have named vocations personnel. In doing this, it would provide a strong witness to the church and to potential new members that vocations are taken seriously. There is strong evidence from various parts of the world that when congregations and dioceses invest human resources in vocation ministry that there is a greater possibility of attracting new vocations.
(3) Promote Vocation Awareness. A new streamlined vocation organisation as envisioned in (1) above could spearhead vocation awareness programmes and events. In Ireland much emphasis is placed on Vocations Sunday each year. This is good but haphazard and absolves many in vocations ministry from doing any other vocational work for the remainder of the year. Other countries successfully coordinate week-long and month-long initiatives to promote vocations on a national level. A co-ordinated and well resourced information facility by means of the use of social media and other such tools could fill a large information vacuum. With much goodwill and hard work, these could easily be achieved in Ireland.
(4) Develop a Pastoral Plan for Vocations. It is a sad fact that many who present themselves as candidates for seminary or novitiate programmes find a distinct lack of proper vocational or spiritual discernment or accompaniment. This demands that vocations personnel be encouraged or asked to achieve verifiable standards of practice in their ministry and that there be agreed standards that candidate can expect from vocations directors. The pastoral plan should take into account that candidates also be expected to demonstrate that they have completed sufficient modules of vocational discernment prior to making application to semianaries or houses of formation.
(5) Collaboration between the Episcopal Conference, Conference of Religious of Ireland and other relevant bodies. The thrust of the vocations strategy would demand real collaboration between the bishops, religious superiors and other interested parties. It is clearly in the interest of all these stakeholders to support a vocations strategy given that vocation numbers in Ireland have decreased significantly. It is becoming increasingly clear that a co-ordinated approach is the the preffered approach. In relation to this collaborative effort, it must be clear that the promotion of priestly and religious vocations is the single focus.
Overarching this five point strategic plan is the necessity of prayer. The failure or success of such an initiative would depend on the prayerful participation of everyone concerned.