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How families can solve the vocation shortage.

I GREW UP IN A KANSAS OF PORCHES. IN THE warm months of the year, whole families would be out on the porch. Every Sunday we were at Grandma and Grandpa Klein's for Sunday dinner. Dinner in Kansas is served at noon. Anything later than that is supper. Before dinner, Grandpa Klein, my uncles, and all the kids gathered on the porch. Where were the women before dinner? This was Kansas in the 1960s--where do you think? After lunch, the one televised ball game of the week would begin. The watercooler was turned on in the living room, and my uncles moved inside to sleep in front of the television set. The women were still in the kitchen. For a brief while, the adult-abandoned porch became a spaceship or a castle or anything else a childhood imagination could make of it.

At 3 o'clock my family drove across the tracks to where the Catholics lived. We'd gather on the Herrman family porch. Methodist iced tea gave way to beer. The kids, who were even more numerous on this side of the family, were often sent out to gather empty soda-pop bottles. Three empty bottles could be redeemed at the filling station for a full bottle. We used to complain that it took all afternoon to find the 20 or so bottles we needed, but I think that was the point.

For me, family life is porch life: uncles arguing over the war in Vietnam, my aunts commenting on those who drove by, my Grandpa Herrman swatting flies, the kids counting how many he'd killed.

One such Sunday afternoon I found myself in my grandmother's petunia patch just beneath the porch. The adults were discussing vocations. Perhaps the first rumor of the coming shortage had been suggested from someone's pulpit. The talk shifted to the question of who among the grandchildren might have a vocation. Each aunt was naming which of her children might be a

By Father Terrance Wayne Klein, priest of the Diocese of Columbus and parochial vicar of St. Brigid of Kildare Church in Dublin, Ohio. He is a former diocesan vocation director.

likely prospect. Some suggestions were met with laughter. My mother's wasn't. Everyone agreed that my brother Harold would make a perfect priest. He didn't agree then or since.

Where do vocations come from? Where did vocations go? Are they coming back again? I think the answer is simpler than you might expect, but I hope it isn't dismissed because of that. I think that vocations followed the porches. For me the porch is an evocative symbol of community life. I link their disappearance to that of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. When community life declined among Catholics, vocations suffered.

I have written before on the vocations issue, primarily to those who help to form and recruit vocations. Now, I want to reach Catholic families. I want to give them another view of the vocation shortage, and I want to offer concrete suggestions about how to foster vocations in the family. I don't claim to present the entire picture here, only a very important aspect. My call to action is only one among many, but I do think it lies at the core of any possible solution.

FIFTY YEARS AGO, CATHOLICS, EVEN IN LARGE cities, were all gathered in small, cohesive parishes. Social life centered on the parish. People were educated at the parish and recreated there. They made friends at the parish, and many met their future spouses there. Large cities were often subdivided in common speech by the names of parish boundaries, even by people who weren't Catholic. Parish activities were clearly central to the social and cultural life of Catholics. Thirty years ago there were no donut Sundays. There was no thought of "creating community" by holding hands during the Our Father. There simply wasn't the need. Community life was taken for granted.

Ask the average Catholic what changes have occurred in the church in the past 50 years, and very few will mention the decline in the social role of the parish. Most will talk about the liturgical reforms, but those reforms alone are not responsible for the changed world in which Catholics now live. Because of the sociological changes it ushered in, World War II did more to change the lives of American Catholics than the Second Vatican Council. The end of the war brought economic prosperity, new job opportunities around the country, and a new interstate-highway system that made travel to those jobs--and departure from the homestead--possible.

The changes did not occur overnight, but they were rapid. Even as vocations crested in the 1950s and early 1960s, air travel was redefining the role of the extended family. Most families eventually became far too extended to gather on the same porch each Sunday. City parishes would continue to keep their boundaries for many more years, but limited-access highways were cutting across urban areas, destroying the parochial neighborhoods that were once self-sufficient. One no longer walked to the corner hardware store. One drove to the suburban outlet.

How does the collapse of communal life affect the vocation shortage? The word church comes from a Greek word that means "convocation." The first Christians chose this name for the church because they understood themselves to be a community summoned together by God. By its nature, a church vocation is ordered toward community life. I believe that the vibrancy of communal life stands in direct relationship to strong vocational recruitment. Pick around in the biography of any priest, deacon, brother, or sister, and you will find that they felt at home in the community that we call the church. When people feel that they belong to a family or a community, their sense of personal identity comes to be formed by that family or community. They become intent upon seeing it prosper. They find themselves willing to make sacrifices to see it continue. Vocations are just such a sacrifice. They are personal decisions, but they have their roots in very communal soil.

Vocational research has shown for some time that small parishes that have the same pastor for many years tend to produce more vocations to the priesthood than those that do not. A small parish with continuity of personal leadership is a parish that is more likely to be a vibrant community. Of course one needs to resist the current American tendency to identify vibrancy with activity. People can be bonded to one another without an abundance of programs. Interview current priests and religious, and you hear them describe their own early parochial lives as involved and communal. Whatever was happening at their local parish or school--however it had personally touched them--it seemed important that it continue. Their call was both internal and social. God spoke in the depths of their own hearts, but the place where they heard God was intensely communal and active.

SO HOW CAN TODAY'S CATHOLIC FAMILIES foster vocations? In a phrase, rediscover community life.

* Value the parish community. All parents have wished at one time or another that they could simply hand on their values to their children. Nothing is more troubling than to watch a child reject values that one holds dear. But values that are held lukewarmly have little hope of being passed on to the next generation. If vocations are intrinsically linked to community life, then we must ask ourselves just how much we value life in community.

* Embrace the parish. Parishes create vocations. Only communities stronger than the parish can hope to do as well. Since vocations are ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, no one can program their increase. But we can produce conditions that make a response to them more likely. Parents trying to create an environment that fosters vocations need to attach their family to a single parish. They need to support its programs by contributing their time, talent, and treasure.

If families frequent one parish and then another, if they expect no more from parochial life than a single hour of worship once a week, they will do little to foster a vocation. Parish life in America has been infected by consumerism. Many people think of parishes as spiritual filling stations. One is as good as another, and at any given time, they frequent more than one in search of convenience and personal taste. This subtly creates a consumer attitude toward church life. Why doesn't the parish supply what I want, when I want it? Parents who approach parishes as commodities are teaching their children to view the spiritual life in a way that is much too individualistic. Teaching children to put personal preference over communal loyalty will not foster vocations. It only creates a future church even more devoid of life-giving community than that which we have now.

* Support Catholic schools. Are parishes the only places that foster community? Clearly the record of vocational research says no. To the extent that Catholic schools create community, they foster vocations. Catholic schools were built to offer an alternative system of education where Catholic faith and values could be taught. I believe that they also have a future as a Place where Catholic communities are fostered. Ironically their precarious funding has done much to create the fellowship they foster. Parents are compelled to join forces for a variety of support projects. As challenging as this seems at times, it often creates a parental community that works to support the community of students. But there is a caution here. If priests and religious are not present in schools, then young people will not see the Catholic community that schools foster as dependent upon them. They may well grow into adults who see the value of Catholic education but do not see vocations as linked to this value.

* Include religious men and women in family life. Parents who want to encourage their own children to consider vocations to the priesthood and the religious life must look for positive opportunities for their children to encounter priests and religious. This is no easy task given the demands that are now placed upon those who minister in the church. Children and adolescents will always have heroes. At first these are often the unreal products of fantasy, but as children mature, they begin to look for heroes who actually exist around them. These are men and women whose lives and personal qualities they admire. Most priests and religious really are unsung heroes. Even with their all-too-human flaws, they are dedicated, hardworking men and women who are trying to live lives of holiness. Every priest and religious I know can tell the story of another priest or religious who inspired them. The trick is simply bringing young people and ministers together. It doesn't take much: the local priest invited into the home for a meal, an outing in which a religious sister is asked to join the family, or simply a parish workday in which clergy and families will all be present. Vocations are caught, not cajoled. Bring the right people together, and the Holy Spirit will do the work.

* Pray with your family. Take to heart the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and think of your own home as the first church, the "Domestic Church." If prayer and the spiritual life really are values in the life of a family, it seems hard to imagine that all communal prayer would be limited to the Sunday service. While it is true that many families would find prayer together outside Mass a most awkward experience, it need not be. Consider a simple expansion of grace before meals to include a moment of silence, or a small reading from scripture. Would a decade of the rosary before bed or even while driving be too much? The Catholic Book of Household Prayers and Blessings, published by the U.S. Catholic Conference, is an invaluable aid in this area. Regardless of whether God would use these prayers together to foster a religious vocation, it does foster family life. Sociological studies have shown that families that pray together really do stay together.

When America rediscovers community life, it will find that vocations have not disappeared. They've only been waiting for the return of the porch. Where communities are vibrant and priests and religious help to contribute to that energy, young people will find the heroes they need to become their truest selves. When parents concentrate on forming their children into men and women of the church, they will be answering the needs of the church in a most effective way. They will be creating disciples of Jesus Christ, men and women ready to serve where he sends them.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:vocation as the symbol of Catholic community life
Author:Klein, Terrance Wayne
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Words:2117
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