The March 2009 edition of Intercom is now available. Read their lead article on vocation – Swallowing a Big Fat Lie – and view the Contents page.


February 2009 issue

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Swallowing a Big Fat Lie

Paddy O’Meara aims to dispel the myth that a vocation to priesthood or religious life is a vocation to unhappiness

I don’t normally subscribe to the notion of Murphy’s Law, but once in a while something akin to it seems to pop up. I was with a small group of students, preparing for Mass – the final part of their school retreat.

A girl mentioned, in a casual way, that her grand-aunt, now eighty, had joined a religious order at the age of seventeen and spent the remainder of her life in a convent. One lad was astonished by this. The idea that someone would make such a choice as a teenager, and go on to spend the rest of her days with a religious order was incomprehensible. You can have faith,’ he said, but that’s taking things to extremes.’

Others got involved in the discussion, but despite their reasoning, it was impossible to convince the young man that a religious vocation had merit and could bring contentment. You couldn’t get drunk or have sex.’ This was offered as his clinching argument for believing that there was something very strange about a person deciding to make a lifelong commitment to religious life.

So where does Murphy’s Law come in? Well this would have been a great topic to reflect on with students earlier in the day, especially as we had examined the question of what brings happiness?’ now, however, I was caught for time. (It seems the best debates take fire when time has run out.) Mass was due to begin in ten minutes and readings and prayers had to be arranged. But this is an issue I intend to tease out with other young people at the next opportunity.

On the following Sunday, a priest in our local parish gave an inspiring sermon, or testimony, on the vocation of priesthood. The congregation were left in no doubt about how privileged this man felt to be a priest. He mentioned other notable achievements of his life that most would be proud to have on their CV, but none of these, he said, came anyway close to the joy, reward and fulfilment he experienced as a priest.

Nor did he evade the issue of loneliness. It can be lonely at times, he admitted, but that is not unique to priesthood. Each of us experience that emotion at some time – it is part of the human condition: marries or single; those who yearn to be married; and those whose marriages have ended, because of death or separation.

Sitting in my pew, listening attentively, it was encouraging to hear such a positive sermon on the priesthood. It was a little later that the less welcome feelings of annoyance and embarrassment hit me. Slowly I began to realise that I had swallowed a great big lie about the lonely, disheartened priest, struggling with an ever-increasing workload.

The vast majority of priests I know don’t fit that description. In fact they are the very opposite: good-humoured, outgoing and enthusiastic about life. It was puzzling to understand why and how I had bought into this caricature.

A number of recent surveys have indicated that clergy are far more contented in their career compared with other professions. And a very big percentage would choose priesthood if they were to live life over again. But this is not the common perception; it is not how clergy are regarded in 2008.

Listening to that priest, I began to understand part of the reason for the high level of satisfaction. He mentioned some of the peak moments’ of his ministry: comforting and praying with those in the final stages of life; supporting those battling with illness; being with families as they joyfully celebrate baptisms and weddings.

Going back to the student who could not comprehend someone opting for religious life because of celibacy or other restrictions’. After two days spent with that student and his peers, what was disturbing for the retreat team was the frightening degree of unhappiness among a significant section of the group. In most cases the problems were caused by personal behaviour: misusing drink or drugs; a lack of respect for self and others in relationships. For others, the source of pain was in the family. Teenagers were suffering because their parents were addicted to alcohol and when there was marriage breakdown or family disharmony. If these students and their parents are the liberated generation’, this liberation is not delivering happiness.

Various reasons are suggested for the decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. One factor must be the lack of encouragement for the person considering the road less travelled’. Some parents actively discourage a son thinking about the priesthood from pursuing that path. These parents seem to believe that for a son to make that choice would amount to signing up for a lonely, isolated life.

Despite the growing number of marriages ending in separation or divorce, romantic love and marriage are still considered to be the high road to lifelong happiness. By comparison, a religious vocation is now considered as a risky choice, with hardship and loneliness almost assured. All of which ignores the data and research available on both vocations.

Why has this lie such force and persistence? Why are so many of us misled?

Paddy O’Meara
Co Tipperary


Intercom is a pastoral and liturgical resource magazine published by Veritas, an agency of the Irish Catholic Bishops Commission on Communications.

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