... we forget that priests and religious sisters don't mysteriously appear when a beam of sunlight passes through a stained-glass window. Whether blissful or broken, we all come from a relationship between a man and a woman.
When Catholics hear the word "vocation," they mentally substitute the word "priesthood" almost without skipping a beat. That's because when we pray for "vocations," encourage "vocations," celebrate "vocations" week, meet a new director of "vocations," or wonder if so-and-so may have a "vocation," what we're really talking about is priesthood, and to a considerably lesser extent, vowed religious life.
It's understandable of course, because without priests, there can be no Eucharist. But when we focus on the exception and not the rule, we lose sight of the fact that everyone has a vocation, a calling from God, a mission and purpose in both the Church and the world. Even more, we forget that priests and religious sisters don't mysteriously appear when a beam of sunlight passes through a stained-glass window. Whether blissful or broken, we all come from a relationship between a man and a woman. And we grow up in the context of that relationship, for better and for worse.
That's just one more reason we ought to be more concerned about the lack of marriages than we seem to be. There are plenty of others, especially when it comes to economic security and educational opportunities for women and children. But nobody buys an engagement ring or pops the question for the good of society. No one vows to forsake all others (chastity), and stay together for richer or poorer, better or worse (poverty), in sickness and in health until death (obedience) for the sake of the common good. We do these things because we have chosen to love someone. It may be an impoverished or self-serving love at first, but it is strong enough to convince us that life without that person wouldn't be life at all.
So why are marriage rates in free-fall? When 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, it's no surprise that 50 percent of a generation would simply choose not to marry. The pain and trauma experienced by children of divorce is vastly underestimated and inadequately addressed. As a Church, we can offer healing in this area, but it seems we haven't quite been able to do so, at least not very effectively or on a large scale.
But there's something else at work here, too. Fewer people are getting married because fewer people choose to love. Whole generations have been duped into looking for someone to love them, rather than looking for someone to love. Real love doesn't just ask something from us; it asks everything from us. And a world that equates comfort and self-fulfillment with happiness, and autonomy with freedom, has no place for sacrifice and self-gift. It shouldn't surprise us that so many people today are anxious and lonely.
The irony is that self-fulfillment will be elusive unless and until we fully embrace the logic of self-sacrifice and self-gift. Sadly, few know how to give themselves or receive the gift of another person. What they have learned is how to mutually -- and not necessarily equally -- exploit and use one another. Of course, separating sex from both marriage and fertility is another aspect of our predicament. I'm not sure what made a lot of us -- including Catholics -- think that after we threw out the baby, the bathwater would be enough. It isn't. For anyone.
Catholic adults in their 30s and 40s are struggling to find stable loving relationships. Many know the pain of feeling called to marriage while not being able to find someone. The rest of us need to ask what we can do about this.
It's time we recognize that our vocational crisis includes marriage, not just priesthood and religious life. That's because our world is suffering from a crisis of love. Our Church is meant to be a school of self-giving love in all its forms. We should celebrate and affirm the religious sister making first vows, the new seminarian, the single man or woman living the faith often in extraordinary service to others, pastors, deacons, young couples on the path to marriage, those raising children, those who are struggling in their vocations, and those who have muddled through to wherever they are now with varying degrees of success. We should look for ways to support one another in discovering and living out whatever vocation God has prepared for each one of us. May he give us all the grace to answer his call.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.