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A couple of years ago, when Benedict XVI visited with some students, two of them asked him a question that could have come from anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic alike.
They asked: “Is there someone or something by means of which we can become important? How is it possible to hope when reality negates every dream of happiness, every project of life?”
I think many people share these questions. The poor, the elderly, the sick, the immigrant, the stay-at-home parent or the 9-to-5 worker -- nobody wants to be dispensable or to feel worthless or trapped. Unfortunately, many people feel that way in different areas of their life. And I think it’s a dangerous symptom that we can’t overlook. It’s a symptom that something about our culture is so unhealthy that its people lose hope.
But although the two students asked what seemed to be a secular question, the only good cure is returning to one’s original vocation: the call to love.
Often, when speaking about youth and the future of the Church, people bring up the “vocation crisis.” However, in order to respond to the crisis it is vital that we respond in a way that underscores the underlying sameness of the vocations.
However different each vocation is -- priesthood, marriage, consecrated life -- they each have the same goal. All are different manifestations of the vocation we all have in common: the vocation to love.
Each vocation requires a total gift of self. Each vocation endures for a lifetime. Each is a path on a journey by which we become more like God who is love. Each has a component that is loving toward each other, manifesting God’s love.
Of course, the reality of this isn’t always clear.
This is especially true looking at the state of Catholic marriage.
Hypothetically speaking, if 23 percent of priests left the priesthood, would we believe we had given them adequate formation for the priesthood? So when in the United States 23 percent of adult Catholics divorce, is this adequate formation for marriage?
When three out of five failed Catholic marriages are between two Catholics, what does Catholic marriage mean?
When 69 percent of Catholics between 18 and 25 years of age believe that “marriage is whatever two people want it to be,” what obstacles has their Catholic education faced? And when there is still a paucity of people entering priesthood and religious life, we need to ask ourselves, “What is the future of our vocations?”
Now, this may seem like a hopelessly dire situation. But there is good news. We were created for love, and nothing -- not even secular culture -- can eradicate the call to love from our sensibilities.
The fact is, we cannot dismiss the avoidance of vocational commitment as a result of rampant immaturity. It is also in part due to the fact that people are questioning the authenticity of the love they experience.
Inauthentic love has a name: hypocrisy.
It speaks the language of love, but not its meaning. It offers a unique, unrepeatable gift, but then is quick to take it back. It can be seen in a loveless or careless marriage, a self-centered or apathetic priest, a religious sister or brother without compassion.
The consequence of seeing only inauthentic love is this: Love is seen as something that doesn’t belong to the structures created for love. When families are separated from love, then love is seen as something to be separated from family. When the Church family becomes unloving, then loving becomes something to be found outside the Church.
But there is more good news: Living our own vocations well helps other people live their own vocation.
It helps those already in a vowed vocation to be true to it. It helps those who have not yet given themselves through a specific vocation to be open and to have the courage to say yes to their vocation. A vocation well lived restores trust in love.
The answer is, in Pope Benedict’s words, to have a “harmony between what we say with our lips and what we think with our hearts.”
Another facet of authentic love is perseverance. The witness each of us can give is to continue to love through one’s vocation even during times of spiritual aridity, like Mother Teresa experienced, and St. John of the Cross and many other saints. Such an experience shouldn’t simply be looked on as a step in the spiritual journey of life. It is an experience by which we can relate to all of those who feel disconnected from the love of God in some way.
In a way, this type of spiritual aridity, this failure to “feel” the power of love, is exactly what so many young people feel today. In other’s perseverance, they can find and see the strength of love, the strength of a heart that does not simply feel but a heart that sees and loves according to the truth.
And for many, a litmus test of this authenticity is joy -- and rightly so. And perhaps the greatest obstacle to the reputations of each vocation is not scandal but joylessness -- or what we might call the scandal of joylessness. For this reason, too, before becoming pope, Cardinal Ratzinger said the Church doesn’t have “such urgent need” for reformers, but rather what the Church really needs are “people who are inwardly seized by Christianity, who experience it as joy and hope, who have thus become lovers. And these we call saints.”
Each vocation offers a particular answer to the questioning of authentic love. And thus all vocations are necessary.
Additionally, Christ’s transformation of the vocations of marriage and religious life is only made possible -- and fulfilling -- through something else: the establishment of the Church. We are relatives not by our own blood but by Christ’s blood.
In Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, family -- in the eyes of God -- was broadened to everyone. God redeemed and involved himself with not just a Chosen People, a people defined by bloodline, but with all people, a people defined by a common origin, the Creator, the one who instilled in us all that common call: that vocation to love.
As Pope Benedict wrote in “Sacramentum Caritatis,” “Communion always and inseparably has both a vertical and a horizontal sense: it is communion with God and communion with our brothers and sisters.” We can’t have communion with our fellow human beings unless we have a proper communion with Jesus Christ.
This is why Ratzinger described the whole of human history as a yes or no to love. And we can only say yes to love with a complete gift of self, first to God, then to neighbor, but to both always in love.
Carl Anderson is the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, a New York Times bestselling author and a columnist with the Zenit News Service. This column was adapted from Anderson’s speech to the CMSWR Congress in Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 2009.