In our second reading at Sunday Mass, we will hear St. Paul giving advice about how to choose between getting married and consecrating your life to God in virginity or celibacy. This is what we call “vocational discernment.” [Spanish.]
We all have the same ultimate vocation, namely to unite ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ in His paschal sacrifice, to become one with the Crucified. In this sense, we all have the vocation of monks, namely to prepare ourselves well for death.
That said, we each have our own particular, unique path to tread towards heaven. To follow it, we make decisions—big ones, that determine the whole course of our lives, and small ones. One thing we all know for sure is: We’ll never get to heaven if we don’t make a decision to dedicate ourselves to loving others, in some stable, committed form of life.
People have spoken for over thirty years now of a “vocations crisis” in the Church—the fact that in many parts of the world we don’t have enough priests, and the nuns are dying out. You don’t have to tell me about it. I will have my fifteenth anniversary of ordination this spring. For ten precious months, back in 2009-2010, I was the pastor of just one parish. Since then, I’ve always had two parishes to worry about.
So we need more priests, and we desperately need more nuns. But that’s not really the heart of the ‘vocations crisis.’ The more profound problem is the widespread hesitation young people have about making any kind of lifetime commitment at all.
Now, let’s not immediately condemn this as weakness or cowardice on the part of Generation Smartphone. The kind of commitment we’re talking about here, be it in marriage or consecrated life in the Church—these commitments involve what we call ‘institutions.’ And the wisdom of experience teaches us that human institutions all have problems.
The Church has infallible perfection–when it comes to Her faith and the grace that Christ delivers through Her sacraments. But as a human institution, governed by fallible men, the Church makes many painful mistakes.
And of course we know that there’s no such thing as a perfect marriage. Year after year can go by, and the same misunderstandings, the same fights, the same problems with the in-laws. We know from the statistics that the largest percentage of homicides involve domestic disputes. But it’s actually a miracle that the percentage isn’t higher.
So let’s sympathize a little with the fear of commitment that young people seem to have these days. But let’s also probe a little deeper into what “fear of commitment” really means. Where, after all, will I learn to love in the Heart of Christ, if I never make a commitment in marriage or the consecrated life?
It’s not about the human institution involved being perfect—we can’t reasonably expect anything in this pilgrim life on earth to be perfect. The duty we have as Christians is to love until it hurts anyway, like Jesus loved until it hurt. The imperfection of the human institutions doesn’t make that duty any less urgent—it makes it more urgent. Just because the priesthood, or consecrated life, or marriage all involve painful difficulties, confusion, and profound contradictions of how I thought my beautiful life would go—that doesn’t mean that any Christian can legitimately go running away from these institutions.
To the contrary, it means that anyone who knows how seriously God takes my every decision; who knows that I’m here on earth for a reason, namely to love as Christ loved, unto death—anyone who knows these things can and must stride forward confidently and make a commitment that focuses me on loving and serving others, to the point where I can learn to forget about myself.
Now, can we succeed in marriage or the consecrated life on our own power? Of course not. We rely totally on God. And not only does He give us what it takes to stick to our commitments, He actually manages to turn the whole hum-drum business into a great daily adventure. The adventure of Christian love.
After all, the Crucified is the one, true, everlasting Bridegroom. As a pilgrim man, he took no woman for His wife—not because He hated women or marriage; He hardly hates the very means by which He brings us all into the world in the first place. No, He took no individual wife because the whole human race makes a part of His wedding banquet. His Bride is us: His people, His earth, His cosmos—all of it destined for nuptial communion.
We priests and deacons often have to urge potential brides, and even grooms, to remember: “It’s not all about the wedding day; it’s about the rest of your lives.” True enough. Except that it is all about the wedding day—the wedding day of the Lamb. The Day when death and sin will be no more, and we’ll never get tired and cranky, or misunderstand each other, or fight–and the dancing will go on forever.