Holy Symbols: An Antidote for the Vocations Malaise

In a previous article (Catholicism in Crisis, Feb. 1984), I described the vocations “malaise”: vague feelings of uneasiness in the face of the declining number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. I also indicated that I think this malaise, which has reached epidemic proportions in our church, results from a fundamental doubt about the validity of priesthood and religious life today. Why are we so unsure about the value of these traditional church vocations?

Think of the most recent television or film portrayals of priests. In comedies (M.A.S.H., Saturday Night Live), the priest is a pleasant, bumbling fellow who is somehow on the fringe of things and who, therefore, never really experiences what life is all about. In dramas (Thornbirds, True Confessions), the priest is a tragic character whose reasons for choosing this way of life are obscure. His struggles against pride, ambition, and the demands of the flesh are vividly portrayed, but the meaning of these struggles is never clear. As a result, our contemporary media image of the priesthood is quite confused.

Writers, producers, and directors can perhaps be forgiven. They are, after all, spokespersons for the modern age. Their task is to present the reality of modern life as they see it. But what about us — lay Catholics, priests, and religious? What is our “image” of religious life and priesthood? And what do we have to say about the meaning and value of a lifetime commitment to obedience, poverty or celibacy?

I’m afraid that in recent years we have been seduced by the power of our secular culture. We have allowed our sense of the sacred to diminish, and, as a result, we have lost confidence in the transcendent purpose of the priesthood and the religious life. As a church,, we no longer describe the meaning of these vocations in strictly religious terms. Instead, we describe priests and religious in human terms as caring professional people dedicated to service or as champions of the cause of social justice. We see priesthood and religious life as ministry or advocacy but we are blind to the all-important mediating role that priests and religious play in humanity’s search for God.

In our sophisticated modern culture, there are very few direct attacks against priests and religious. The days of an open anti-clericalism are gone. What we do now is more subtle and, ultimately, more effective. As a society, we damn the priesthood and religious life with faint praise. We also constantly undermine the value and effectiveness of priests and religious by portraying them in the media as either quaint and irrelevant or as devious, ambitious and unfulfilled. We no longer regard them as “holy symbols” who represent Christ in spite of their humanity; instead, we focus on their frailty and the apparent futility of their lives.

We must work to eradicate the contemporary negative image of the priesthood and religious life and to replace it with a new vision of what these vocations can mean for church and for society. This “new vision” will not be popular. For years now, we have been trying hard to de-emphasize the importance of celibacy and the vows. We have wanted to believe that the ministry of the church could flourish without such radical gestures of “other – worldliness.” And we have looked for an easier, softer way of “imaging” the priesthood and religious life.

The time has come to admit defeat and to surrender to the truth about an authentic witness to poverty, chastity, and obedience. Religious life and priesthood are radically countercultural. Unless priests and religious are clearly seen as men and women who have given up the best that the world has to offer for the sake of a greater good, these holy symbols are without power. Jesus made this quite clear to the rich young man: It is not enough to be a good person. Discipleship requires dramatic gestures of renunciation and commitment.

The contemporary vocations malaise is the result of a crisis of confidence in the symbolic value of the priesthood and religious life. We don’t doubt that these vocations serve a useful purpose in the church, but we have lost a sense of their importance as signs of the sovereignty of God. In strictly human terms, celibacy, poverty, and obedience are excessive. These virtues make sense only when they are seen as a witness to the primacy of God’s kingdom.

As long as we continue to ignore the transcendent purpose of these traditional church vocations, the priesthood and religious life will continue to be viewed as anachronisms. A renewed faith in the power of these holy symbols is needed to help us overcome the current vocations malaise in our church.

How do we begin the process of restoring confidence in the priesthood and religious life? The first step is to indicate clearly how priests and religious differ from dedicated Catholic lay people. This will not be easy. For many years now, we have consistently tried to avoid any suggestion that priests and religious are somehow “special.” This is an understandable reaction to the pre-Vatican II tendency to place priests and religious on a pedestal. Unfortunately, the effort to minimize the differences between lay people, clergy, and religious results in widespread confusion about what it means to be a priest or religious today.

Pope John Paul II has made it very clear that priests and religious are not to be public officials. He has also warned us that it is dangerous to confuse their role vis-a-vis society with the functions performed by members of the “helping professions.” If priests and religious are not politicians or social service workers, what are they? What specific contribution do priests and religious make to the church and to society?

Priests and religious are, first of all, religious or spiritual leaders. Their primary responsibility is to lead others to God. This does not mean that they should be remote or inaccessible. On the contrary, as holy symbols, they should be concrete, “touchable” signs of the presence of God in every aspect of human life.

Our society needs religious leaders more than ever. We need women and men who can point us beyond the narrow limits of our contemporary culture. We also need moral leaders who are not one-dimensional (like the television evangelists), but who understand the depth and complexity of moral issues and yet are not afraid to take positions that are unpopular.

We also need good leadership in prayer and in worship. We need men and women who can witness to the power of prayer and whose whole lives are a testimony to the meaning of surrender to God’s will. Such men and women will not be irrelevant. They will speak directly to the fundamental problems of our technological age. They will inspire us to examine our lives, to repent, and to be reconciled with God and with our neighbor.

If we can convince ourselves, once again, of the importance of strong religious and moral leadership, then the need for priests and religious will once again become evident. If we truly ask God to send us men and women who can be spiritual leaders, He will not refuse us. And if everything we say and do tells our young people how important spiritual leadership is for our church and for society, many will respond. This is the only antidote for the vocations malaise: to pray for vocations and to bear witness to the transcendent purpose of the priesthood and the religious life.


  • J. L. Callaghan

    J. L. Callaghan is the pseudonym of a layman active in Catholic affairs.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...