Thursday, June 07, 2007

Bishop Kurtz on vocations

Today, I came across a column by Bishop Joseph Kurtz of The Diocese of Knoxville (which interestingly enough was ranked #1 by a Crisis Magazine report: "The State of the Catholic Church in America - Diocese by Diocese"). He recently had his own summit on vocations like the priests of Louisville just did. Here is his wise and articulate reflection on it:

Vocation summit
The Mass, silent prayer, and confession help us to hear God’s call for our life.

By Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz

Last Thursday I took part in a summit in Athens. Often we hear of summits that involve international figures coming together to explore an important topic. This summit took place not in Athens, Greece, however, but in Athens, Tenn., at St. Mary Church. Father Michael Cummins, the pastor of St. Mary and diocesan coordinator of Vocation Promotion, called together a group of students from Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga and from Knoxville Catholic High School, selected by their respective principals, along with the principals, spiritual directors, campus ministers, and key faculty to spend a day reflecting on the importance of vocations and how our Catholic schools foster an environment that promotes and cultivates vocations. I was privileged to be part of the entire day, and Sister Yvette Gillen, RSM, director of Vocation Promotion for Religious; Rich Armstrong, director of the diocesan Religious Education Office; and Father Peter Iorio, director of the Vocations Office, were there for all or part of the time.

As occurs with most days filled with dialogue and brainstorming, so much was said that we left with our heads spinning. Father Cummins will meet this summer with the priest spiritual director and campus minister of each school to come up with specific ideas for next year. Each participant was asked to go home and look for opportunities to build a culture that promotes vocations.

I had come with some specific ideas and hopes, many of which I still have, and I also found that some of my thinking was refined. Here are some of the initial things I learned.

First, a tension exists between adequately promoting both the vocation of every baptized person and specific vocations to the religious life. The tension might be healthy or unhealthy, depending on the way you seek to present these gifts from God. We know that every vocation is a calling from God and every baptized person has a vocation from God that is meant to unfold in his or her life. This includes the blessed sacrament of matrimony and the single state. There is also a specific calling to the priesthood, diaconate, or religious life that must be promoted and nourished in the lives of high school students. The tension is not necessarily unhealthy. Every high school, and in fact every parish, needs to take a step back from time to time to see whether one or the other is being neglected.

Two unhealthy tensions were discussed. The first is the tendency to be shy about promoting religious vocations. Over the past few decades I fear it has not been politically correct to promote vocations to the religious life. I have found in my conversations with others that the topic of vocations to the priesthood quickly gets shifted to a more generic discussion. Perhaps some fear that inappropriate pressure to become a priest might be applied. Any true response to a call to religious life or priesthood must be to an invitation, not manipulation. Vocations are never imposed but always nurtured.

Two great suggestions came to the fore. The first is that all vocations flow from a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. Such a relationship is nurtured by reflection on stories of callings in sacred Scripture as well as the silencing of our hearts, as occurs nowhere better than before the Blessed Sacrament. One participant mentioned how deeply moved she was by the example of people going to Mass each day, and the centrality of the Holy Eucharist was highlighted. When participants enter into the mystery of the Holy Eucharist with devotion, reverence, and joy, the Lord finds a way of speaking and young adults a way of listening.

There were also some suggestions about visits to a seminary or house of formation for the religious life. Such visits make it clear that the high school gives high priority to the promotion of religious vocations. Whether or not students are called to religious life, such visits would expand their thinking about and their understanding of the depth of vocations within the church. Opportunities to hear of the radical fidelity required for a priest, deacon, or religious would assist in formation for other vocations—such as fruitful marriage, in which radical fidelity is also required—and provide the chance for someone’s heart to be touched.

The second unhealthy tension is to view marriage and other paths to which students might be called as simply secular choices, devoid of God’s hand. The call to marriage must be seen as holy and requiring the same deep commitment. Much of my time in recent years has been spent promoting the U.S. bishops’ Pastoral Initiative on Marriage. As fewer couples choose sacramental marriage in the church and as the incidence of marital breakups rises, the church has the great opportunity to renew with zeal the promotion of this special vocation to holiness in the radical fidelity of a man and woman to each other and in their openness to children. High school is fertile ground to help build values and attitudes to promote this vocation.

Beyond those tensions, three other themes struck me during the summit. One was the possibility of young people ignoring their calling from God. We had reflected on the experience of Moses before the burning bush in the book of Exodus and how this experience of God by Moses brought forth his vocation—his calling—to lead God’s people from slavery to freedom. It was observed that it is possible to “pour water on the burning bush”!

We can too easily fill our lives with distractions so that we never consider our vocation. Continuing to find ways for students to participate in Mass, in silent prayer, and in the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) was seen as a great means of keeping God’s call alive. I can recall my own high school days in the 1960s. My visits to chapel for silent prayer, which were encouraged by school authorities, were the single most powerful way for me to uncover that call to priesthood.

A theme I heard from students was the tremendous influence of popularity on the decisions young people make today. This influence can be used for good or ill. One student said that the person young people admire might be a teacher or a student. In either case, it is not simply those who are liked but those who are respected who can have a great impact. Of course, the ugly reality of negative peer influence, almost forcing the masses to concentrate on superficial or even sinful things and activities, was mentioned.

Also, there is the power of someone you admire doing good. The example of a sports star taking part in Mass or serving those in need was specifically mentioned. It made me think that vocations will thrive when we have good role models and those with influence use their power wisely and well.

The final issue I raised was the effect of community service to the poor. From the many letters I read by those about to be confirmed, I know that community service, whether in far-off Haiti or just next door, has a powerful effect on students. I wondered about its lasting effect, fearing perhaps that limited service might lead some to think it is a nice extra but not something to influence one’s life decision. Some students mentioned, however, that community service might change a person’s ideas on how to spend the rest of his or her life. This response impressed me. Another person mentioned that such service widens students’ vision and helps shape lasting values and can influence judgments in business or career for many years to come.

As you can tell from my remarks, the summit was great. I could not help but think of the Gospel passage about the Transfiguration. Jesus took three of his disciples to a summit (Mount Tabor), where they experienced him in his glory. That experience gave them a glimpse of their vocation. Afterward he told them they must come down from the mountain, back into the valley. I believe Jesus was clearly with us, directing our every effort.

Now we are all back in the valley, trying to make good use of our time with the Lord and with one another. I am convinced that the experience, the exchange, the prayer, and the Eucharist will do their work. May our Lord Jesus direct students throughout the diocese in embracing their vocation.


Bro. Thomas, op said...

Whispers reports that Kelly has called a press conference on Tuesday morning and has asked the diocesan consultors to be present. In the same vein, Kurz is nowhere to be found in Knoxville and has scheduled a Mass and meeting with his diocesan staff on Wednesday.


I need not remind you that Tuesday's have been, traditionally, the day that bishops in the United States are named.

Paul Stokell said...

Thank God the wait is over.

Having a man like Kurtz as archbishop will be a great gift for Louisville. Promoting priestly and religious vocations, getting a "handle" on the presbyterate and promoting the Catholic faith without fear all seem to be the work that's been cut out for him. If Knoxville is any indication, an Archbishop Kurtz will be able to meet these needs in short order.

Anonymous said...

First I want to congratulate Bishop Kurtz...he was our pastor at St. Mary's BVM in Catasauqua, are all so fortunate to have a priest of his sincere faith to guide your diocese. He is truly a great priest. May you support him in every way. God bless him and may there always be Hope in the Lord.