Over the last few years, we’ve seen the arrival of various religious communities in our diocese. The most recent are the Apostolic Sisters of St John who now live as a small community in Aberdeen. Such arrivals thrill many across the diocese; the enthusiasm and great expectations are unnaturally high. Perhaps we are so enthusiastic about these newcomers because their arrival and presence are at odds with the trend we’ve been seeing for the last 30 years; the trend of monasteries and convents emptying and ageing, then closing down and being sold or abandoned; the trend of merging parishes served by fewer and fewer priests, with their average age worryingly high.
Today’s feast of the Presentation of the Lord is traditionally a Day for Consecrated Life, when we remember members of religious orders and when we pray for new vocations to this particular way of life. I think it’s also a very good reason to consider carefully some implications of the religious consecrated life.
As a starting point, let me recall the beginning of my ministry in Scotland years ago. At the same time, a small community of nuns from Poland was established in Inverness. One of many aspects of our work was pastoral care for the Polish community, predominantly Catholic; sadly, though, mainly in name only rather than in religious practice. In the course of our work for them, I realised that most of them considered the presence of Polish-speaking priests or nuns as obvious and as their basic human right. When that community of nuns eventually returned to Poland five years after their arrival, some of my compatriots were outraged that they were not being replaced. Interestingly, when asked if they would consider their own children becoming priests or nuns, they were horrified even to think of such a possibility. I think that – all national and cultural differences aside – this displayed a subconscious but quite common belief that the Church has a secret factory producing priests and nuns. The problem is that the Church doesn’t.
All those people serving us as priests, monks and nuns were born as someone’s sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. They were brought up by their parents. They went to schools, colleges and universities. At some point in their lives, they discovered their vocation to a life completely consecrated to God within the Catholic Church. They followed that vocation, leaving behind their families and friends, to live and work sometimes thousands of miles from them. There are whole life stories behind the presence of those taken for granted by us.
Don’t get me wrong. You know perfectly well that my self-importance is the last thing I care about. I’m not calling you to an almost God-like reverence for priests, monks or nuns. That wouldn’t produce anything worthwhile. We don’t need that. What we need is a spiritual environment in which people can consider, discover and follow vocations to consecrated life as deacons, priests, monks and nuns. We need a spiritual climate which encourages those who want to go against the tide of secularism, material gain and pleasure. Creating and maintaining this kind of environment requires sincere prayer, the right attitude and the readiness to sacrifice the most precious thing in your life to God: your child, grandchild, brother or sister, friend or yourself. Our future priests and nuns grow here and now, among us.