Study shows institutional Church a block to vocations

New research on attitudes to religious life among young men and women in Ireland suggests that many are confused over what religious life and priesthood entail from a practical and procedural point of view as well as from a theological perspective.

The findings of this new research are published in the March issue of the Irish theological journal, The Furrow.

The research, which was conducted by Shane Halpin, Director of Vocation and Mission for the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in Ireland, was carried out on two groups of young people, male and female, aged between 22 and 36 in June last year.  None of those interviewed had chosen a religious vocation as a way of life.

Shane Halpin told ciNews that the young people he interviewed were “questioning the relevance of the religious life.  They are unclear about what they do.”

One of the most worrying findings of the research is that for many young people the block to contemplating a vocation is the institutional church and not a decline in faith.

The young interviewees also mentioned their concerns over the state of the institutional church and its perceived corruption; the stigma of abuse; the current male bias and lack of freedom as reasons why they would be challenged to enter religious life.  Other key issues identified by the cohort was the confusion existing over what it means to have a religious vocation in today’s society.

Tackling the reluctance amongst religious orders to ask suitable individuals to consider religious life was seen as one of the key ingredients for promoting vocations.  One 27-year-old woman said religious congregations did not make clear their expectations of prospective candidates, while a 27-year-old man said, “religious communities need to be proactive.  I would be more likely to follow a vocation if I knew where I was going from the outset.  We need to know what they do and what they stand for.”

In Shane Halpin’s opinion, there has been a very definite blurring of roles between the religious life, the secular priesthood and the laity, emanating from Vatican II's call to holiness of all the baptised. 

“This blurring of roles has created somewhat of a crisis of identity, the result of which has been projected outwards into the wider community.  The moral authoritative message of the past has been further eroded by the abuse scandals,” he said.

The focus group interviews were held in the second week of June 2010, and according to Shane Halpin, the responses “to a degree reflect some of the unresolved issues facing the Irish Church at this point in its history, including abuse scandals, clericalism, weak Church leadership, and the lack of significant collaboration in ministry.”

Amongst the study’s conclusions, Shane Halpin noted that it was “starkly evident that there is a level of animosity, anger and hurt emanating from this cross- section of young people.  From the outset the option for a religious vocation in their minds is intrinsically linked to the Institution.”

The first group of interviewees was drawn from young adults who had recently undertaken a higher theological qualification at a Dublin-based institute of Higher Education, while the second group represented a slightly older group, who had no theological training at all.

Many of those interviewed by Shane Halpin said their understanding was that a religious vocation was a “safe, secure, structured life choice for some people.  There are no bills or mortgages to pay and no real worries about where their next meal was coming from.”

“Why enter this power struggle and jostling for position which is going on when we can do just as good by going out into the world as lay people.  You go in innocent and pure and you get wrapped up in the hierarchy and power struggle and they are the ones who determine what you are going to do at the end of the day.  You don’t have a life,” 25-year-old Mary told Halpin.

The research also concluded that in a world where corporate and governance structures have moved from dictatorial to consultative and inclusive approaches, a “new representative Church leadership is required; men, women, young and old, working in equal partnership with the vision to inspire and empower our people.”

Shane Halpin told ciNews that in his opinion, “the Irish Church needs to adapt this model" and promote "structures which give voice to the vision of Vatican II.” 

He added, “We need clarity of vision of what it means to be Church in today’s Ireland.  We need to know what is needed to fulfil that vision and what strategy can we implement to achieve this vision.”

An equal number of men and women were sampled and all had some sort of belief in a God.  According to Shane Halpin, the rationale behind the interviews was to discover what, in their opinion, were the key issues facing young people around the area of religious vocation, and to explore the reasons why people may be attracted or not attracted to this way of life.

Halpin, who is the first lay director of Vocation and Mission for the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts in Ireland, has been attempting to connect vocation promotion with mission through the congregation’s Adventure Retreats Ireland project near Cootehill, Co Cavan.

This youth initiative combines faith development with outdoor adventure activities.  He told ciNews, “The rationale and vision behind the project is to stimulate interest in the Sacred Heart apostolate” in a way that is relevant and speaks to where young people are at in their lives. 

He said the second stage would be about offering young aspirants to religious life an opportunity to come and volunteer at the centre.

by Sarah Mac Donald


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