One of the prayers in the liturgy for Ordinary Time asks this: “Send us as witnesses of gospel joy into a world of fragile peace and broken promises.”
We don’t have to study statistics to see that not only promises but also hearts get broken. All we have to do is go to family reunions and talk to our neighbors. Or we can check in with principals and DRE’s about the effects of sky-rocketing divorce. Students in our schools bounce from dad’s house to mom’s house. Children in our parish religious education get to church one weekend and miss the next as they shift from parent to parent. These kids are often scattered and sad.
Amid a term as a vocation’s director visiting schools, I began to notice that question-answer sessions with teens thinking about priesthood or religious life were starting to include a question which at first took me by surprise: “How do you get out of it if you change your mind?”
I would always launch into a narrative of how vocations are tested in years of seminary or novitiate training and a period of pastoral experience before anyone is approved for ordination or final vows. Behind the scenes, though, I would shake my head.
The problem is that our youth, young adults, and older adults have seen fewer and fewer examples of faithfulness. Marriage vows seem to be “until death do us part … unless.” The clergyman’s prostration and promises of celibacy and obedience to the bishop, no matter how solemn, can seem to the jaded to carry an element of doubt. The sister’s “I vow until death” can come across as having an unspoken “maybe” to those who have seen the comings and goings of recent decades.
Granted, there are good grounds for annulments. Some people who have entered into marriage have been immature and incapable of lasting love. Some have been victimized by addicted or abusive spouses. There are also sound reasons why the Church laicizes some clergy and dispenses from vows. Some who entered priesthood or religious life were pressured. Some were carrying emotional damages which were never addressed and healed.
But there are bad and sad reasons why marriages break up and religious walk away. Infidelity, illusions about happiness, expectations of crown without cross, substitution of busyness for prayer, and self-preoccupation can sneak their way in. So can the mighty art of chasing whims.
Instability in family and commitment has made our young people wary about anything long-term.
If we want to witness to a God who is steadfast love, we can hunker down and keep our word. We can hang in there, mean what we pledge, hold on when things get tough, and erase “quit” from our vocabulary. We can grow up and prove trustworthy! There are 93-year-old couples who celebrate 75th wedding anniversaries and 102-year-old nuns who still pray for perseverance. They enjoy life, laugh, love, and get it. We need more of them.
By Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM