Ink plum blossom.5

Family: Seedbed of Vocation *

1. Preliminary Remarks

The family is the core of all social order; naturally, it is the seedbed of vocation. Christian family as the seedbed of vocation is conceptually linked to Vatican II’s bold description of it as “the domestic Church”[1], for in reality it is in the bosom of the family that vocations are most ideally encouraged and fostered[2]. Going a step further, The Congregation for the Clergy said: “It is almost impossible to have a blossoming of vocations without Christian families which are domestic churches.”[3] Truly, the families within which our youths are raised are crucial to the germination of the seeds of their vocation.

The point for us is, once we see it in the category of Church, the family must perforce manifest some features characteristic of Church. We ought to see, first of all, a clear recognition of the Triune God as the source of life. Second of all, we must see a positively nurturing atmosphere for Christian living through regular prayers, an identity linked to a Christ-centered family, regular reading and listening to the Word, regular practice of meaningful familial rituals, and a lively communion through fellowship, love, sacrifice and mutual service. These five features – prayers, identity, Word, rituals, and communion – constitute five essential marks, amongst others, of the Church of the family. Thirdly, a family that practices all this is bound to create in its members a strong sense of independence as well as interdependence. And finally, a Church-like family ought to be afire to light the flame of Christian mission in life.

However, with an increasing sense of urgency in recent decades, our attention has been repeatedly drawn to the many and growing challenges facing the families. In this regard, we have benefited from the profound insights from many quarters, notably from the late Pope John Paul II[4] and from the 8th FABC Plenary Assembly[5]. It is not our intention to rehearse the lists of pressing concerns already elaborated by them. Rather, our immediate concern is: In the light of such severe challenges, how can Catholic families still live out their essence as “Church” and be the seedbed of vocation?

Of singular importance, it seems, is the need to help families to consciously cultivate and nurture a vocation-culture. The burden of this short paper is to identify some essential elements that would contribute towards that task.

2. A Triptych for Reflection: Identity, Intention-Purification, Kingdom-Orientation

What we propose to do in this reflection is not only to affirm with you the objective truth that the family is the seedbed of religious and priestly vocations, but to suggest that this is true in practice only if three decisive factors – identity, purification, Kingdom – like a veritable triptych of a catechetical painting, are actually satisfied. In our view, this triptych is most urgently sketched in the profound revelation in Mark 1:9-15 which, we believe, offers a robust guide. We shall use it as a springboard for reflection.

Over a space of seven short verses, Mark the evangelist who seems to write with a great sense of urgency, describes for us three events that stood at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: [1] His baptism in the Jordan, [2] His temptation in the wilderness, and [3] His proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Read separately, these triple events reveal, in that order, first, Jesus’ experience of call to ministry, second, how He spiritually prepared for ministry, and third, what the non-negotiable focus of His ministry was going to be from start to finish – from the baptismal-water of the Jordan to the Cross on Calvary. Placing them together, and at the very outset of his Gospel, Mark’s portrayal of these triple events yields a lasting pattern for vocation and preparation, focusing as it does on identity, intention-purification, and Kingdom-orientation. This triptych offers a blueprint for reflection in relation to our topic at hand.

For good or ill, priests and religious are generally looked upon by the laity as instant models for Christian discipleship. Implicitly, they expect priests and religious to be not just men and women of God, but to have qualities of desirable virtues. But the real key to it all – the essential foundation upon which authentic models of faith always rise or fall – is moral character. In the wake of Enron, Arthur Anderson and a colossal sex abuse scandal, we see two big problems: one is a problem of leadership in all public institutions, the religious institutions included, and the other is the crisis in personal moral character. Priests and religious are highly gifted people, but what makes for good leaders and models is not just competence; character is the real key. Furthermore, once the family is spoken of in terms of “the domestic Church”, we are drawn once more into the fundamental question of “What is the Church?” or “What does it mean to be Church?” On that, the Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council were most helpful. Lumen Gentium, in all its detailed explications, ultimately points us to the Church as communion[6]. Communion bespeaks a deep, intimate, spiritual relationship. Priests and religious would ideally be people beloved not just for their charisms, but for a healthy and faithful relationality as well – as persons of deep spirituality of communion who live a covenantal relationship.

Character and communion become key words for us. We shall therefore take the cue from the Markan blueprint and organize our brief reflection under three headings: [1] The family living out its communion as the domestic Church, [2] The family reliving the communion in Jesus’ desert experience, and [3] A plea for parish communion through a concerted focus on family-ministry as the new way of being Church.

2.1 The Family Living Out Its Communion as the Domestic Church

Under Panel I: Baptism in the Jordan

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)

2.1.1 Identity and Vocation

Identity seems to be such an important element in vocation and nowhere does that come across more powerfully than at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Marking His departure from years of relative anonymity and the beginning of His public ministry, that baptismal event was truly a defining moment in Jesus’ life, a call-experience for Him. In that experience, Jesus’ appreciation of His identity was pivotal. Mark alerts us to the fact that Jesus experienced a call to ministry at the very moment when He heard the affirmation that He was Son of the loving Father. That is the very first key.

“Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased”. The moment He came to know Himself in relation to God as His loving Father, Jesus’ heart was set on doing the Father’s will. At last, His whole mission here on earth was crystallized in a clear vision. Mentored and nurtured by Mary and Joseph in the Holy Family of Nazareth, to whom the divine will had been privately revealed, Jesus had longed to hear the voice of revelation from God that He was the elect of God. Now, that voice had come to Him from on high. Right there, and for the first time, Jesus’ vocation was clarified. So decisive was the moment that it was truly the hour of His calling. To Jesus, the time has come for Him to absolutely commit His life to the Father in public ministry. And to us, a crucial lesson is revealed: identity and vocation are inseparable.

In practical terms, saying “Here I am, Lord”, we concretely respond to our calls and “construct” our identity. Families are at their best when they help members to hear and construct that identity as God’s beloved in the midst of so many contemporary identities that falsely claim us. The family is indeed the first place where our true identity as God’s beloved is formed and nurtured. Moreover, it is this identity that shapes the gifts of God’s life: generosity, joy, faith, hope, patience – all the gifts that vocation is all about.

And so, as it was for Jesus, so it is for us as well. Once we hear deep in our hearts the affirmation from on high of our identity as a daughter or a son of the loving God, it is at least potentially a new day for a resolution to embark upon selfless service. Priests and religious are first and foremost children of God and followers of Jesus. This identity, it seems, is essential not only to spiritual health but to our ability to hear our religious calling. Clearly, for Catholic families to be a seedbed of vocation, nurturing the specific identity of a deeply Christian family that treasures its Christian identity is a primary task[7].

To nurture the right identity, perhaps a quick glance in the direction of Joseph and Mary can be helpful. Living an ordinary but faithful life as a carpenter in Nazareth, St Joseph helped Mary raise Jesus, the Son of God. Catholic parents are reminded that they too, in their ordinary life, are raising children of God. To be sure, Joseph and Mary had the singular distinction of raising the Son of God. We recall that to alert his Jewish readers to the unbroken Davidic line in Jesus’ ancestry, Matthew editorialized the Genealogy with which he opened his Gospel. Amongst other things, from his list of three times fourteen generations (fourteen being the mathematical number for DWD in Hebrew), we appreciate why Joseph, who forms the necessary link to David, is the focus in the infancy narrative of Matthew, in contrast to the focus on Mary who takes centre stage in the infancy narrative of Luke. But the point immediately germane to our discussion is that reading the Word of God in Matthew’s Gospel, Catholic families learn to have a sense of history. What sort of history are Catholic parents leaving behind for their children, and their children’s children? Matthew is asking them what will their story for the next 14 generations be like? He is telling them that the story is in their own hands. They are writing their own stories themselves.[8]

How shall Catholic families be able to write their family histories well? What is the actual reality we see in so-called Catholic families today? Sadly, the culture commonly seen in Catholic families today is by and large not much different from the dominant culture in the larger society. This reigning culture is, amongst other things, individualistic, relativistic, hedonistic, affluent, materialistic, consumerist and, above all, increasingly indifferent in religious practices. What kind of a family history is the present generation going to write about in later years as it looks back at its life as a Catholic family? Matthew’s focus on Joseph has something serious to teach us in this regard.

First, Matthew suggests that we anchor Catholic families solidly on a persistent love of and love for Mary and Jesus. This we see in Joseph who, after receiving God’s message in three dreams, incurred great personal risks and at great costs: [i] agreed not to break off the engagement with Mary who was pregnant without him, but to offer a safe home for her and her Child, [ii] protected the Mother and Child from Herod by fleeing to Egypt, and [iii] returning only after Herod was dead. Joseph’s obedient actions yield the further lesson that we are to protect the life of every child and we are to protect every woman entangled on the wrong side of the law because they represent the weak in society against whom those in the seats of power would not hesitate to marginalize or even get rid of. There is, clearly, a sound biblical warrant for encouraging a devotion to Jesus and Mary in Catholic homes.

Next, Mary and Joseph did well by Jesus on three counts, for Jesus lived and grew up under their authority, and He “increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and man” (Lk 2:52). Jesus was even sufficiently learned to engage the doctors of the Law at the age of twelve (Lk 2:41-50). In fact, Joseph also taught Jesus a skill – carpentry – and helped Jesus stand on his own feet, earning his own keep in life. Looking at Jesus, we can tell that His parents must have been very effective teachers of prayer and work in the hidden life of Nazareth. This contrasts sharply with the extreme cultural poverty of the majority of Christian faithful. Children today are so familiar with the symbols of this consumerist secular world but are very ignorant of the rich symbols of our faith[9]. We all have reasons to be concerned about the invasion of the more corrosive aspects of Western culture into our Asian scene and of the extent they insidiously contribute towards corrupting the minds and lifestyle of our young.

Third, just as Mary and Joseph were attentive to the voice of God in Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives and thus accepted a life of meaningful sacrifices in obedience to God, so too was Jesus attentive to the voice of God at the Jordan and consequently entered into a life of love, service and ultimate sacrifice. Families can learn from Mary and Joseph, the faithful parents, ever attentive to the voice of the Lord who guides the events of history, and always ready to follow the instructions of God. Their spoken and unspoken fiat to God’s will – “Thy will be done” – despite great costs, must find resonance in families as we encourage them to cultivate a habit of reading and listening to the voice of God in the Bible. Feeding on the Word forms a major step towards discerning God’s will for each member in the family.

And so, we should make no mistake as to how powerful and crucial the role of the family is. The Church exists for mission and evangelization; but, mission and evangelization is impossible without evangelizing the family. Parents are the first catechists, who are duty bound to pass on the baton of faith to their children. We need to probe and ask: What do parents feed themselves with daily? Do they have an excess of secular inputs but are desert-dry on the Word of God and on faith knowledge? Are they pretty much empty-handed parents? Do they buy and read Christian materials? Do they participate in seminars, retreats and courses organized by the Church? How seriously do they practise their faith and live their baptism? Are they so lukewarm in faith-practice that they are in reality vaccinating their children against faith? These, and many more other questions, dovetail with the attention to which sociologists seek to direct us. They study the social reality in the Church and come up with the scary conclusion that, in modern society, more and more of our children no longer walk the path of faith which their parents have inherited. St Paul’s “I pass on to you what I have received” (1 Cor 11:23; 15:3) provides parents with the scriptural imperative for understanding that they form the important links in this chain of faith. If parents do not pass on the baton of faith, they break the chain.

2.1.2 Communion in the Holy Trinity

The baptismal event, which is so decisive in Jesus’ life and ministry, is at the same time distinctly Trinitarian: the voice of God the Father, speaking from heaven, affirms the identity of the Son who is anointed for His mission by the Spirit descending like a dove upon Him. Right here, humanity is privileged with a uniquely new revelation of God as Holy Trinity and their inner life of community and love. Three implications for the family as seedbed of vocation flow from this.

2.1.2.1 Theophany and Mission

First, Scriptures remind us that every theophany carries with it a crucial consequence and the unique revelation of God at Jesus’ baptism is no exception. The occasion of Jesus’ baptism carries rich symbols of His painful mission to come. His immersion in water already pointed to His ultimate sacrifice in suffering and death, while His rising from the water symbolized His resurrection to new life. In a word, Jesus’ baptism is at the same time a symbol of the Cross to come[10]. The first revelation of the Holy Trinity thus entailed the most painful mission in God’s plan of salvation. And as the likes of Abraham, Moses, Samuel and Paul[11] had discovered, such privileged revelation always entails a painful mission. Vocation is a radical following of Christ: there is no vocation without a clear sense of and a willingness to make sacrifices in radical discipleship. Families are a privileged locale to nurture a healthy willingness to make sacrifices for the common good.

2.1.2.2 Baptism and Belonging to the Trinity

Second, Christians are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. To be baptised in someone’s name is to belong to that someone[12]. Seeing that truth, we who are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity are once again reminded that we are sent forth to live a life in the Trinity, and the family is the place where we can help children cultivate from young a communion with the Holy Trinity. God must become more than a mere concept in the mind of each member in the family; everyone must enter into a personal relationship with the Triune God. Christian families must cultivate a daily awareness of their Trinitarian life and learn more about that life to which we have been assigned.

The active communion amongst the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit always ensues in a common action for the salvation of the world. Here is a powerful truth in the inner life of the Trinity most germane to our discussion. The Three Persons in the Most Holy Trinity always work together for the good of humanity, by common action ad extra, for “the others”. The working together of the Holy Trinity becomes an ideal model for families, teaching profoundly that communion in the family is a gift and a responsibility. Familial communion must encourage equality, relationship-building and dedicated, common action for the welfare of others.

We, like the Trinitarian God in whose image we are born and called to live, are essentially relational beings. A point of worry to lay people is the significant element of the “lone ranger” about priests and religious. In part due to the fact of celibacy, which renders them really alone at one level, priests and religious – most tellingly parish priests – grow increasingly independent, to the detriment of the interdependence that is so important for building up collaborative and fruitful ministry. Studies have shown that the quality of priestly ministry is directly related to the quality of personal development[13] – and personal development during the early formative years of life in the family is a crucial key to character formation.

2.1.2.3 Feeding on the Voice of Love

Third, one powerful feature from the Trinitarian presence at the Jordan deserves special mention, and that is the voice of love spoken from the heavens to Jesus. It was an affirmative voice before Jesus had achieved any of the long list of things associated with His public ministry.

The voice of love is arguably the most decisive factor at the origin of all vocations. As secularism permeates modern society and is fed by all the other worldly voices, they fill our natural aspiration for God with empty replacements. Pervading all forms of media, popular entertainment, and advertising, these empty replacements saturate the sub-culture of our youth. They crowd out the voice of love of Our Lord in their lives.

The affirmative voice of divine love must be restored in the home where we are bound closer together in love through regular prayers together and enacting regular familial rituals together[14]. These rituals may be such mundane word-actions like gathering at the same table for meals, reading and sharing the Word of God in the evening, praying together, and parents blessing children before school and before bed based on Numbers 6:24-26.[15]

If our children are called to the priestly or religious life, they are going to need help discerning that. They shall need the encouragement and support of their families. The voice of love in the family, predicated precisely on hearing the words of love from God, is a critical element in the vocation-culture as well as the right energy for ministry.

2.2. The Family Reliving the Communion of Jesus’ Desert Experience

Under Panel II: Temptation in the Wilderness

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. (Mark 1:12-13)

2.2.1. Purifying Intentions

In this second panel of the triptych, the shocking revelation of the Lord undergoing temptations in the wilderness forces upon us some harsh lessons on vocations in and for the Church. The laity, who look to priests and religious for models of authentic discipleship are at the same time quite aware of the many temptations that are rife in priestly and religious vocations and do not need further elaboration. In some cases of colossal failures at our local seminary, the reason was quite simple: the students, never actually having a priestly vocation, were in the seminary on account of their mothers. It was a case of the mother’s vocation!  By contrast, we have had cases in which the students showed up at the door on their own on college opening day, and their parents showing up a few days later seeking to drag them home, necessitating some Herculean skills in on-the-spot family reconciliation. But in the main, it is another kind of temptations that we are concerned with – the temptations in priestly and religious vocations to pursue personal agendas far from the vision of God – surely an antithesis of vocational authenticity.

The ultimate meaning of all temptations comes to light only when we take a close look at the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness: in every temptation, the question is whether human beings will seek their apparent fulfillment apart from God and in opposition to His plan. Too often, ministry flounders not for want of an initial genuine desire to serve. Rather, ministry suffers for the lack of truthful spiritual struggle with the devil early in life. Of singular importance here is the need to purify our intentions, especially when we think, and say, that we are making great sacrifices “serving God”, “doing God’s work”, “serving the Church”, “rendering service to Christ and His people” and all the other claims that priests and religious normally make.

We are perennially tempted by the three P’s which constitute the basic obstacles to the coming of the Kingdom of God: power, prestige and possessions. They symbolize the three perennial curses fallen humanity displays with such run-away ferocity: greed for possessions, lust for power, and craze for money. To do God’s work, Jesus knew that He had to live by a reversal of worldly values. By placing the temptation-story immediately after Jesus’ call-experience at baptism, Mark suggests to us that vocations and temptations are closely linked, just as he wants to alert us to the testing times that will certainly come up in the course of priestly and religious lives. Truthful spiritual preparation is the key.

As a lay couple, we are particularly captivated by a stunning image peculiar to Mark who says, quite simply, that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and there were “wild beasts”.  From stories we hear, perhaps the one “wild beast” with which priests and religious can identify and need to wrestle is “self-deceit”. Highly gifted by God, they can also be too crafty for their own good in finding excuses for doing things contrary to the will of God. They are susceptible to making excuses and rationalising along the line that since they are persons of God, that they have made great sacrifices to be where they are, and that they go about doing so much good for so many, the rules are made for lesser mortals, not for them.

By placing the wilderness-temptation at the beginning of his Gospel, Mark is telling us that the beasts are with us very early on. Further, by placing the temptation scene so early and “immediately” after Jesus’ experience of an initiating call at baptism, Mark is telling us that as early as possible, long before we leave our biological homes for the seminary or the formation house, we need to confront our “wild beasts” squarely, see them clearly for what they are, and name and subdue them. To be sure, this is a very tough exercise, but it is a truthful and necessary one. It is the counsel of the wise one who wrote: “My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation” (Ecclesiasticus 2:1).

Jesus’ wilderness-temptation is thus a symbol of our spiritual assimilation of the meaning of baptism and a new identity in Christ, against the onslaught of forces that urge us to forget our true identity and dignity as children of God. What we see in our modern affluent society is a subtle threat to our existence as Christians. This takes the form of a gradual blurring of a vision of genuine service, a weakening of our backbone, a sapping of our spirit, and a downhill slide in our religious commitment. We can and must give that phenomenon a name. It is called religious indifference – a growing phenomenon in every affluent society. It is a real spiritual threat to Asian Christian communities, against which the late Pope John Paul II, particularly in reference to Asia’s new found affluence generated by economic growth, had repeatedly warned. General affluence produces a bourgeois spirit which slips into a consequent lack of generosity. Today’s soft living is a curse of affluence and a deterrence to religious commitment. In this regard, the spiritual masters of our times are also agreed that materialism under various forms is a greater threat to Christian life than ever before.[16] Catholic parents who want to collaborate with God in promoting vocations for the Church have to be prepared to be heroically counter-cultural.

How shall families deal with these temptations? The answer lies in a simple, clean and deeply Christian family life where every member learns the values of hard work, honest living, poverty and detachment and a positive fear of God in daily lives.

Under Panel III: Preaching the Kingdom of God

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)

2.2.2 Intention-Purification and Kingdom-Orientation

From start to finish, Jesus’ singular focus was the Kingdom of God. The tempter’s singular focus was to find opportunities to lead Him off the course. What happened to Jesus will happen to those who follow Him and undertake ministry in His name. As Christ successfully fought His temptations in the wilderness through insisting upon communion with God, and then emerged to preach the Kingdom of God, He left us with a road map for our own life in vocation. Our communion with Christ through our love for Him becomes the genuine motivation for our work. Then, we can hope for purity of our ministry, singleness of our focus, and healing power in our thoughts, words and actions. To seek Christ is indeed to seek the Kingdom of God. This is the wonderful gift of grace beginning with the gift of communion from the time of our baptism.

The Kingdom is a gift and a task. Becoming Kingdom-Catholics is the task of all Catholic families. Purifying their intentions and holding fast to God’s Kingdom promise is the only way forward for those who would follow Jesus. Only when we have struggled with the idolatrous offers of Satan, can we hope to steer clear of idolatry and worship the one true God. Then, we may learn to make profound spiritual commitments to follow Jesus not only in preaching the Kingdom, but in living a life of service in tune with the Kingdom-vision.

If we belong to Christ, then we must allow Christ to claim us, and to take over our orientation in life. This is the constant calling of all the baptized. This gospel truth is well supported by our experience in life – for where our treasures are, there we belong; the heart goes where the affection lies.

For Jesus, the moral order is certainly more important than the ritual-liturgical order. Furthermore, efficiency in ministry is irrelevant, and may even be dangerous, unless the ministers are spiritually purified. The call to priestly and religious life is a gift, and therefore always a task at the same time. The third panel in the triptych points us to the reign of God in moral conduct; moral character is the issue. The significance for us is obvious: The formation of priests and religious must begin at home, long before they claim that they have a vocation.

3. A Plea for Parish Communion: Focus on the Family as the New Way of Being Church

Do we think the family can teach our future seminarians and religious aspirants about all those theological stuff, technical biblical details and methods of interpretation, profound history of spirituality and the fine points of official rituals? Certainly not. But do we think that the family can guide them towards hearing and responding to God’s call, purifying their intentions, and orientating their whole life mission towards the Kingdom? Most certainly, and it is their responsibility so to do.

From our own experience at seminary formation, a point stands out. It is a cause for great lamentation to see young men graduating from the same seminary, even from the same class, and yet some turned out very fine in ministry while others were found seriously wanting. How on earth do we guide them through identity, intention-purification, and Kingdom-orientation that we have been talking about? This is where the developmental experts come in most useful. They tell us that to a significant extent, all that we believe and all that we try to do come from the values that we grew up with: duty, honesty, hard work, family, and care and respect for others. They tell us that by the time candidates walk into a seminary or a religious formation house, they are already formed in certain respects which are practically impossible to undo. This is truer the older the candidate. The inertial energy of long habits packs great power and is very difficult to dethrone. These candidates are already so set in their ways that formators are quite helpless in truly “forming” them in important areas. This is where the triple dimensions of identity-purification-Kingdom commitment are so crucial. These must begin early in life; the candidates’ pre-history holds an important key. All the more, therefore, must our pastoral energies be channeled to the family for promoting a seedbed of authentic and good vocations.

But do families have the practical wherewithal for the realisation of its objective quality as the seedbed of vocation? So long as we continue to assert doctrinally that the family is the domestic Church, we must also proceed to draw a practical imperative from this discussion. The 24/7 family, not the one-hour-a-week church building where we gather for Sunday liturgy, ought to be the centre of ministerial activities. We have no lack of theological articulation for the importance of the family; what we lack is a “carry-through”. In reality, concrete attention is perpetually focused on activities carried out by priests away from the Church of the Homes. How are we going to begin to give flesh to the vision that the real Church takes place in the family, that the family is the core of all social order, and that the family is the seedbed of vocation, while we continue to belabour the concept of the priest/bishop/the parish church building as the center of ministry/Christian life/activities? Build the family and we build the Church, never the other way around. When families are under so much attack in modern living, we cannot but have to move on to a concerted programme of family-focus as the new way of being Church. If we wish to see Catholic families produce vocations, we must take a fresh look at our pastoral strategy, for there is no way to achieve this other than to mobilise resources and channel pastoral attention in a concerted way to the family[17].

To conclude, we return to Christian authentic love in the Paschal pattern of dying to rise to new life. The consequence of this Paschal nature of love is expressed in the Gospel paradox: whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). If that is true of the Catholic family, it is true of the Catholic priests and religious as well. Unless they voluntarily highlight the domestic Church and let it increase, they face a drying up of vocations. Losing themselves entirely in serving the families and elevating the importance of the family, they shall find life. For then and perhaps only then, will the family really become the seedbed of their future authentic vocations.

From the perspective of the laity, you cannot hope to promote the real growth of the family as the seedbed of vocation unless you proactively do something about it. You cannot leave it all to the families, under siege as they are by a spirit of religious indifference that is fed by a combination of secular forces in the reigning modern culture. “Back to the family” must be our new slogan – our pastoral battle cry.

*A paper delivered at the FABC Symposium on Asian Vocations, 22-26 Oct 2007, Sampran, Thailand. First published in FABC Papers No.123, Asian Vocations Symposium: Asian Vocations Today, pp.43-56.


[1] Lumen Gentium, n. 11; and the “domestic sanctuary of the Church” in Decree of the Apostolate of Lay People, n.11.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1655.

[3] Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest, Pastor, and Leader of the Parish Community (2002), n. 27.

[4] In Pastores Dabo Vobis, n.37, Pope John Paul II said: “The rich young man in the Gospel who did not follow Jesus’ call reminds us of the obstacles preventing or eliminating one’s free response: Material goods are not the only things that can shut the human heart to the values of the Spirit and the radical demands of the Kingdom of God, certain social and cultural conditions of our day can also present many threats and can impose distorted and false visions about the true nature of vocation, making it difficult, if not impossible, to embrace or even to understand it.”

[5] The 8th FABC Plenary Assembly held in Daejeon, Korea, focusing on Asian families, 17-23 August 2004.

[6] The 1986 Synod stressed the model of “Communion” as the main model for expressing the essence of the Church at the Council.

[7] Back in his 1935 Encyclical Ad Catholica Sacerdotii, n.80, Pope Pius XI had stressed: “The first and most natural place where [vocations] should almost spontaneously grow and bloom, remains always the truly and deeply Christian family.”

[8] Speaking of the importance of the families in promoting vocations, Pope John Paul II states: “[F]amilies are called to play a decisive role for the future of vocations in the Church. The holiness of marital love, the harmony of family life, the spirit of faith with which the problems of daily life are confronted, openness toward others, especially towards the poorest, and participation in the life of the Christian community, form the proper environment for their children to listen to the divine call and make a generous response.” [Message for the 39th World Day of Prayers for Vocations (April 21, 2002), n.3.]

[9] In a recent survey, about half of Britain’s 12-year-olds are so ignorant of Christian teaching that the only thing they associate Easter with is the Easter egg. Christian parents are accountable for this poverty. And yet, a recent survey carried out in the United States revealed that many Church-going American men thought Joan of Arc was the wife of Noah of the Ark.

[10] Jesus would later use the term baptism to refer to His Paschal suffering. See Mark 10:35-40.

[11] See Genesis 12:1; Exodus 3:4-4:17; 1 Samuel 3:1-18; Acts 9:16.

[12] St Paul’s point in 1 Cor 1:10-16.

[13] See Patricia H. Livingston, “Intimacy and Priestly life,” in Being a Priest Today, Donald J. Goergen, ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), p.140.

[14] In the Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia, n.46, Pope John Paul II stressed: “[P]arents should strive to make the moments when the family naturally comes together an opportunity for prayer, for Bible reading and reflection, for appropriate rituals presided over by the parents and for healthy recreation.”

[15] According to Professor Dame Mary Douglas: “People who have become unritualistic in every other way will eventually lose their capacity for responding to the condensed symbols such as that of the Blessed Sacrament”. See The Tablet (26 May 2007), 45.

[16] See Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (Toronto: Harcourt, 1993), 117-8; Jim Fowler, et al., Life Maps: Conversion on the Journey of Faith (Waco: Word Books, 1978), 7; Arthur Jones, A Piety of Possessions and Relationships (Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1980), 21.

[17] The words of Pope John Paul II are again pertinent to refill families entirely and exclusively with God Himself: “Hence the urgent need that the Church’s pastoral work in promoting vocations be aimed decisively and primarily toward restoring a ‘Christian mentality’, one built on faith and sustained by it. More than ever, what is now needed is an evangelization which never tires of pointing to the true face of God, the Father who calls each one of us in Jesus Christ. Only thus will the indispensable foundations be laid, so that every vocation, including the priestly vocation, will be perceived for what it really is, loved in its beauty and lived out with total dedication and deep joy.” Pastores Dabo Vobis, n.37.