Why the Sudden Growth in O.P. Vocations?

Monday, July 08, 2013

Submitted By Mark Worsham
St Bernard Monastery

Why the Sudden Growth in O.P. Vocations:  From a cultural perspective

There is something new afoot among the young men being who are today being drawn to the priesthood and religious life, and thus to the Dominican Order. I have noticed it over the past few years, but it seems more pronounced or at least more evident to me in the people born in the mid- to late 80s and early 90s. My sense is that these 20- and 30-somethings have been radicalized by their experience before entering the Order in a way that we were not. I am not certain how they would articulate their experience for themselves. It is as if they had gone to the edge of an abyss and pulled back from it. Whereas we tended to experience modernity (and then post-modernity) as a kind of adventure that never or rarely touched the core of our faith, these 20- to 30- somethings have experienced the moral relativism and eclectic religiosity of the ambient culture-and possibly of their own personal experience- and recognized it as a chaotic but radical alternative to Christianity with which no compromise is possible.

It may be hard for us to comprehend, but these young people do not share the cultural optimism that many of us learned to take for granted in the post-conciliar period, even if with deepening unease and disillusionment as the years of the late twentieth century wore on.

The Second Vatican Council, even for those untroubled by the hermeneutics of discontinuity, was nonetheless seen as an affirmation of modern culture. There was the perception that the Church had previously adopted an overly negative view of the culture, creating a Catholic culture that was insulated from the wider culture (cf. Gleason 1987). But now the Church seemed to be promoting an embrace of that culture and an affirmation of its humanistic values and its social advocacy. In hindsight, we see the terrible irony of this move, as it coincided precisely with increasingly radical departures from the Christian worldview throughout western culture, as the sexual revolution gathered momentum, as abortion came to be legalized in more and more societies, and as a media-driven materialistic consumerism spread widely in the West and elsewhere (see Rowland 2003). With these and other developments, the already fragile social, cultural and, in some countries, political legitimation and reinforcement of Christian values in the wider society began to unravel. The Church now finds herself at odds with many powerful trends in western culture. What is more, "In the powerful yet soft secularising totalitarianism of distinctively modern culture, our greatest enemy is...the Church's ‘own internal secularisation' which, when it occurs, does so through the ‘...largely unconscious' adoption of the ‘ideas and practices' of seemingly ‘benign adversaries'" (Nichols 2008, 141). There are many signs of this invasion of modern cultural assumptions.

The disenchantment of the liturgy is one of the most striking instances of this development (see Robinson 2005), and one to which young people are particularly sensitive (as witnessed by their enthusiasm for the 1962 Missal). But there are many other signs of internal secularization: the erosion of belief in the uniqueness of Christ as savior, and of the Church as the indispensable means of salvation; the widespread embrace of contraception by Catholic couples; sexual immorality on the part of priests and religious; the displacement of the missionary impulse by social advocacy; the collapse of recognizable religious life among many communities of religious women in the U.S.; and so on. In the broadly influential strategy of the hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture, many of these developments were promoted as if they had been warranted by the Second Vatican Council itself.

No one understood these developments more clearly than Pope John Paul II, as we saw in his brilliant de-construction of the underlying premises of what he called the culture of death (notably in Evangelium Vitae) and in his endeavor to reclaim the legacy of  the council (notably by means of the 1985 Synod of Bishops). Over their more than twenty years of close collaboration, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger shared with Pope John Paul deep misgivings about post-conciliar cultural optimism as well as a sober assessment of the cultural drift of the final half of the twentieth century, and, now as Pope Benedict XVI, he has taken up and reasserted these very themes. Perhaps because both popes strove to appeal directly to young people, 20- and 30-somethings-often in sharp contrast to their elders-exhibit an almost uncanny attunement to the message of these two pontificates.

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