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The Challenge of Holy Orders and Religious Vocations: An Asian Perspective

Sep 20, 2023

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo at the 80th Serra International Convention, Chiang Mai, Thailand, June 24, 2023

First and foremost, I thank you for this invitation to speak at this gathering on a theme that is so pertinent for all of us who have been called by the Lord and entrusted with some form of pastoral leadership. I am happy to speak to you, listen to you, and learn from your deliberations and sharing too.

We are gathered here to speak about holy orders and religious vocations. We know that the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the continuation of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Sacrament of Holy Orders as “the sacrament of apostolic ministry.” In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, those whom God calls are formed to serve the church in leadership, to proclaim the word, and to celebrate the liturgy and sacraments.

Consecrated life is a call to discipleship of Christ. It is a vocation in which Christ calls men and women to follow him through a life of self-gift. Led by the desire to follow the Lord closely and to pursue the path of spiritual perfection and sanctity, many men and women from the early times of the church have left the world to live alone or in communities. They followed the founders’ spiritual path, lived in communities, and practised the ‘evangelical counsels’.

Every year on the 4th Sunday, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday­—a day set aside where we are invited to pray for more vocations. On this day, we again see in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the heart of every call: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The mission of Jesus culminated in his self-sacrificing love. He gave himself so that we might live. Instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1963, during Masses, we offer prayers for an increase of vocations, and all are asked to join on this day in praying for vocations. Recognising the decreasing number of men entering seminary and women entering convents, this great saint not only called for a day of prayer but made it a call for action.

This year was a milestone because we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Echoing the words of Pope Francis in his message for this year’s World Day of Prayer for Vocations, “This day is a precious opportunity for recalling with wonder that the Lord’s call is grace, complete gift, and at the same time a commitment to bring the Gospel to others.” More than ever, we need to remember that “vocation is a gift and a task, a source of new life and true joy” (Pope Francis).

Many reports indicate that the number of vocations in Asia increased in the 1970s and the subsequent 30 years. Though we did not see this ‘phenomenon’ across Asia, several countries would nurture more vocations than others, namely India, Vietnam, Timor Leste, and the Philippines, given that the Catholic population was numerically large. Cultivating and nurturing priestly and religious vocations are never purely dependent on human endeavour. If it was, then we lose sight of these vocations as a gift from God. Any vocation, seen through the eyes of faith, must recognise that it’s God’s call, God’s initiative.

Nevertheless, there must also be conducive elements that help cultivate and nurture such vocation. I am sure that every priest and consecrated man or woman would be able to say what made the difference for each of them. There is always the “x-factor” that makes the difference. Often it is always different from one person to another. That makes the vocation to priestly and religious life unique and personal.

We are grateful that Asia is blessed with vocations to ordained ministries and consecrated life. It is a matter of joy for the numerically small churches in Asia to share missionary disciples with other countries within and outside the continent. Many of these vocations come from the young and growing churches across Asia.

Over the years, we can all acknowledge that the number of men and women responding to God’s call has decreased worldwide, and Asia has not been spared either. Even in countries that in the past have had large numbers of men and women in the houses of formation, we see a downward trend in many places. We hear of dioceses that struggle to replace their ageing priests and houses of formation downsizing because there are no new people to continue their ministry. Throughout the church’s history, we have seen the decline and revival of vocations. Perhaps we are now at a crossroads where even maintaining the existing numbers is becoming far more challenging now than before.

The question on the lips of bishops, religious superiors, and vocations directors and promoters is, “Why is there a decline in vocations to the priestly and religious life?,” and “What can we do to promote and increase the same?” I will be the first to acknowledge that there isn’t one solution that can solve this because the challenges are diverse and varied compared to before. In this presentation, I intend to highlight some of the significant challenges faced in Asia regarding declining vocations to priestly and religious life. Various issues impact the declining numbers and can never be narrowed down to one. Many factors are in play, and the interplay of these challenges shows itself in many ways. Therefore, given my time, I have highlighted five challenges. These are not exhaustive but intended to help us move to a deeper reflection and a call for further action.

Challenge #1: Rapid Economic Development in Asia

In a report published by the IMF earlier this year, Asia is projected to see further dynamic economic growth. The rapid economic development in Asia has seen a corresponding decline in vocations in many developing countries. According to the National Bureau of Economic Growth, religiosity tends to decline with economic development. Some research points to the fact that the world’s poorest countries are also the most religious. If this is true, then we see a correlation between declining vocations and rapidly developing economies in countries that would have been considered poor in the past.

As economies grow, especially in developing nations, the measure for what is considered the benchmark for a better quality of life keeps increasing. The pursuit of greater wealth drives the lives of many people and families. These directly affect the dynamics of a family (I will speak of this as a separate point). Individuals now become “obsessed” with the power of wealth and greed. Such a mindset makes individuals think less of generosity and self-giving. The greed for wealth generates a more selfish society driven by itself and for itself.

As Asian economies continue to grow, caused by better trade partners and direct foreign investments, the quality of life in urban areas will continue to rise. Even those in rural areas will be enticed by this “better life propaganda” to leave their homes searching for this new “promised land.” As Pope Francis points out, modern culture is very seductive, tempting people away from religious life with promises of easy sex, material gain, and instant gratification.

Challenge #2: Changes in Family Structures

Family change is occurring throughout Asia. It is a fact that all of us have seen and experienced in our own countries and families. Though the trends vary from region to region and country to country, these changes directly impact the challenge to vocations to holy orders and religious life. The changes include fertility decline (low birth rates), increasing divorce rates, the rising average age of marriage, single-parent families, and absent-parent syndrome (where parents are away for work and children are brought up by grandparents or relatives).

The “traditional family” is today being replaced by newer forms of the family: single mothers, unmarried couples (cohabitation), working parent families, childless couples, interfaith/intercultural families, and many more. What we used to consider as the norm in the past, today, we see newer challenges. Some of these new challenges are caused by choice, and others out of necessity.

We have often said that the family is the seedbed for vocations. When speaking about the family, Saint Pope John Paul II said that, “The family is the primary and most excellent seedbed of vocations to a life of consecration to the Kingdom of God.” In the past, one of the greatest hopes of any Catholic family would be to have one or more of their children chosen uniquely by God for his service. In an ideal situation, the family must manifest a fervent commitment to creating and fostering a culture of vocation.

Today families are confronted with challenges never experienced before. Such challenges lead to a lack of communication in the family, a lack of time for prayer, and perhaps even a lack of presence to one another because financial responsibilities take parents away from each other. From experience, we see that the Christian family who strives to live the faith fervently is open to a life of service and fulfils its duties to God and neighbour, becoming the rich soil that gives rise to children open to the priesthood and religious life.

In an article published in 2014, I believe the author points out clearly that “the family must be a school of love where love is learned through word and deed. Further, the faith must be lived with great vigour. If the gospel is not taught and lived in the home, if the members of the family do not embrace the truth that freedom is for a life of virtue, it will be difficult for our children to grow up with a sense of mission, of being called to a vocation.”

Therefore, the new landscape of family structures presents a more significant challenge of how vocations of holy orders and religious life are to be nurtured. The age-old, tried-and-tested methods need to be revisited and find newer pathways.

Challenge #3: Technological and Ideological Impact

If, in the past, we had been concerned about the industrial revolution, today, we must be more concerned with the digital revolution. The digital revolution has impacted the lives of each one of us. From how we communicate to how we think and engage with life, digital technology has imprinted us. While the digital revolution is inevitable, we know it can bring good and bad outcomes. We also know that such technologies have created disparities and inequalities in the Asian population.

The easy access to information (good and bad) via digital technologies has also opened the world of knowledge to a broader audience. With the dawn and rapid rise of digital technology, the challenge is that we have an overload of information, and in the midst of this, to discern what is true from what is fake. The digital revolution has changed our lives.

While it is true that technology has made us rethink life, we also see that the ideological impact that comes together with the digital revolution cannot be negated entirely. We are confronted with materialism, secularism, and even idealism. Young people today process information in ways that even escape me very often. Priorities, value systems, and even modes of existence and communication are complex. It is said that every generation operates differently. Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, and now Gen Alpha—each confronted and impacted with newer ideological goals regarding life, priorities, and values.

In this postmodern culture, speaking of the “sincere gift of self” in promoting vocations, makes no sense to many, if not most. Often the focus is on the “self” (the autonomous individual), and the self is the measure of everything. In such a scenario, offering a way of life anchored on following Christ becomes tougher.

We are also confronted with a culture of imitating celebrities (no longer the saints as in the past), and it is drowning young people into illusory perfect lives. Some studies show that compared to previous generations, young people today want lots of money and nice things but are less likely to say they are willing to work hard to earn them.

In light of this trend, it is more unlikely for young people to consider a life of self-sacrifice and even renounce the world’s ways. There is peer pressure to conform to the world’s practices rather than the gospel—a life where the return on investment (ROI) may not be tangible and self-satisfying.

Challenge #4: Poverty and Migration

According to the World Bank, more than 320 million people in Asia live in extreme poverty, a reality we face in many different ways across this region. As much as there is economic growth in Asia, as mentioned earlier, we also see economic growth inequality. Some regions experience extreme poverty; therefore, for many of the young people in our country today, the primary motivation for choosing one’s vocation is getting out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

Young people are forced to leave their homes very early in search of employment to sustain their families. The shifting economic and social changes cause labour migration in many parts of Asia. Internal and transnational migration for financial purposes is not only because of the pursuit of wealth and better living, but there are also situations where it becomes necessary for the survival of the individual and the families dependent on financial help.

Apart from economic reasons for migration, the political unrest in some parts of Asia forces young people and families to flee their countries. The reality is that many people are forced to migrate because of a war, civil war or state policies which discriminate against particular categories of citizens or the political opponents of those in power – political instability exacerbates the migration flow.

In such painful circumstances, it is not easy to speak of vocations as a true calling from God when lives are traumatised by the atrocities done by unjust political regimes. People have no power to fight back and therefore seek to flee elsewhere.
Though we hear about vocations among the migrant communities in other countries, they are still few and far apart.

Challenge #5: Lack of Role Models

Role models play an integral role in shaping society. Young people look for authentic and credible witnesses and role models. A role model must demonstrate passion and can inspire others. Most of us, or even all of us, have encountered a priest or a consecrated man/woman who has inspired us somehow. They leave behind an imprint that shapes our vision and mission. I am not just speaking of the saint in the past but people we have encountered.

Today, more than ever, we priests and consecrated men/women must look at ourselves in the mirror and ask if we are inspiring others through our mission. There is much to be done to inspire young men and women, but often we fail for various reasons.
Secularisation and materialism have also clawed their way into the lives of priests and consecrated men/women. In one of his homilies, Pope Francis said that when materialism takes over, we “become self-absorbed and find security in material things which ultimately rob us of our face, our human face.” In the same way, when materialism takes over our expression of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, we can become self-absorbed, which ultimately robs us of the ability to be the face of the Good Shepherd and inspire others.

The priest and consecrated men/women exist within the context of the church and the larger society. We cannot remove ourselves from the world, the sociocultural context and the place and time we exist. Therefore, while we are expected to be a leaven in the world, we can also be influenced by the world and its values.

The threat of secularisation and materialism is very real in the priestly and religious way of life. It is so easy because of the power of authority this vocation imposes on others. If we are not careful, these positions of authority may detract us from our true calling to an ardent love that makes us an oblation to God and our neighbour.

Priesthood and consecrated life have been poorly portrayed, and loss of trust and credibility directly affects the decline in some places. The scandals of sexual abuse, financial misappropriation, abuse of power (clericalism), and corruption that come to light so often in the media do not portray the life of a priest and consecrated man/woman as an attractive way of life. It has become hostile in some places more than others.

Conclusion

Despite the varied challenges, we must acknowledge that relatively Asia is blessed with vocations to ordained ministries and consecrated life. To send out “missionaries” to other parts of the world is both a joy and a blessing for the churches in Asia. It is a matter of joy for the numerically small churches in Asia to share missionary personnel with other countries within and outside the continent. Many of these vocations come from the young churches in Asia. However, we can never remain complacent. The writing on the wall is apparent that we might see a further decline in vocations towards holy orders and religious life as time passes. We cannot sit back and wait for it to happen and only then move towards action.

Today’s socio-economic and political context may be more receptive to the drive for ambition and power among our young people. Thus, it poses some imminent threats and demands to living out the Christian perspective of vocation we are reflecting on.

Promoting vocations calls us towards creating spaces for young men and women to imagine and experience this way of life. Part of this includes those of us who are already in this way of life, setting an example with a spirit of humility and witnessing what it is to follow Christ daily and faithfully witness to the faith in these changing times. In the words of St. Pope Paul VI, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” We must remember that promoting vocations is not just about setting up new programmes and seminars. Vocations are fostered when young men and women have an uplifting and transformative Christian experience within a community of Catholics united in prayer and with Christ.