Feature

Planting the seeds of religious life
There are ambitious plans to build a culture of vocations in Ireland, writes Greg Daly

A Vocations Ireland Executive meeting.

It’s been just over a year since the US-based Hilton Foundation announced it was awarding a grant of $290,000 (€268,000) to Vocations Ireland, and Margaret Cartwright, director of the organisation, has had her hands full in the meantime.

Explaining that the umbrella group that supports vocations directors from Ireland’s religious congregations has just received the second phase of the Hilton money, Margaret says, “Hilton were very conscious of the fact that a certain amount would have to go into capitation to re-set up Vocations Ireland, because we’d had to move office, there was a change in direction, and all that sort of stuff. So most of the money went into the development of promotional materials and websites and media work, and increased promotional events.”

One of the last year’s key projects was the development of Vocation Match, an online tool used effectively in the US and UK to help people explore the type of religious vocation that they might best be suited to. A range of more ‘personal’ approaches have been tried as well, she says, pointing out that “we have to use every means we can get”.

Among these are Samuel groups to help young people explore their paths in life, an updated version of the Explore Away programme that had previously been abandoned because of a lack of finance, and various retreat opportunities and opportunities for young people to meet religious.

Conversation

“We’ve created new conversation spaces where we’ve encouraged people to come and engage in conversation with religious,” Margaret says, explaining, “This came out of the career fairs I was attending where I was hearing young people saying ‘I don’t know anything about religious life, I’ve never met a priest, I’ve never met a nun, I’ve never met a brother – oh, I might know the parish priest, but I’ve never met any other kind of priest.’”

The Sisters Café events were perhaps the highest profile such events, and while they proved slow to start, Margaret says the enthusiasm and publicity that surrounded them were good signs, such that they’ll try them again this year.

“We ran workshops for teachers around creating a culture of vocation,” she says, continuing, “and again this came out of career fairs where teachers were coming up to me and saying ‘I don’t know how, really, to teach about vocation – not just religious vocation, but vocation in general. We’re really struggling with this and struggling very much with the whole idea of religious vocation: we don’t know enough about it ourselves.’”

Vocations Ireland hopes to build on such workshops this year, she says, explaining that, “We’re working on creating lesson plans for junior cycle and senior cycle around the whole concept of creating a culture of vocations, and we hope to be able to give workshops again this year, maybe through the diocesan advisors. We had three diocesan advisors present at the workshop, and they were very enthusiastic about it, so we’re going to develop that a bit further.”

Lessons

The last year has been as instructive as it was busy, Margaret says, pointing to how some things didn’t work and lessons that should be drawn from them, not least regarding how the organisation found Summer wasn’t a great time to put on programmes for young people, given the “mass exodus” of students to America through the J1 visa scheme, and also given how many committed young Catholics were focused on going to Krakow for World Youth Day.

One key lesson Margaret has learned over the last year, she said, is that while vocations directors tend to be over 40 or over 50, and so have experience to offer in guiding those who approach them, when it comes to vocations, there is a need for young people to engage with young people.

“So, this year we’ve taken all the programmes that we started tried to develop them further this year but getting young people to help us with them,” she says, explaining that Vocations Ireland have taken on a NET ministries team to work with them.

“When the NET ministries would go out to schools and parishes, we would be sending a religious out with them so the religious would be given an opportunity to share their story,” she says, with the older religious being able to complement the testimony of the young team. “Hopefully we can create a healthy approach to the conversation around Faith in general and the questions that young people are asking about Faith and about religious life,” she says.

Similarly, she says, Vocations Ireland hopes to tap into the enthusiasm and experience of lay missionaries who have returned home to Ireland, pointing out that religious engage in “tough ministries” like prison ministry and work with refugees and homeless people.

“Young people have a real thirst for being involved in justice issues and working around social issues, so why not let them come along and work alongside us as volunteers,” she says, continuing, “Again, that’s another way of conversing with them, hearing their views, exploring faith with them, and encouraging them, supporting them, and developing a whole culture of vocations. We’re going to lead on from what we’ve built last year, and hopefully build that to more fruition this year.”

Increases

It’s not had much coverage, but there have been increases in young people joining contemplative congregations in recent years as well as male orders like the Franciscans, she says, but it will take time for current projects to bear fruit. “Often people will say ‘do you see what you’re doing is working?’ “ she says, observing, “It’s very hard to say yes or no. It’s not now that we’re going to see that but in a few years’ time.”

Collaboration is central to the Vocation Ireland project, she says, pointing out that not merely are about 80 groups actively involved in Vocations Ireland, but that the organisation works with the diocesan vocations directors, and hopes to build this year on its ties with AMRI, the Association of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland, formed last year from the merger of the Council of Religious of Ireland and the Irish Missionary Union.

She points also to how the organisation is gaining through collaborating with vocations bodies in the UK and US, not merely with regard to Vocations Match but most notably with a 10-day course for vocations directors to be held this month in Athlone.

“I did that course in the States last year, and I found the course extremely helpful, but it’s quite expensive to be sending people from Ireland to the States every year, plus the fact that there are aspects of the course that wouldn’t apply to us – we’d need to make it more applicable to Ireland,” she says, explaining that plans were made to bring the course to Ireland.

Fifty people, she says, are set to attend: “It’s a big project.”

It may take time for the work of Vocations Ireland to bear fruit, but one thing it can’t be faulted for is a lack of ambition.