August 2001

The vocation of pastoral work

John Armitage

Pastoral work in our communities will suffer if we lose the sense of our basic vocation of being called into existence by God. John Armitage, who is parish priest of St Margaret’s, Canning Town, London, draws on his experience of working in the East End to show ‘how pastoral work for vocations is the vocation of pastoral work today’.

‘Pastoral work for vocations is the vocation of pastoral work today.’ This sentence sums up for me the challenge of pastoral care today.

I have been Vocations Director for the past ten years in my diocese, and parish priest for most of this period. There seems to be a loss of vocational confidence in the Church, but further examination seems to show that we are not alone.

A few years ago I was asked to carry out some research on vocations. The intake into the seminaries was at an all-time low, some religious orders had not had a novice enter for years, and there was serious reflection that suggested that a significant number of religious orders would cease to exist within the foreseeable future. What was happening? In the course of this research I found some remarkable parallels with secular agencies, which seem to be struggling in a similar fashion to the Church. Nursing, medicine, teaching, social work, youth work, all professions with a vocational element in their basic self-understanding. Two separate reports on nursing and teaching stated that the shortage of recruits would not be solved simply by throwing more money at people.

‘Nursing’s collapse is a cultural and spiritual one, a failure of the notion of charity and compassion, not the result of failed pay bargaining rounds.’ (Come back, Miss Nightingale: trends in professions today, by D. Anderson, London: Social Affairs Unit, 1998.) The heart of these professions was understood as vocational, where gifted people had a strong sense of service and a self-understanding that the individual nurse or teacher had something of themselves to offer. Even the Army was suffering. A remarkable article, quoting a recruitment officer, stated: ‘We have got to try to educate our young recruits out of their selfish lifestyle’, reflecting that teamwork will only operate effectively where individual members feel that they have something to offer others in the group.

Not just a ‘churchy’ issue

The vocational problem that faces us today is not an isolated ‘churchy’ issue that will be solved by ‘churchy’ answers. The vocational crisis is a part of a wider social picture that displays the heart of our modern society; simply put it is a sense of ‘man and woman with no vocation’.

A vocational culture recognises the worth of each individual, and creates ways for that worth to grow and to become central in the life of each person, thus building communities with a strong ‘heart’. Our vocation is linked to our very existence. God first calls us into being and this ‘divine thought’ encompasses our whole life. We are unique, our fingerprints, DNA, footprints, are completely one off. Our vocation is our ‘Spiritual DNA’. It is the realisation that people have something to find in life, something that is uniquely theirs. This message lies at the heart of the Christian community.

Our story

The place of our story is of vital importance in understanding our vocation. The telling of stories educates and strengthens our sense of belonging. But all stories need guides to help us understand them. These guides are my faith, my family, and my community. If you want to understand the parts of my story about the sea and why I sail on the Tall Ships you have to know that my father and grandfather were seamen, who sent me to sea when I was fourteen. To know why I speak with a London accent, you have to know that my family settled in Wapping in 1846 and have been in the East End ever since. If you want to know why I am a priest you have to know that I am a Roman Catholic. If you want to know how I dealt with my father’s tragic death when I was seventeen you have to know about my faith, my family and my friends. My story is no stranger to me, because I have the faith, the family and the community, which help me to understand it.

Can there be a more distressing state in life than to know your story and not to understand it? To have no faith, history or community, to help you interpret what is happening to you? When people come for confession or counsel they often speak about being lost; they have no sense of who they are. In the midst of such a great quantity and diversity of information, but with so little formation, they appear lost with few points of reference. Accordingly they are afraid of their future; they experience anxiety in the face of definite commitment. (In Verbo Tuo: new vocations for a new Europe Vatican, 1997, 11c.)

Pastoral care in any community is about helping a person discover the uniqueness of their being through their relationship with God in worship and prayer, through their relationship with others by service and community, and through their relationship with themselves through belonging and recognition of their own self-worth.

Our pastoral care today, as always, is to help a person find their unique identity in the person of Jesus, for Jesus is the answer to a question. The question? ‘Where is God?’ This question arises in people’s lives in a thousand ways and experiences. Death, life, failure, success, every question in life that tries to find an answer to the everyday events that face us in the end is a seeking for the answer to this most fundamental of questions: Where is God? Whether or not we recognise what is at the heart of these questions, we are most certainly trying to find answers. The mission of the Church and all Christian communities lies in helping people find the answers to their questions in the person of Jesus.

People who don’t attend church often look upon churchgoers as hypocrites, and of course they are right. As the ‘Hypocrite in Charge’ of this parish I am constantly struggling to reconcile ‘the bad that comes so easily and the good that seems so hard’, and this gives us a clue as to why people come to church. We are a community of strugglers recognising our frailty and need of God.

I see so many people coming to Mass in the midst of tragedy, depression, confusion, chaos, they come to find strength and meaning. Some find it and stay, others go away and come back, others go away and we never see them again. Many of the ones who stay are those who are engaged in the struggle, for in the end all holiness and goodness is born of this conflict. This is what we celebrate each Sunday. We find in the death and resurrection of Jesus an echo of our own experience. Our worship helps us to celebrate our life in all of its vast range of emotions.

One East End parish

St Margaret’s Church, Canning Town, is in London’s East End. It was built in the 1850s to serve the mainly Irish immigrants who were arriving to build the new Royal Docks and then to work in them. The East End has always been a point of arrival for people from all over the world. One old parish priest I knew would say, ‘You know where trouble spots of the world are, by the men standing at the back of the church at the evening Mass.’ This has not changed. At the last Racial Justice Sunday we put up a map and asked people to put a pin in their country of origin. At the end of Sunday there were sixty-one pins in the map! This gives the parish an amazing range of experience from its people. So many of our inner-city parishes reflect the Catholic, universal nature of the Church. The work of any parish in an area like this is holding together the diverse nature of its people. A while ago one of my young parishioners came and told me that she wanted to start attending a black-led church along the road. She asked what I thought. She wanted to go to this church because she identified with the music and the culture of the people. I tried to explain to her that St Margaret’s could never be a black church or a white church or a Filipino church, it could only be Catholic.

Multicultural vs. Cultural

The universality of our inner-city parishes creates great opportunities and great tensions. To be part of a community of sixty-one different nationalities is not easy. Old-established parishioners want it to be as it was in the ‘old days’, new arrivals want it to be like the churches that they have just come from, some young people who are second-generation sometimes try to find an identity in churches that reflect their mother culture. The Catholic parish has to try and hold all this together. The term multicultural is much used today, it can mean large groups of people of a particular ethnic origin, living in a certain area who might have few points of integration with other cultures.

Recently my parish primary school had to draw up the dreaded Mission Statement. The result was: ‘St Helen’s school is a multicultural community of people united by a common Catholic faith…’ The future of multicultural Britain will involve finding places where people of different cultures can find a point of integration. Yet there is a strong tendency to create cultural churches. Whether they are black churches, or white middle-class house churches, these groups often start because the welcome offered in established and large communities is not what it might be. The media constantly point to these new Christian groupings as a sign of growth. Yet they are rarely local, people are often bussed in; they come to a church they like, rather than the one that is local.

The concept of local is a vital part of understanding a parish church; you might say the church that you can walk to defines your parish. The question is asked: What is the future of the parish? Has it had its day in its present form? Whatever the needs for change and development in our parishes the fact is that they represent the local Church, they are where people are, and they must reflect the local and be a focus of local belonging. We seem to be losing the sense of the local, as globalisation takes a hold on society. Where do we belong? Places for people to meet and socialise, even in their own homes, are becoming fewer. Central heating, TV and computers, and the demise of the dinner table mean that people can live under the same roof but have few real points of contact.

In my parish in recent years we have seen the demise of at least ten pubs, five community centres, four social clubs, the local street market, one of the largest youth clubs in London, and impersonal twenty-four-hour supermarkets outside the parish have replaced local shops. Yet we all desire a sense of belonging. Apart from our family networks, friends and workplace, the churches are often among the last places where people meet locally. So a vital pastoral need is to recognise the diverse identity of this parish and to celebrate the ethnic mix of the thousand or so people who come to Mass each Sunday but more importantly to acknowledge that they are united by a common faith that seeks the answers to life’s question in their belief in Jesus.

Inner-city parishes are often faced with problems of leadership; very often people have little experience of the type of skills that are called for today. Few working people have the range of experience that comes with much middle-class work. It is almost impossible to get people to become school governors, let alone be chairmen; there is little enthusiasm for meetings of any description.

A few years ago, after another attempt at forming a parish council died a death, I was approached and asked if we would take part in a night-shelter scheme with some local churches. My response was that if there were enough people who wanted to take part we would be happy to be involved. I asked for volunteers, and in my pessimism I said that we would meet in the presbytery, not expecting very many. Nearly forty people turned up, and we are now in our fifth year.

I feel sometimes that we are pressing the wrong buttons; this was obviously the right one! The night shelter has been a wonderful work in our parish, directly addressing the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society. It has also given a large number of people in the parish an experience of service and working together that has built up their own self-confidence.

Broad-based community activity Another example of this growth in self-confidence has been as a result of our taking part in broad-based community organising. Five years ago we were invited to join a new coalition of Churches, Mosques, Gudwarahs, and community organisations, all value-based organisations working for the good of the community in East London. Over a thousand ordinary East End people from across the community met at York Hall in Bethnal Green to pledge to work together.

When I was first approached the selling point for me was the fact that this type of work was not going to be dependent on me, but on the development of local leaders in the member organisations. There would be training in leadership, and support for leadership.

I recognised the endless needs that faced both my own community and the broader community of East London, and knew that the ‘needs’ would be always with us, but what was required were people, self-confident, trained, organised and grounded in the values of their particular community, who would have the confidence to work to organise others to face these needs. It has been without doubt one of the hardest projects that I have ever been involved in, yet the results have been amazing.

We have addressed issues ranging from local pollution, problems in our local hospital, jobs for local people, unsupervised parks, the closing of all local financial institutions, to our present action which is working for a ‘living wage’ for local people in the lowest-paid jobs, and especially for those whose wages and conditions have worsened because their jobs have been contracted out.

The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO) is now a powerful coalition of the above, and because of our last action we have been joined now by a number of local union branches, and have received direct support and recognition from five of the major trade unions at national level.

This is wonderful, but what has been even more wonderful is the involvement of ordinary people, who have spoken and questioned politicians, business leaders, and service providers at our annual assemblies. They have attended meetings with people such as the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the Mayor of London, the General Secretary of the TUC, and business leaders. They have sought to create a working relationship, between local communities and powerful bodies that affect our communities, and it has worked.

We have a long way to go, and the ‘issues’ will always be with us, but a new confidence is growing that is based on a sense of self-worth, that is helping people to recognise that they have something to offer. They have gained strength of purpose because they belong; they are part of something that is bigger than themselves, something that gives them a foundation of faith, history and community.

Religious vocations

I have wondered for years why there is so little real interest in the problem of particular vocations to the priesthood and the religious life in the Catholic community in this country. I suspect we have lost our sense of vocation. Vocation is the awareness that we are called into existence by God. This call is located in a particular Christian community by our baptism, and the mission of each community is to help each person seek out in their life what God’s will is for them. My vocation is not to be a priest: it is, like all other people, to do God’s will. Because I have tried to do this in my life, I became a priest, and it is the reason why I am still a priest.

The particular vocations of priesthood, consecrated life and marriage are the fruits of a vocational community. We have to ask ourselves the question: What sort of communities have we become that such vocations, which are so vital to the life of the Church, are becoming fewer and fewer? If we are to discover what is the ‘vocation of pastoral work today’ we must first affirm our faith in the God who calls us into being. This call is unique to each person.

We must then recognise the ‘signs of the times’ so that we may become ‘experts in humanity’. The loss of the local, and the isolation and loneliness that is such a part of our modern way of life will show us that people need to belong to have a sense of identity. Our faith gives meaning and direction to our life; our family tells us where we come from; our community tells us where we are. The parish that celebrates in worship the God who calls us and gives meaning to our lives; the parish that celebrates and supports family life in all its diverse forms; the parish that is a community that celebrates its diversity, and leads its people to service, will be a vocational community from which vocations will flow.

Pastoral work for vocations knows no boundaries, it is not directed only at certain privileged people or those who have already made an option for faith. It is addressed to all, precisely because it is founded on the elementary values of existence. It is not pastoral work for an elite, but for all the people; it is not a prize for the most deserving, but a gift of God for each person, because every living person is called by God. (In Verbo Tuo: new vocations for a new Europe, 26f.)

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