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The Vocations Myth

In DeValera’s Ireland and before armies of young people entered religious orders or became diocesan clergy. One was ‘called’ by God, we were told, to the religious life, the married state or the single life. It was made clear that the first was preferable. Number two was inferior and we won’t even mention the stigma attached to number three. Families basked in the prestige derived from having a member with a religious ‘vocation’. How often have we teachers been told that our profession was ‘a vocation’? Sorry. No voice was heard from the clouds. There was no call. The reasons people follow a particular path can be complex and varied.

The pressure on young people to ‘enter’ was relentless at one time. Visiting nuns questioned small girls as to whether they might like convent life. Nearly everyone had an aunt or uncle in religion which accounts for a great many of the Conceptas, Alacoques, Ignatiuses and Alphonsuses God help us. Religious orders visited secondary schools touting for postulants. The Sisters of the Incarnate Word from Texas were regulars in my first secondary school. Some orders had cutesy names such as The Poor Sisters of this, The Little Company of that or The Poor Servants of the other. We were herded into the hall to hear their spiel. This usually happened at the hour laid aside for dancing and never during Maths, Commerce or the wretched Home Economics. Girls who had an aunt in the order were singled out as possibles. This never happened in my second secondary school. The principal, Sr Domenico OP, a lady and a scholar, would not entertain such tactics.

The traffic into the orders went into reverse in the mid sixties. Did God suddenly stop ‘calling’? Some of us had smelled a rat long before. Why did God never seem to call the very poor? While some very worthy people were called by God we wondered why he chose some other very strange individuals. Why did God set his face against the ordination of, in the parlance of the times, illegitimate persons? It is quite shocking to find the words ‘illegitimate, ‘de parentibus ignotii’ and even ‘bastard’ inserted  in baptismal records of the 19th century (nli.ie catholic records). On occasions these words are underlined. Some priests were more assiduous than others in their emphasis. The ordination of the illegitimate was contrary to canon law. Did this have something to do with it?

Why did God tend to call several members from the same family? This can be observed by perusing the obituaries. The death notices of religious make frequent reference to siblings also in religion. Rarely do religious come from smaller families. The words ‘surplus to requirements’ spring to mind. Some families were completely ignored by God when he was in calling mode. What career options were available to people in the past? Emigration was anathema to some. Going abroad as a missionary was a more acceptable option. Marriage opportunities were problematic. The supply of eldest sons who might be heirs to farms or businesses was ever limited. To abide in polished parlours would seem preferable to marrying Paddy down the road and enduring two decades of childbearing in a world without contraception.

My mother had a schoolfriend in the 1920s called Gussie (Augusta). She had ten siblings. Gussie told my mother that her mother had decreed that all of her offspring should enter the religious life. Gussie complied. One of her brothers became a well known cleric, author of a prayer book which we were told was essential if one were to live a christian life. A search of census records and irishgenealogy.ie reveals that several others entered also. The youngest daughter was present at her mother’s death. It looks as if she was the one kept at home ‘to look after mother’. There lies another tale of the exploitation of single daughters in times past. There was a woman in my parish whose daughter entered. Asked by a neighbour how the girl was getting on she replied “If I knew how  much I would miss her I would not have pressed her so hard to go”. This mad eagerness on the part of mothers to get their daughters into convents suggests a deep dissatisfaction with their own lives.

Events in the 60s brought vocations to an abrupt halt. Things loosened up a little in the church in the wake of Vatican II. Philip Larkin summed up other changes

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Nobody from my Leaving Cert cohort in 1966 entered. The post-Beatle world was utterly different from the pre-Beatle world.

There was an even more revolutionary change in Ireland with the arrival of free secondary education in 1967. School fees had presented a huge challenge to parents of large families in the past. Some of them were able to exploit whatever opportunities there were and who can blame them? Many’s the boy ‘temporarily’ joined an order in order to avail of the free education on offer within the walls. I have in my possession a letter written in August 1955 by a relative who was a Christian Brother. Writing from the juniorate of the southern province in Baldoyle he relates “Young aspirants are pouring in this week, about 140 in all”. 140 entering the brothers in the southern province alone. Staggering to our minds. It is a fair bet that the bulk of those aspirants did not remain once a certain educational level was reached. It is rumoured that similar ploys were used by a few to acquire university level education. At my time in UCD the place was black with religious.

Here we are now all these years later. Religious are dying at the rate of 5 or 6 a week in the back of The Irish Times but God seems to have ceased ‘calling’ anyone to replace them. In parts of the developing world this is not the case. Social and economic conditions in African and Asian countries could be compared to what ours were decades ago. One is tempted to think that entering religion is still a route to opportunity in these places. Asked why he had entered at the end of the nineteenth century yet another Christian Brother relative answered that he had wanted to be in a place where there were lots of books. Coming from a family which had been evicted from their holding during the Land War it seems like a very good reason to me. No mention of being ‘called’.

Now here’s a mystery. Who is the little person at the head of this piece shrouded in medieval garb? She has an unworldly look. It is from my archives. My mother just knew she was a cousin of her mothers, a Good Shepherd nun. The photo was taken in New York. I have gone so far as to contact the Good Shepherd archives in the US in the hopes that they may have been able to identify her. To no avail. Possible names are Ryan, Maher, Devaney, Benson, Hennessey, Finn or Shanahan. May the earth lie lightly upon her and on all those others from the great age of the ‘vocation’.