Today’s Prophets: The Enduring Societal Relevance of Vocations to Priestly and Religious Life

Ian Shelley Alabanza

With much enthusiasm, the Year of Vocations is in full swing in the Catholic Diocese of Macao, and it is an opportune moment to encourage members of the Catholic community of Macao to listen more closely to God. Some of us, without being aware, may have received the call—the vocation—to either the priesthood or to life as a religious, whether as a brother, a missionary, or a contemplative.

Looking at Jesus’ life from a historical perspective, especially during the time of His missionary activity, we see that He went out to the people and socialized with them. He spoke to crowds, giving them the good news from God. He was among the sick, healing them. He mingled with those who were not accepted by society: criminals, prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, etc. In short, Jesus had a very strong impact on society, and His missionary activity had an unmistakable societal aspect to it.

Although all Christians are called to follow Jesus, some are called to a unique way of life where they devote their entire life in service to God’s people in roles that are quite distinct from those of laypersons. Priests and religious have an enduring societal relevance even in the midst of what seems to be a world that’s becoming secularized, and indeed those who are called to a priestly and/or religious life can be regarded as the prophets of today.

Announcing and Denouncing with Courage

One of the things that distinguished prophets from most ordinary persons was that they had the uncanny ability to see what was going on in society during their time. Such perspicacity with regard to the social milieu or in reading the “signs of the times” was usually interpreted as being in possession of the powers of prediction—an ability that is commonly attributed to a prophet. Therefore, when a prophet prophesies or announces a prophecy, what that prophet is doing is making an insightful reading of what is going on at present and then, projecting into the future. The prophet interprets what the likely consequences will be if people continue with their current behavior.

Thus, prophets announce what is going on, and they also announce, by way of warning, what might happen if people continued with behavior and ways of living that may be detrimental to life and society. And this is one of the relevant roles of priests and religious in today’s society. Since they have more time for prayer and contemplation than most ordinary laypersons have, they are able to tap into their ability to discern the ways of the Holy Spirit and understand what behaviors and ways of living are harmful to society and to the earth.

Also, a life devoted to the ministry and to apostleship in the case of those ordained to the priesthood, or to contemplation in the case of contemplatives, or missionary activity in the case of missionaries, provides persons in priestly and religious life an understanding of people’s needs and cares, their problems and their aspirations. They are able to widen their vision because they care not just for one family but several families, entire communities. They speak to people and tell them of God’s will and good news.

Many times, priests and religious, having insight and discernment, are also confronted with the responsibility not only to announce, but also to denounce. They have to speak out against injustice, against wrongdoing, against harmful practices, against evil, against people in power who use that power irresponsibly to the extent that they harm innocent people.

Speaking out is not easy. It requires courage and lots of it. And this is also why priests and religious are oftentimes the voice of the voiceless, with the voiceless being the poor and the underprivileged.

Service, Not Prestige

Persons who have a calling to the priestly or the religious life do not call attention to themselves. The prophets spoke not because they wanted to call attention to themselves. Instead, they were a medium. They were God’s spokespersons. They pointed to God, not to themselves. The wisdom that priests and religious acquire from extended periods of prayer and contemplation, of intimacy with God, of being with the people, and the insights that are formed from these are meant not for themselves. They are rather meant to be shared. They articulate God’s will and wisdom in words and in a manner that is accessible to most ordinary persons.

A vocation to the priestly and religious life is not about the prestige that is bestowed upon the one who is called. It is instead a service. This was very clear to Jesus when He said that He came to serve and not to be served (Matthew 20:28). This is also clear in the lives of the prophets who refused privilege in order to be able to embody and live out the message that they were announcing.

The history of religious life is full of examples of a way of life that helped people see an alternative to the dominant lifestyle of their times, from mendicants to monks, from contemplatives to active contemplatives. And so, today’s prophets, priests and religious announce not only in words, but also in their way of life. As prophets, they are challenged to help people to not only imagine, but to see with their very eyes an alternative way of living. A life that is not preoccupied with the self, nor with accumulation of material goods, wins or likes or awards. It must be a life that values people; a life of empathy and compassion; a life that empowers the people of God to realize God’s Kingdom on earth just as the prophets did.

(Ian Shelley Alabanza was awarded summa cum laude honors for his PhD from the University of Saint Joseph. He has been lecturing at the university for 10 years and has taught 23 different course modules on topics related to philosophy, theology, and psychology. His main research is on migrant religiosity while his other academic interests include the psychology of religion and spirituality as well as cultural anthropology.)