For many of us there is also a new spring within the Church: a refreshing breeze from Rome, and here in England and Wales, encouraging news about entrants to seminaries and religious life. In 2011 we got excited when 17 women entered religious life (and my congregation got VERY excited because three of them joined us!), but now it seems that in 2012 twenty-three women took their first steps in apostolic religious life. Once the figures from monasteries are added I'm sure they will exceed thirty, which they haven't done since the mid-1990s, when I entered.
Yes, indeed, spring has well and truly sprung!!
When a friend posted this news on Facebook someone else commented that the numbers are still low, compared with the overall age demographic. Yes, they are, which is why we need to keep praying hard for vocations, keep encouraging generous, sincere young people to be open to the possibility of a call to give their lives to God in prayer and service in this way. But these figures also contain within them the green shoots of spring, the gift and promise of new life for the world and for the Church. The numbers are tiny, the signs of life still fragile, but then snowdrops are tiny and fragile... and yet we all know that joyous leap of hope within us on a bitterly cold day when we see those first tentative signs of spring... And we also know that soon those tiny flowers will be joined by more, and winter is on the way out, to be replaced by the vibrancy and colour of spring...
Tomorrow, Good Shepherd Sunday is also Vocations Sunday, when we pray very specially for more people to experience the joy of finding the treasure for which they were created. I know from my personal experience that many people approach this apprehensively: viewed from the outside, religious life can appear uncongenial, a series of very obvious noes, with little hard evidence of the corresponding recompense. I well remember thinking, twenty years ago, how the hundredfold promised by Jesus was all very well, but it seemed vague and spiritual compared with the lovely flat, lifestyle, career etc I would be giving up!
In fact, as I have come to discover, the hundredfold is anything but vague. It is so very real; something joyous, glorious and wonderful, all the better for so often being unexpected. It is a process of growth and transformation, with challenge and risk alongside deep inner peace and joy, an unfolding, a becoming, a true adventure. For me this adventure is lived within the Heart of Jesus, journeying into its depths and into the heart of the world; seeking to live united to that Heart in order to make known the love of that Heart - a tall order, but also a privilege I share with several thousand women around the world, women who are an essential part of that hundredfold.
A privilege, an adventure, a becoming who I am created to be... religious life, with its demands and its hundredfold, is all this and more. And when I pray for more vocations, as I will very specially do tomorrow, I pray that more women and men will have the joy of experiencing and discovering all that and more for themselves.