This Religious Order Knows How to Grow Vocations

Some years ago our pastor retired and our parish was given over to the care of the Vocationist Fathers, also known as the Society of Divine Vocations.

I’d thought I’d heard of most major (and minor) religious societies, congregations and orders, but this was a new one—to me at least.

Turns out that the Society of Divine Vocations (S.D.V.) are relatively new: according to Very Rev. Fr. Ludovico M. Caputo, SDV, they were “founded in Naples in 1920 between the two World Wars” by Blessed Justin Russolillo, who had been ordained in 1913 as a secular (diocesan) priest in the Pozzuoli district of Napoli.

What made and makes the Vocationists unique is a two-fold mission: on the one hand, Blessed Justin saw that all—all—people have one or more vocations (whether to a religious or clerical life or that of a lay-person) in the Church, and he hoped to help foster that “universal call to sanctification,” says Fr. Caputo. Expanding on this then, Fr. Caputo added, “Fr. Justin used to define the priests in general and the Vocationists in particular as: ‘Cooperators of the Holy Spirit in making saints’—and one of his favorite form of prayerful wishes in lieu of the traditional goodbye was: ‘Be saint and sanctifier!’—or simply—‘Be a saint!’”

Blessed Justin Russolillo

Blessed Justin Russolillo

Second, the Vocationists, as envisioned by their founder (who died in 1955, and was beatified in 2011), were sent to “search for, accompany and form vocations” and as part of their vocation ministry they were also called “to bring back fallen-away priests.” This included, but was not limited to, priests who “had left the priesthood because of drinking or gambling or because they had fallen in love” but had never been formally laicized. It also brought in some former religious who no longer felt called to their original congregation or society.

“Vocations—all vocations—are a precious gift from God,” said Fr. Caputo, echoing Blessed Justin, whom he not only knew but actually lived with for two years in Naples. “Blessed Justin knew that for the Church to preach and spread universal sanctification, it needed good and holy priests to administer the sacraments.” Fr. Caputo continued: “People are fulfilled only when they find their true vocation.”

While this may sound like an almost obvious statement, it was, at the time (the 1920s and 1930s) and place (Southern Italy) a rather new and radical idea. Like all new ideas in an institution as old as the Roman Church, it was looked upon by the hierarchy as either a way of “The Good Shepherd” going out after the one lost sheep—or as an innovation that would not be brooked: once a priest had left the priesthood of his own accord, that was it. Period.

One person who agreed with this latter letter-of-the-law / one-strike-and-you’re-out mentality was the then Archbishop Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini, better known to the world as the future Pope Paul VI. “In 1954,” recalls Fr. Caputo, “the Society was going bankrupt and Archbishop Montini brought up the idea of ‘eliminating’ the Vocationists to Blessed Pope Pius XII—who disagreed with him.” The Vocationists survived. “The irony of God,” noted Fr. Caputo, “in 1967 Pope Paul VI joyfully granted the Decretum Laudis, the final approval of the Church, to the Society of Divine Vocation!”

Indeed, the Vocationists flourished. Although their real growth has been in the last twenty years especially, the Vocationists seemed to come along at the right time: after the post-Vatican diaspora of priests and religious, the Society began to fill the void of the lack of vocations.

“When we first came to New Jersey,” says Fr. Caputo, “the then-bishop of Trenton said that there was no need for us, since there were so many vocations to the priesthood!”

How times have changed.

It would be difficult to write about The Vocationists without acknowledging the post-Vatican II vocation crisis which crippled the Church in most of North America and Western Europe. “The context of this problem,” per Fr. Caputo, “was that many orders lost the stability, discipline, and in some cases, structures that had existed for centuries. Suddenly their members were allowed to do and say nearly anything. Religious who used to live in community were suddenly living in private apartments and not wearing their traditional religious garb.”

The irony here is that the orders and societies who stayed true to their missions, especially through the post-conciliar upheavals have “seen the greatest growth: the cloistered Carmel here in North Jersey [is growing], the orthodox orders showed the importance of stability, structure, and perseverance—and this is the ultimate attraction for the true Christian: to persevere with and for Christ and his Church.”

Fr. Caputo also believes that we see vocations “from countries where the church has, for decades, been persecuted: Poland, Vietnam—these people understand the value of their religion in light of the inability to practice it openly. They now are free to express themselves and do so in greater numbers than in lands that have not known similar persecutions.”

“In America especially people seem afraid of life-long commitments,” says Fr. Caputo, “Whether that means marriage or ordination to the priesthood or taking solemn vows. And yet success in the spiritual life is based and built upon stability, continuity of tradition, and, of course, perseverance.”

Now, in addition to bringing back fallen-away priests and priests who have struggled with their “true” vocation, the Society is charged with being more than a bit missionary: “There is a very real shortage of religious vocations,” says Fr. Caputo. “It is our vocation to help foster them.” Thus the Society is now present in fourteen countries on four continents and has over 450 members (and 350 seminarians) world-wide. “We go where there are vocations that need more spiritual, academic, and financial assistance and the local Church institutions cannot meet all their needs; we also go to places where there is a shortage of vocations. This principle took us to countries like Nigeria, Philippines, Indonesia, India, Madagascar, United Kingdom, Colombia and other parts of  South America—as well as right here in New Jersey, Vermont and New York.”

They also encourage “late” vocations: “We do a lot of work with ‘older’ vocations, men who are called to the priesthood later in life. We have no age limit,” noted Fr. Caputo.

No new religious society occurs in a vacuum and very few are entirely “new” ideas created out of whole cloth. Fr. Caputo noted that, “Blessed Justin was heavily influenced by the teaching and saintly examples of St. John Bosco [The Salesians], St. Francis de Sales [The Oblates], St. Alphonsus Liguori [The Redemptorists], along with his contemporaries St. Padre Pio and Blessed Bartolo Longo.”

The overarching and undergirding raison d’etre to the Vocationists is the fact that “every human being is called—has a vocation—to life, faith, and holiness; many have special vocations like priesthood, consecrated life, marriage—but all have particular or personal vocations to a great variety of services. For Blessed Fr. Justin the whole life is a vocation,” said Fr. Caputo. And, “We are all called to be saints, we are all called to be holy by God himself.” But no one can do this alone and “That is why we encourage priestly vocations especially: so that there may be many holy priests to help people in their spiritual quests.”

The Vocationists, far from being confined to minting and rehabilitating fallen away priests also work with women religious, “The Sisters of the Society of Divine Vocations [the Vocationist Sisters] do the work among women that we do for men,” said Fr. Caputo.

It turns out that Blessed Justin was a man ahead of his time. Whether or not he foresaw that there would be a vocation shortage after the Second Vatican Council (he did not live long enough to see that Council), he certainly had the perspicacity to sense the import of saintly vocations—and what these meant to the sustainability and growth of the Church.

Two other pillars of the Society were also foremost in Blessed Justin’s vision: one was work among the poverty-stricken. The Church’s “preferential option for the poor” was always before him and in Naples there was no lack of those living below the poverty-line—especially after both World Wars that enveloped and nearly destroyed Italy. “Between 1920 and 1955, approximately 9,000 youngsters were formed in Fr. Justin’s ‘Vocationaries’” noted Fr. Caputo. “The ‘Vocationary’ is the characteristic work of the Vocationists, a place where vocations are discerned, formed, educated and directed wherever God calls them—and all free of charge!”

Second, Blessed Justin knew how important education was. This seems self-evident, but Fr. Caputo was quick to point out that, “in southern Italy, ‘free education’ only lasted up to about the fifth grade. After that, those who had the means would send their children to private schools, often boarding schools. Those who didn’t would turn to the Church’s ‘minor seminaries’ which would take in most students knowing full well that many, if not most of them would not become priests—but they still needed education and this was the only way they could afford it. Says Fr. Caputo, “In the 1960s and 1970s it was estimated that 80 percent of all professional men in Pianura—the periphery of Naples where Fr. Justin was born, lived and died, the place of birth of the Society of Divine Vocations—had received their secondary education in the Vocationary.”

In one of those ironies that Church history is filled with, the Vocationist headquarters in North America is now located in New Jersey—the same state which turned them away in the early 1960s when there was “no need” for “extra vocations.” “We started our work among the poor in Newark,” says Fr. Caputo, “which was our original New Jersey location. However, a Jewish survivor of one of the Nazi death camps donated land and even helped in the construction in 1986-7, and in 1988 we moved to our location in Florham Park, New Jersey.”

At a time when vocations to the religious and priestly life are at a low-ebb, to put it mildly, the Vocationist Society has proven a rejuvenation to the universal call to holiness—and especially among priests and sisters needing a “second-chance” at their vocation.

Kevin T. DiCamillo

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Kevin T. DiCamillo is a freelance writer and editor who writes regularly for National Catholic Register and PublishingPerspectives. He won the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. His work has appeared in Columbia, The Priest, The Times Literary Supplement (of London), James Joyce Quarterly, The National Poetry Review, The Antigonish Review, Opium and other publications. In addition to being a co-founder of The Notre Dame Review (where he earned his Master’s degree), he is the former poetry editor of Traffic East, and was a University and Doctoral Research Fellow at St. John’s University.

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