We are given many talents not merely one Paul Griffin explains how career advice for teenagers should reflect this important truth

When a boy reaches his middle teens, he is often sent to a careers adviser/teacher, or to a vocational guidance bureau, to help him map out what he is to do next. He may see rack upon rack of leaflets from the Law Society, the Chartered Surveyors, various big industrial firms, even from the Services.

It may be there will be something from the Church, though this raises the question of whether ordination is a ‘career’ in the same sense as the rest. It is a job that lasts you all your life, but in what respect, if at all, is it on a par with Unilever or chartered accountancy?

Certain it is that seeing an adviser seldom leads a boy towards the ordained ministry. Even if the possibility is presented, the whole ethos of ‘careers’ is antipathetic.

A career is valued by its security, status and financial rewards, and a lad announcing he wishes to be ordained will be regarded in the same light as one who favours being an actor or a bookie’s runner.

Parable of the talents

Yet careers advisers are often mindful that they are only carrying out the implications of the parable of the talents. We all have special talents of one sort or other, and God wants us to use them in the service of mankind.

You may notice that I use the plural, because in Our Lord’s story two of the recipients had more talents than one. This is too much forgotten, as by the poet Milton, who talked of ‘that one talent which is death to hide’, as if the political propagandist and Latin secretary to the government had no important talent elsewhere.

This is a familiar claim by artists, who can only too comfortably assume that God is calling them exclusively to their art, and that nothing else matters. In consequence, they become a pest. This happened to Milton, who wrote less readable poetry as he went along. Both theologically and personally, this man of great talents became in many ways a rather undesirable person, whose wives and daughters seem to have had a terrible time.

George Herbert, who regarded his poetry as part of a regular ministry, showed us the way to look at talents; but teachers who identify what they think a boy can do in life only too often think of talent in the singular, and fail to see that mechanical or mathematical ability, for example, does not automatically lead a boy into engineering, but may help greatly in a variety of other walks of life. The classic example is Albert Schweitzer, who could have achieved fame as a theologian or as a musician, but chose instead to be a doctor in Africa, where the qualities of understanding and sensitivity which might have led him to safe and prosperous celebrity made him a blessing to the poor and a light to us. Mother Teresa is another example. I imagine neither would have been advised by a careers adviser to do what they did.

Facts and education

This brings me back to the problem I want to put.

We should not be surprised, under present circumstances, if there are too few priests and if a large proportion of those who are ordained carry from their education an excessively liberal view of human ways.

How can a school place a life as a priest before a boy in a way that may forward God’s will for his Church by producing more and better ordinands?

The vital necessity is that it should want to. If schools are regarded as places where children learn facts and then decide how they are going to use their factual knowledge to their own profit and safety – if Gradgrind rules our system – the battle is lost from the start.

Most Heads, thank goodness, do not take this view, though they may have parents who are foolish enough to do so; but even in specifically Christian schools, social and parental pressures, plus an uneasy multicultural conscience, may mean that in effect the careers industry triumphs.

It seems best if careers advice can be provided within the school, and under the control of the Head. His or her duty should be to ensure that the possibility of holy orders is put before every baptized boy, and not only as an alternative to accountancy and the law, but as a life in itself and apart from the rest.

He should also do what he can to counter the idea that most humans possess just one single, lonely talent, and that God means us to identify it and follow it to the death.

Doing our best

Not only should he point out the possibility of multiple talents, but he should also be mindful that in the same chapter of Matthew that includes the great parable is an equally vital passage we should all fear to hear at the Last Day: T was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty…’

There is, after all, a possibility that a great talent for words would be better exercised in preaching or being jolly with the Mother’s Union than in writing rubbish novels; or that a sensitive temperament is better used in comforting the bereaved than in waiting hopefully for a musical engagement at the Albert Hall.

This ‘career’ of priest, as St Paul makes clear, is not for everybody. Most of us laymen when challenged express a sense of determined inadequacy, which may at first sight seem cowardly, but may equally prove to be a profoundly Christian attitude. We are genuinely called by God not to be ordained. Determined inadequacy should not indicate that we are determined to be inadequate, but that we are determined to do our best nonetheless.

It is not a quality recommended by the business schools, but as life goes on it can be surprisingly fruitful. It proceeds, not from ignoring the call of the Church, but from hearing it, and deciding in consequence. This is why that call must be put before the pupils of our schools. Schools are not instruments of the careers industry: on the contrary, the careers industry is the servant of a true education; and if we are to have a flourishing priesthood it should not be allowed to hijack our schools.