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Elizabeth Bookser Barkley shares four compelling profiles of men and women who have heard God calling them to the life of ministry in the Church. She offers young people and others discerning a vocation helpful resources and questions to ask themselves about where God might be calling them.


Father, Sister, Brother, Deacon: Is God Calling Me?
By: Elizabeth Bookser Barkley


Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
It must have surprised the Oldenburg Franciscan sister when one of her first-grade students stood up proudly and announced what he wanted to be when he grew up: “A Franciscan nun!”

After explaining that only women could become sisters, his teacher suggested he think about becoming a Franciscan brother. Years later, Br. Mark Ligett did just that: He joined the Franciscans and continued to pray, listen and discern his call before making a commitment to consecrated life.

For most men and women attracted to the ordained or vowed life, the call does not come as early as
Br. Mark’s. But it is a clear “call” to a vocation of ministry. In this Catholic Update we will meet three men and a woman who discerned and answered an invitation from God to serve as a religious brother or sister, priest or permanent deacon. They candidly discuss how they were prodded to explore a life that builds on the baptismal call of all Catholics, and they reflect on what challenges, fulfills and sustains them.

Echoes of St. Francis

Early in his formation, the period when candidates begin to live and pray in community in the tradition of their founders, Br. Mark, now 62, knew that he wanted to be a brother rather than be a priest. His goal was to be a teacher, and most Franciscans who taught were brothers.

That was the easy part. Several years into formation, he felt a strong call toward deeper prayer than an active order could afford him. So he received permission to join the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, where his life was devoted to prayer, quiet and community. After a year he returned to the Franciscans, took his final vows, left again a few years later to rejoin the Trappists, and is now back with the Franciscans.

“A Trappist abbot told me that in my struggle I was like St. Francis, always trying to balance an active life and prayer,” he reflects. “I know now the Franciscan life is where I belong.”

Br. Mark works at a retreat house in Pennsylvania. He laughs when he recalls his naïve assumption that retreat work would allow for more quiet contemplation.

“We must have 10,000 people pass through the retreat house each year,” he says.
“But even in the busyness here, I’m sharing my hunger for prayer.”

The Franciscans see the house as “a gospel inn, a safe place.” Although most of their visitors are Catholics, they have hosted a variety of groups, including Muslims, recovering alcoholics and people who are HIV-positive. They come not only from Pennsylvania but also from all over the United States and Canada.

His work enriches him, but he also needs to feed his own spiritual life. Once a month he stays overnight in a hermitage, a secluded residence, and once a year he spends a week at a Trappist monastery. Mostly, though, he finds sustenance in personal prayer, as well as prayer and community with his fellow brothers.

“I am vowed, promised to Jesus. The challenge is to see that we are all united to everyone,” he says. He loves quoting the Trappist Thomas Merton, who in a moment of revelation in a city, realized in seeing passersby that “they are walking around shining like the sun.”
 

Sharing her community’s vision

Prayer and community are also vital to the life of Sr. Monica Gundler, a 48-year-old Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, who runs Charity House, in New Orleans, with two sisters from other congregations that trace their roots to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. It is a place for guests to experience community, common prayer, service to the poor and hospitality.
 
Providence is a theme woven through Sr. Monica’s story of ministry and vocation. As a campus minister for 12 years, Sr. Monica organized annual trips for students to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Students and adults from other Sisters of Charity colleges worked side by side with each other year after year.

When Sr. Monica left campus ministry to become vocation director for her congregation, she and other Charity vocation directors dreamed of establishing a permanent house in New Orleans where young adults could continue efforts to help Katrina victims. There they could pray and live with Sisters of Charity while they served the people of that hard-hit city. After finding several houses that were “too damaged or too expensive,” Sr. Monica told herself, “I’m surrendering this to God.”

Not long after she turned the choice of a house over to God, the bishop offered them a former rectory that had already been renovated after the hurricane. On January 4, 2010, the feast of Elizabeth Ann Seton, 11 Sisters and Daughters of Charity and 19 young adults inaugurated the house.

Sr. Monica is very clear about what the house is not—it’s not a hotel for volunteers. Each day revolves around a structure: morning prayer in the chapel, breakfast and “hanging out together” in the kitchen, time to pack a lunch, then departure for work sites. The evening includes dinner, reflection on the work of the day and its connection to Sisters of Charity mission and founders, and prayer in the Community Room.

She’s convinced that this prayerful routine, plus the opportunity for people to see sisters in a service setting, might be an opening for them to consider religious life.

“If they are painting a fence next to a sister, they get a sense of her work and have occasion for questions about religious life and community,” she says.

She understands the importance of exploring vocation. After college, she worked in a social service agency, but having been immersed in the Catholic faith in her home and through 16 years of Catholic education, she began to realize that the faith piece was missing in her job.

Although she was engaged to be married, she wondered, “What is this restlessness in my heart? Something is not peaceful.” She contacted a Sister of Charity from her college who put her in touch with the community’s vocation director. Meeting her over lunch, Sr. Monica was immediately comfortable and realized, “Ahh, this is what I’ve been looking for.”

Even though her ministry continues to evolve, two needs are constant in her life: time to center herself in prayer and time to nurture relations with other sisters, friends and family.

And no matter where she serves, Sr. Monica is committed to the core of the Sisters of Charity mission: “a desire to bring God’s love into the world so people know they are loved and will strive to become Christlike, to become their best selves.”
 

Priestly call to leave his homeland

Although Sr. Monica’s evolving call meant pulling up roots in Ohio to create a new ministry in New Orleans, Fr. Angel Castro’s acceptance of an invitation to serve God meant leaving his seminary in Mexico to continue his priestly formation in Los Angeles, California.

Even though he had been raised Catholic, the seeds of his priestly vocation began germinating only when he realized in his teens that he felt “really at home” in the Catholic Church. One day his pastor told him, “I see you as a priest. ‘Tienes madera’ (you have good wood, good roots).” Although he entered a seminary in Mexico, he felt drawn to serve the growing Hispanic population in the United States. Completing studies in Los Angeles, he was ordained there in 2008.

As an assistant in two parishes in South Central L.A., in neighborhoods that have a history of violence, Fr. Angel puts in long days serving his diverse parishioners who include African-Americans and Latinos.

A typical day begins at 6 a.m. with prayer and Mass. Then he moves on to appointments with parishioners and frequent visits with upper-grade-school children, a group he enjoys because of their open and honest struggles “about life and their faith.”

Fr. Angel’s varied schedule brings with it “a roller coaster of emotions.” One morning he celebrated the funeral Mass of a man his own age, 30, who had been shot, then in the afternoon met with a young couple excited about their upcoming marriage.

One of his challenges is helping parishioners face high unemployment and low-paying jobs. “These are beautiful, hardworking people,” he says. “I came here to learn to be a priest, and they are teaching me how to be a good one.”

Parishioners tell Fr. Angel he is “passionate about being a priest,” a description he embraces. He loves ministering to people in any way, but especially celebrating the Eucharist and hearing confessions.

“One of the beautiful things I’ve experienced is hearing the confession of a man who had not been to the sacrament in 50 years,” he reflects. “I felt so blessed to be able to help him reconcile with God and welcome him back.”

And of his other love, the Eucharist, he says, “The life of the priest is intimately connected to the Eucharist. There is no priestly life without it.”


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‘You’d make a good deacon’

“Passion” is also a word that is synonymous with 43-year-old Deacon Francis Mateo’s commitment to God, his parish in Brooklyn, New York, and his family.

And he’s not shy about sharing his exuberance: “I love my family. I cannot live without Jesus. God is my life,” he says.

What makes his enthusiasm notable is that until a few years ago he hadn’t given any thought to public ministry in the Church and knew little about what deacons did. He was concentrating on his job at a New York interior design firm and raising two daughters with his wife, Nidia.

But one Saturday, he was struck by a reflection in a magazine that posed the question, “What else can you do for the Church?” The next morning at Mass “one of the parishioners put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You’d make a good deacon,’” he recalls.

With the support of his wife, he entered the discernment phase of the diaconate; in fact, she accompanied him to all classes for the first 18 months. He took to heart a teacher’s advice to “Listen to the Word of God in your wife,” he says.

“While my wife was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, I felt helpless because all I could do for her was be next to her. This experience has helped me in my ministry as a deacon, to be able to just sit with people, in their suffering.”

In addition to his full-time job, Deacon Francis is pursuing a degree in theology and helps at his parish, where he assists the priest, preaches at Sunday Masses, and baptizes new parishioners.

One of his greatest challenges is “to deliver the Word of God to people who are so thirsty for it, to help them to hear the Word and put it into practice.”

Preparing his weekend homily is a week-long commitment, often worked out during his train commute to his job.

“I read the Scriptures, then I invite the Holy Spirit in to help me discern what the Lord wants to say,” he says. “I have to be the first to understand it if I am going to bring a message that others will understand.”

His schedule is daunting. What keeps him going is the Eucharist, the center of his life, and time for prayer with his family.

“We sit together, talk about the Scriptures, and pray for the poor and those who thirst for justice. In our house, nothing can be done without the Lord,” he says.

Advice for the interested: ‘Come and see’

Two thousand years ago, Jesus called men and women to be his followers, asking them to “come and see” what this demanded.

All Catholics are called by Baptism to lead Christ-lives and serve the world, but in the Catholic Church some men and women are called to live out that life as ordained priests or deacons, or as religious women or men consecrating their lives to service through community and the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience.

How can 21st-century men and women discover whether God might be calling them to ordained or vowed lives? In a variety of ways. Many seminaries and religious congregations host evenings or weekends to explore the priesthood or religious life. Some invite men and women to work with them to get to know what their lives are like. All those interviewed for this Catholic Update stress that beyond reading about each vocation, it is important to spend time with those living the life.

Br. Mark advises men who are searching to “be patient, take time to enter into deep prayer. Be as transparent as possible with God and anyone you talk to.” God will become known to you that way.

They all encourage men and women to take a closer look at what the ordained or vowed life has to offer. Sr. Monica echoes their joy in answering the call when she describes her life as “a great adventure. When I said yes at 24, I had no idea what it would be like. This life continues to be a great, great gift.”

Box One:How Can I Learn More?

Printed materials are being complemented with an online presence by priests and religious, including websites and social media, such as Facebook and YouTube. The Catholic Religious Vocation Network’s “Vision” website includes a vocation “Match” site, where seekers can complete an online inventory to see which of 250 orders they match and receive information about a variety of options (http://www.vocation-network.org/match).

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a website with plenty of links to diocesan vocation offices and a handy page of “Top 10” vocations websites (http://www.foryourvocation.org).

You can search diocesan or religious congregation websites for “vocations.” And you can always call your diocese or a nearby religious community and ask for the vocation director.

Box Two: How Will I Know?

Ask yourself:

• Does my relationship with God sustain and enliven me so that I want to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others?

• Do I have a desire to serve others more?

• Does the idea of becoming a brother, sister or priest keep coming back time and again?

• Do I have a feeling I am on the brink of a major life decision?

   —adapted from ForYourVocation.org
 

Box Three: A Prayer for Searchers

Dear God,
give me a quiet, patient heart
as I discern my calling in life.
Let me hear your voice in my prayer
and see your face in my brothers
and sisters who are doing your work
in the world.
Help me appreciate the grace of
my restlessness.Through all,
I pray that you continue to hold me
in the palm of your loving hand.
Amen.
 

Questions

1) What do you find most attractive about a religious vocation?
2) How does God call us through other people?
3) What concrete steps might you take to explore a vocation?


Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, a freelance writer, is a professor of English at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. She contributes to a variety of Catholic publications. Her latest book is When You Are a Godparent (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

NEXT: A Joyful Journey: Advent Day by Day (by Gloria Hutchinson)

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