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Dare to Consider:
Religious Life
and Priesthood

by Cathy Bertrand, S.S.N.D.

She was 16 and we all heard her say, "We can't be afraid of being different. I'm willing to consider it." And who were we to doubt her? With her head partially shaved and her ears pierced many times over, she spoke her truth with courage to us who were considerably older.

"I've been in gangs. I've done drugs. But there has got to be something more. I'm going to do it. We have got to encourage each other," stated a 17-year-old student whose personality and style could have convinced any crowd.

"I've been seriously thinking about this for a long time, but I need to know more about it." This was the comment of a lively young woman as she came into the room, her beautiful red hair flying.

What is the "it" that these three young people are talking about?

Backing Up Into the Subject

Let me back up a bit. I'm a sister, or a nun, as some people call us. I'm also a vocation director, which means that I work with young men and women (as well as some who aren't so young) who are interested in exploring the possibility of being a priest, brother or sister.

I was once asked to be on a panel at a youth convention. A bishop, a brother, a single woman and a married woman were also part of the panel. Although I think being a sister is pretty exciting, I've learned over the years that when I talk about "vocations," I can't necessarily expect to draw a crowd. But there we were—five of us—invited to talk to these junior high and high school age people about lifestyle and ministry options—you know, vocations!

The room was filled to overflowing. I was a bit surprised. I have to admit I asked one of the participants if she was in the right workshop!

It has been my experience that in order to begin talking about religious life and priesthood, at least with adults, I have to start out with some general statements like the following: We all have a call through Baptism. No call is better than another. It isn't for everyone to be a priest, brother or sister. It isn't a better choice, just a different way to respond to our baptismal call. And so on.

It seems one has to say all of that before daring to raise the question of whether someone would ever be willing to consider being a priest, brother or sister. Well, did we guess wrong with this group of young people! They were ready to cut to the chase and get on with it.

Several young people got up and started saying how they felt about "it." Unlike many of their parents and friends, they saw being a sister, brother or priest as a great thing to do with their lives and they wanted to know more about it—and these were healthy, normal young people!

I hope you'll keep reading this Youth Update. Maybe some of your questions will be answered. Or it may raise some other questions and issues that you may want to explore.

How Did I Know?

Many times when people talk about vocations, you hear them talk about God calling them. Now, I realize that with all the media hype about angels these days, it may not seem so impossible to have God actually speak. But for most of us, God is revealed in the ordinary, everyday people and events of our lives.

I grew up in a pretty ordinary family, but I did have parents who were involved in our parish, and we often had priests and sisters visiting our home. As I was growing up, I had the opportunity to see priests, sisters and brothers as real people, so it wasn't unusual to think about it as a possibility for my own future.

But you know how it goes. As you get older, there are a million things that look appealing in trying to explore future options. One thing I knew for sure: I wanted to make a difference in our world, even if it was just a small difference.

When you consider being a sister, brother or priest, in some ways it isn't so different from how you go about making other choices. For some reason, deep inside yourself, you have this feeling that this might be something to look at. So you talk to other people or do some reading. It doesn't hurt a bit to pray about it either. A thunderbolt is always a possibility, but as far as I know, it isn't the way God usually works.

I had a friend who dared me to try it. He said to me one day when I couldn't make up my mind about joining a congregation of sisters or not, "I dare you. I bet you can't do it."

Well, it wasn't the best reason for going to the convent, but it got me in the door. I never had any real intention of staying, but I figured I would check it out and then get on with my life. Only about two years later did it dawn on me one day, "My gosh, this might actually work!"

Different people consider priesthood or religious life for a variety of reasons, because God works in a variety of ways. I'm convinced that God doesn't play games with us, waiting for us to find the right hole in which to put our peg. God gives us multiple choices, many good opportunities from which to choose. We need to decide, in dialogue with others, just what the best choice seems to be. You may not have to act on all of these ideas right now, but it is never too early to start thinking about personal options.

Forever Is a Long, Long Time

To become a priest, sister or brother doesn't mean that you walk in the door one day and you are expected to profess final vows or be ordained the next day. It just doesn't work that way. You have plenty of time to "get a feel" for the life and ministry before being asked to make any kind of promises.

You won't be alone in exploring whether or not this is a good idea for you and for others. The freedom to choose is with you the whole way.

We live in a society that seems to say nothing is forever. If something doesn't work, we throw it away. Sometimes that happens in relationships too. Due to society's attitude, it isn't surprising that the idea of making a commitment can be rather scary, but remember "forever" doesn't happen all at once. You only have to act one day at a time.

I've been a sister for a while, but I have to keep choosing. I've heard sisters and priests make the comment, "I've never doubted my choice for a moment." I've always been amazed at that comment. My conclusion is that they are either fibbing, forgetful or very unusual people.

Just as married couples have doubts at times, so do most priests, sisters and brothers. Just as married people have to work at having a strong marriage, priests, sisters and brothers need to find ways to keep renewing their commitments.

For me, it is important to be part of a community. I've had many doubts along the way, but in living and working with other sisters, they helped me keep things in perspective by sharing with me their struggles, joys and successes. They have helped me to believe that it is possible to struggle and still choose this way of life.

My family is also supportive, and it is important to have good friends, not just other sisters, but married and single friends as well as priests and brothers.

Finally, if you don't keep trying to stay rooted in God, I think any commitment is impossible.

Not Get Married?

I think the people who make the best priests, sisters and brothers would also make the best marriage partners and parents. Hopefully, it is people with options who consider priesthood and religious life, not those who aren't good at anything, or have failed at everything else and decide almost desperately to try being a priest, sister or brother.

The majority of the population chooses marriage, but some people do choose priesthood and religious life. It is a tough decision not to be married or have a family. To choose to be celibate is much more than choosing not to be married. To be celibate is to choose a different way of loving.

I've often been asked, "Have you ever been in love?" The question is always asked in past tense, which invites an answer like, "Been there, done that, and now it's over."

I hope I live my religious life being "in love" now and not in a way that suggests that I love everyone the same. It is true that not having a partner or children allows one to be available to many, but without very special persons in my life whom I love and who love me, I would have far less awareness of God's love and would not have experienced the intimacy of real friendship. This isn't just about sex or lack of it; it is about real intimacy.

There are times when a priest or religious senses in coming to know someone that "Yes, this is a person with whom I could see myself spending the rest of my life." This doesn't have to create panic nor does it necessarily mean that the person shouldn't be a priest or religious. I see such an experience as an invitation to look again at my heart's deepest desire and make choices that will he most true to the person I am—for my sake and the sake of the other.

Am I ever lonely? Yes. Do you know of anyone who isn't at times? This isn't something that has been reserved for priests, sisters and brothers. Talk to your parents or your friends. Think about your own experiences. No one person can take care of all our needs or fill the deepest longing of our hearts.

Being in relationship with God is essential for anyone who loves, but certainly for someone who is celibate. At times it feel as though God isn't enough, or that we need a God with "skin on." God does put special people in my life who teach me about God's love and the love of others, and reveal to me more about my true self.

People Will Talk

People who are thinking about such a possibility often find it difficult to share this inspiration with their family or friends for fear of being misunderstood.

One young woman said to me, "I thought I was the only person in this part of the world to think about being a sister. I thought that, if I told my friends, they would never let me live it down and none of the guys would ever look at me again. When I finally told my best friend, she admitted that she had thought about it too."

Some teens anticipate pressure from parents who will either push them into religious life or try to discourage such a choice. One young man said, "My mother would have me ordained tomorrow if I mentioned I was thinking about it." But another said, "My parents want grandchildren. They'd be horrified if they knew what I want to do with my life."

At times, you may underestimate your parents and friends. Some may not understand, but at least give them a chance to be supportive. They can't support what they don't know about. My experience of young people has shown me that, because you are surrounded by diversity in terms of culture, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and practice, you are able to accept the differences in others and be supportive of each other, even in making choices that may not always represent the majority.

The fact is priesthood and religious life can be exciting ways to live. A group of young people told me recently that what is most encouraging about considering religious life is seeing happy and hopeful priests, sisters and brothers.

Talk to us. Help us get to know you. This isn't just about you getting to know more about us. We need you. We learn from you.

Could This Be Me?

If you look at some of the media images of priests and religious, no sane or normal person would choose to imitate them. I also hear many young people make comments like, "I could never do this with my life. I'm not holy enough."

So where does this leave us? What does it take? Most priests, sisters and brothers are very ordinary people who love God and have a burning desire to be of service to others. They aren't perfect. Yes, they do pray, but not all the time. And just like you, they like to have fun, to have friends. They want to do something worthwhile with their lives.

To be a sister, brother or priest offers the opportunity to use one's skills and gifts for the sake of God's people, and to do this not only by the work we do, but also in how we live. I've had numerous opportunities to serve others and learn from others in a variety of settings, having ministered in high schools, a prison, parishes and camps for migrant workers.

People seem to be looking for a sense of community, a way to belong, as well as having a deep desire for the spiritual, a longing for God. I hope that, by our lives and ministry, priests, sisters and brothers can be supportive of those desires.

Research indicates that the number one reason people fail to consider priesthood or religious life as an option is because no one ever invited them to do so. It isn't for everyone, but it could be for you or for one of your friends. So I'm inviting you to find out more about this possibility.

I dare you to consider it! It just might change your life and the lives of others as well.

Sister Cathy Bertrand, a School Sister of Notre Dame, is executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference. She has taught junior high and high school.

Carey Bromwell (16), Sommer Kidwell (16), Jenny Niehaus (16), Stephanie D. Suhr (16), Becky Thomas (16), Allyson Hayley Wilcox (16), Kristy Wilson (16) and Christine F. Wisher (17), all students at Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills, Kentucky, critiqued this issue before publication.



Assess Your Options

These questions may help you get in touch with good choices you will want to consider.

  • How would you describe your relationship with Jesus?
  • What makes you most happy at this point in your life? How do you share that with others?
  • How are you involved in a parish community or youth group?
  • Who or what supports you in trying to be the best person you can be?
  • How are you of service to others?
  • What are you doing right now to help you decide about your future?

Many possible answers to these questions are "right." Eavesdrop on your own answers to hear what makes you happy, what gives you energy, what direction you've already taken. Some answers may suggest a movement toward priesthood or religious life. Such answers may lead to further questions. Ask those questions of a priest, brother or religious sister—soon!



If you think you may have a calling to religious life, where do you go to get information on it?


If you want more information, ask someone you know, your parish priest, a sister or brother on the parish staff or in your school. If they can't answer your questions, they will be able to refer you to someone who can. If you have access to the Internet, do a search using keywords such as Catholic vocations, religious vocations or priesthood. Most dioceses have a vocation office to provide you with information. Ask your pastor for the telephone number. Vision Magazine is a wonderful resource about religious life and priesthood, and you can receive a free copy by calling 1-800-328-6515.


Are there certain qualifications for becoming a priest, brother or religious sister?


The best candidates for priesthood and religious life are healthy and happy, with a love of God and other people that is evident in service to others. To spell this out a bit, this person is an active member of Catholic Church, is in generally good physical and emotional health, has average intelligence, works well with a variety of people, has friends, has leadership ability and is serious about growing spiritually. This is a person who has a generally positive outlook on life and a sense of purpose, as well as a sense of humor. He or she can choose celibacy as a way of loving.


What if you don't think you are worthy or holy enough to be a priest, sister or brother?


It isn't only a matter of what you have done with your life, but also what you choose to do with your life. Sometimes young people think that if they have been sexually active or used drugs, they are bad people and shouldn't even think about being a sister, brother or priest. You are changed by your choices, but you can make different choices in the future if you don't like how you lived your past. At times you can be of great service, not because you've done everything right, but because you have learned from your own mistakes. Don't assume that you have to be perfect to be a sister, priest or brother Ask anyone who is one now! We weren't perfect before we started and we aren't perfect now!


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