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Becoming a Sister, Brother or priest today is filled with new challenges. How can families and parishes support religious vocations today? This Update explores vocations including 5 steps for creating a parish vocation culture.

Catholic Update

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Creating a Culture of Vocation

By Sister Janet Gildea, S.C.

Many older Catholics have memories of parishes and schools staffed by priests and sisters. That's not common in North America anymore. Our youngest Catholics have grown up with little or no experience of women and men in religious life or priesthood. This group includes Generation X, born 1961-1980, and the Millennials, born 1981-2000. It encompasses not only the students, but also some of today's young parents.

Our challenge today is to create a culture of vocation in home, church and school that will encourage and assist our youngest members to respond to God's call. This Update will help broach the topic: In addition to nurturing marriage and chaste single life, how can families and parishes help to nurture vocations to priesthood and religious life?

WHERE ARE THEY?

There are many reasons why contact with sisters, brothers and priests is rare for most Catholics today. Advancing age and declining numbers in the priesthood and religious life top the list. With the switch to lay attire after Vatican II, way back in the 1960s, many women and men religious are simply less visible than they once were.

After Vatican II, the Church experienced a renaissance of lay involvement. Over the next decades, as professionally prepared Catholic laypersons were available to assume service and leadership in schools, hospitals and parishes, many religious left institutionalized ministries to serve the poor more directly.

Today's shortage is true for both diocesan clergy and religious communities, but perhaps for different reasons. Religious congregations take seriously the stewardship of their institutional commitments—schools, hospitals, and so on—but they must also constantly be listening for the call to serve unmet needs. Many sisters and brothers would say that their job description is to go where nobody else wants to go, and do what nobody else wants to do—for the love of Christ. It propels them to the margins of society, to the most risky and least lucrative of ministries. Today, despite declining numbers and advancing age, men and women religious can be found starting new ministries among the most desperate and forgotten of peoples: immigrants, gang members, the homeless, the mentally ill, persons with HIV/AIDS, and so on. Their life commitment not only supports but also encourages a deep availability to serve Christ in the poorest of the poor.

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STORIES FROM THE STREETS

Often it is the spiritual giants of our time who come to mind when we think of those God calls to priesthood or religious life. Agnes (Gonxha) Bojaxhiu left her home in Yugoslavia at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto for the missions in India. In 1946, at age 36, she experienced “the call within a call” to found the Missionaries of Charity as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. That same year Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest, responding to a call that would lead to his election as Pope John Paul II. Neither Agnes nor Karol could have imagined how God would use the gift of their lives when they began to discern the call to consecrated life.

For some, the unfolding of a religious vocation seems to be a natural path. That was my own story, with one interesting twist. I am a cradle Catholic, and was blessed with 16 years of Catholic education. I grew up during Vatican II, when “change” was the norm. In grade school I was fascinated when the sisters transitioned to lay dress. In college I was amazed because they were my professors for calculus and literature as well as theology and philosophy.

I felt called to be a physician among the poor, maybe even a missionary. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there were sister-doctors! This was my own “call within a call.” My parents and family were supportive, and the formation process was flexible. I entered the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati two months after graduation from medical school and started my residency in family medicine. Today, a few decades later, I can say that my commitment as a sister has given me the support and the freedom to serve where the needs are greatest and to live my dream as a missionary doctor in religious life at the border of the United States and Mexico.

‘I COULD BE A PRIEST’

Others have a vocation that comes as a surprise to everyone. Fr. Bill Morton, a missionary priest in the Society of St. Columban, also had a strong Catholic upbringing. After graduating from Cardinal Dougherty High School in Philadelphia, he went into the Navy to become an air traffic controller. Leaving home, he also left the Catholic Church and lived a wild life until some of his friends brought him into the Church of the Open Bible in Pensacola, Florida. He played bass in a Jesus Movement rock band and studied the Scriptures under evangelical influence.

One evening his girlfriend, who was the band's lead singer, asked Bill to take her to a Catholic Mass. “Watching the dynamic young Irish priest, I had the thought for the first time in my life that I could do that. I could be a priest,” he says. Some months later he found a clipping from the Navy Times that he had tucked into his wallet while he was out of contact with the Catholic Church. “I bribe you with uncertainty and challenge you with defeat,” read an advertisement for the Columban Fathers.

God called Bill to the uncertainty and challenge of a missionary vocation. He was ordained a priest in 1985 and has since served in Taiwan, Mexico and the United States. He could have as easily, though, entered formation to serve his local Church as a diocesan priest. Each person listens to the call he or she has heard, and follows.

Some follow later in life. Fr. Bill's oldest brother, Jim, is a senior portfolio manager. Married for 20 years and with four grown children, Jim experienced a midlife crisis due to alcoholism, then spiritual awakening, service in Alcoholics Anonymous and prison ministry. Those experiences led him to consider a call to become a eucharistic minister and a lector at his parish. Next, he began thinking about the permanent diaconate, a calling he ultimately followed. As a husband, a father and a professional working in the business community, Jim draws on all his experience, especially when he preaches at Mass or prayer services.

Others choose the brotherhood. Franciscan Brother Gordon Boykin and his five siblings became Catholic when they attended St. Patrick School in Detroit. His parents received their First Eucharist on the day he professed solemn vows as a Franciscan in 1972. It was “everything about the life, the friendliness and joy of the friars, the prayer, the life and charism of St. Francis” that drew the young African-American convert to religious life as a brother.

His spirit of deep availability to God's call is evident in a review of his address book over almost 40 years of ministry. After his initial training as a tailor making Franciscan habits in Detroit, Brother Gordon gave the majority of his life to serve among the Native American and Hispanic peoples of the desert Southwest. Religious education for all ages has been his passion, but he accepted assignments as a dorm moderator and counselor for Native American high school students and associate director of the formation programs for young friars.

WHY BE A RELIGIOUS TODAY?

Throughout Church history, the numbers in religious congregations and diocesan clergy have flourished and faltered. The years before Vatican II were a “boom time” for vocations that make today's numbers worrisome in comparison. In every generation, though, there have been men and women who have sensed that call and have had the grace and the courage to respond.

What characteristics will be needed by our future generations of priests and religious? For whom would this calling be a viable life choice?

For starters, they are women and men with good physical and mental health who have demonstrated a capacity for generous service and a deepening commitment to Jesus Christ. The commitment requires an ability to embrace countercultural values like celibate relationships, a simple lifestyle and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good. Today's religious and priests need to be flexible enough to flow with the changes that characterize this time in the history of our Church and world. They also need to be adventuresome enough to risk helping to create what clerical or religious life is becoming.

Finally, those who accept the call to priesthood, the permanent diaconate or religious life will need to overcome negative attitudes brought on by scandals in the Church that have damaged the public perception of these vocations. Perhaps more importantly, they may experience the lack of encouragement from traditional sources such as parents and teachers—even pastors and religious.

DISCERNMENT

“Rarely has a generation of young people been so interested in spirituality and religion and so open to experiences of the holy and transcendent.” This conclusion of a recent National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) correlates well with evidence of renewed interest in religious vocations among members of the millennial generation. Another resource, the VISION Vocation Guide annual survey, reports an increase in those discerning a call to religious life and priesthood, especially among those under 30. These young adults are seeking community life, shared prayer, service to the poor and fidelity to the Church. They desire to be a part of something larger than themselves, a common project, and to make the world a better place.

Research has shown that age 11 and 11th grade (yes, both 11!) are times that young people are actively considering their life's direction. This information indicates the need to plant the seeds of religious vocation early and to keep them watered! Vocation discernment needs to be an integral part of the faith formation of youth, everywhere.

Further data from the NSYR reveals that the most important influence on the religious practice of teenagers is the practice of their parents, even more for this millennial generation than in the past. From choice of college to choice of career, the influence of parents is critical. Parental attitudes towards priesthood and religious life can determine whether or not those life choices make it onto a young person's radar screen.

Speaking of screens, it comes as no surprise that the Internet has become the primary source of information on vocations for young people today. Dioceses and congregations have scurried to catch up with this technology-savvy generation of Catholics. Online surveys create a personal vocation profile that can be submitted to congregations that match the discerner's preferences. DVDs posted on congregational Web sites, YouTube and elsewhere describe the charism and ministries of religious orders. Vocation directors use e-mail and social networking sites—very widely used by young people—to communicate with potential candidates.

Discernment is a gradual process. Congregational and diocesan vocation ministers these days are not so much about “signing up recruits.” Rather, they are committed to providing general information that helps young people listen and respond to God's call, even if they are called in a different direction.

Religious communities offer a variety of experiences to bring discerners in contact with sisters, brothers and priests. From volunteer programs and mission trips to weekends of reflection and Busy Students Retreats, there are ample opportunities to “come and see.”

WHAT HAPPENS TO THOSE WHO TRY?

Let's say one enters seminary or religious formation. Now what? Discernment continues for some years before ordination or profession of perpetual vows. The big questions often begin with celibacy: Can I live a celibate commitment?

Will it be a healthy choice for me? There is no getting around the element of sacrifice involved in this vow, one that is more obvious than the many sacrifices required of married couples, too! For those who are called to consecrated celibacy, however, that sacrifice is balanced by a deep availability for ministry and the commitment to learn to love broadly and inclusively. It hinges on the desire that the quest for God, through a celibate commitment, will be the primary focus of one's life.

Another big concern relates to the very human desire to keep all options open. Combined with what is perceived as intense pressure to make the right choice, this deters many young people from taking even preliminary steps to discern a religious vocation. To understand discernment as a gradual process allows one to live into a life choice. It helps to relieve the fear of closing doors prematurely or making a wrong decision.

Given the small numbers entering congregations today, there is a natural fear of being “the last one.” Here it helps to take the broad historical view of religious congregations. Many communities began with just three or four members under situations of great adversity. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, it's not about numbers; it's about fidelity. And God is faithful.

CREATING A PARISH VOCATION CULTURE

The Third Continental Congress on Vocations, held in Montreal at the dawn of the new millennium, developed a pastoral plan for fostering a vocation culture in North America. Those gathered focused on five pastoral actions:

1. PRAY, not only “for vocations” but to help young people develop habits of prayer.

2. EVANGELIZE, providing a firm foundation in the Catholic faith, emphasizing vocation awareness at every level of religious education.

3. EXPERIENCE, providing opportunities to put faith into action and to make connections between service and spirituality.

4. MENTOR, serving as guides, models and wisdom figures in the faith, prioritizing time to be present to and active with young people.

5. INVITE, encouraging our youth to be open to discernment of a religious vocation.

What would a “culture of vocation” look like in the parish? How can existing programs be more welcoming of the young? What resources can we develop for our youngest members? Are there obstacles or attitudes that discourage young people from exploring a religious vocation? What adult formation is needed to educate for broad participation in the five steps mentioned above? When a parish is asking these questions, it is on the right track. This is a hopeful time for vocations to religious life and priesthood! The needs are as great as ever, and God is still calling. Coming of age in a Church in need, millennial-generation Catholics are open to the possibility of priesthood and religious life.

Diocesan and congregational vocation promotion efforts are in full swing, using the new media to reach young Catholics where they are. The Church needs parents, teachers, parish leaders and other youth and young adult mentors to be confident and committed, encouraging our youngest members to consider the call to be sisters, brothers, priests and permanent deacons.

Janet Gildea, S.C., is a vocation minister for the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.

Next: Why Catholics Care for Creation (by Joan Brown, O.S.F.)

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