The images of the priesthood and religious life today are far from the Bells of St. Mary’s days. Portrayals of a lonely, unhappy priests and women religious abound. Confusion, misinformation and doubt cloud perceptions of religious life.
“Many people don’t have an understanding of religious life. They think of images from Sister Act and The Flying Nun,” said Brother James McVeigh, OSF, director of vocations for the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn. “These people have not met a religious person up close and personal.”
In a time when vocations have diminished, dioceses and religious communities have changed their game plans for promoting religious life. Vocation promotion directors are inviting diocesan priests and individuals from various religious communities to speak with young people about their lives.
Sister Deanna Sabetta, CND, director of vocations to religious life for the Archdiocese of New York, said young people need options and then need to be presented all of the information about vocations, including religious life.
“You can’t choose something if you don’t know anything about it. Religious life is not one of the options for people to chose because they have no knowledge of what this lifestyle is all about,” Sister Deanna said. “Young people want to do something about this church. They come saying, ‘I want to do something. This is my church — the church of Jesus Christ.’ But this lifestyle is not presented as an option. That’s one of the problems.”
Brother Jim said young people need to be given this option at different times by different people.
“We all need to pose the question. Parents, teachers, grandparents, and catechists — they need to say ‘Have you ever considered being a priest or religious?’ In many cases, this question is never posed,” Brother Jim explained. “We need to pose the question and then begin to inform them.”
Joe O’Connor, a diocesan seminarian in Third Theology serving his pastoral year at Blessed Sacrament Church in Syracuse, said it was an older lady at a youth conference that first asked him the question about priesthood. O’Connor said it wasn’t until he added the spirituality aspect to his life that he was able to understand the call.
“When I was 15, I really began taking my faith seriously. I was getting involved in my youth group and I was learning to live the church’s teachings,” O’Connor said. “I think you have to be comfortable with the Christian lifestyle before you can take the next step.”
Seminarian Kevin Maloney, also in Third Theology, serving his pastoral year at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt, said Catholic schools offer a great atmosphere for informing youth about vocations.
“Kids need to see happy priests and religious people. I think it’s important for them,” Maloney said. “A Catholic school setting provides that.”
Sister Deanna added that Catholic schools give students the opportunity to meet Jesus early on. “I attended public school until junior high school. But when I did get to Catholic school, I remember looking at the sisters from afar. Seeing them praying and wanting all of us to succeed. The sisters always wanted us to be the best. I was watching but the idea of vocations wasn’t pushed until I was a senior in high school,” Sister Deanna said. “But by then, I was introduced to Jesus through the goodness of my family, teachers and other adults around me. I was prepared before I was asked. My heart was ready.”
Brother Jim said it’s never too early to begin the discussion of religious vocations, “But don’t go it at the cafeteria table when the young person is surrounded by friends.” He said students should realize that it is a privilege for someone to come and ask them if they have ever considered a religious vocation. The best times to ask a young person about vocations is at age 11, during 11th grade or the second year of college. However, the young people need opportunities to meet and work directly with diocesan priests and men and women religious. “They need to see happy people in love with Jesus. They need to see it’s an attractive life,” Brother Jim said. “It doesn’t even have to be a specific vocation talk. It could just be praying together and having lunch with priests or religious.”
Sister Deanna said young people are hungry to serve the Lord and by seeing a woman religious in action, it opens doors to a whole new experience.
“The joy of my heart is when that young person asked, ‘Sister, tell me your story.’ It gives me a chance to share on another level,” Sister Deanna said. “When working side by side with someone, you get wondering, ‘What makes her tick?’ But you have to have a heart that’s ready and open.”
Some young people might be deterred from a religious vocation because of problems in their past such as being abused as a child or losing their virginity. Father James Quinn, diocesan director of the Office of Vocation Promotion, said if one feels called to the priesthood or religious life, they should contact him.
“If a person has had problems in the past, we start having a relationship with them. If we reach a point where we are comfortable with them and they with us, then we begin the process of applying. They will need to write an autobiography and have psychological testing,” Father Quinn said. “The person needs to honestly answer the questions. They need to look at their strengths and weaknesses. The autobiography is quite explicit, but it’s kept in the strictest confidentiality. If someone comes across as perfect, I think that would cause one to worry.” Brother Jim said the sacrament of reconciliation and the promise of fidelity from discernment onward are all that is needed for a person with a troubled past to come to religious life. “No one expects you to be perfect. Look at the saints; they were certainly not all perfect. Kids who were drinking, using drugs and having sex never possibly considered a vocation because they think God wouldn’t love them. But they forget about God’s grace — they are leaving that out,” Brother Jim said.
Father Quinn said in the end, it’s not a personal choice.
“It’s God’s choice. Sister Deanna says, ‘A vocation is not something to be achieved, but a gift to be received,’” Father Quinn noted. “We are tapped by God and we need to deal with that first and give that some first-class attention.”
Amid the issues of priest shortage and clergy misconduct there are seminarians still being called by God. O’Connor said he is more energized to help the church during an uncertain time. “There was a moment that I thought, ‘Who let this stuff happen? What team let this occur?’ If you were on a sports team, you might quit or walk away,” O’Connor said. “But this is God calling me to the priesthood. I know that must be something special.”
Maloney said the situation has given a human dimension to the priesthood that has not been previously apparent. “The priest was always way up there and you are down here. The crisis has made priests very much human,” he said. “People need to see that they are ordinary people, too.”
For some parents, when their son or daughter chooses a religious vocation, misconceptions bubble to the surface. Maloney said when he told his parents about joining the priesthood, there were mixed emotions.
“They thought that I wouldn’t be happy and that I would be very lonely and be poor. Initially all those feelings came out, but I said, ‘Listen, that’s not the way it is,’” Maloney said. “I had to talk to them and it takes time. They are going to be afraid, but that fear is based in love. All they want is your happiness. Parents are confused by the stereotypes. My mother has been much more supportive and my father is slower going. But they realize that God makes me happy.” O’Connor said his parents have been supportive of his decision. “I think if I would have entered the seminary from high school, I don’t think my parents would have been confident in my choice. But now that I know full well what the options are after going to college, they support me more,” he said.
O’Connor and Maloney see that spirituality is an important part of discernment at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland.
“I can only speak for my time at St. Mary’s, but I think so much rests on your shoulders. You have this box of tools and you need to learn how to use them. The rector’s conferences are going longer and spirituality is being addressed more,” O’Connor explained. “I think many priests who had problems had a broken prayer life. I think we will do better if we can keep priests rooted in holiness.”
Maloney said spirituality is often forgotten with all of the class work and extracurricular activities.
“At St. Mary’s, academics are pushed very hard, and it puts pressure on you. If everyone is there to be ordained, who am I trying to impress?” Maloney asked. “Prayer life — the spiritual side — is the first to fall off the chart. But it’s important to a whole, happy healthy person and eventually priest.”
Sister Deanna said the spiritual lifestyle is for “life long formation” of the diocesan priest and religious sister or brother. “You need to develop the habit of taking care of yourself,” she said. Over the last month, the diocesan Office of Vocation Promotion has been leading workshops for catechists and Catholic school teachers to teach them how to introduce vocations in the classroom or CCD setting.
“We are reaching out to them so they are knowledgeable and comfortable talking about vocations to religious life, consecrated life and the priesthood,” Father Quinn said. Sister Deanna and Brother Jim were both part of these workshops, Father Quinn explained. Sister Deanna talked about the theology of call, how every person is called to a specific vocation.
“Teachers have the marvelous privilege to be mentors to their students,” she said. “They know their students and they should be able to ask the appropriate questions [about vocations] to them and tell them that this is an option.”
Brother Jim gave teachers and catechists ways to address students about vocations. “Vocations are not just in religion class. In a Catholic school, there is math, history and science. We need to be able to tie in where the church has been in these fields,” Brother Jim said. “We need to constantly place vocations before the students. They need to be comfortable with God’s voice.” The Office of Vocation Promotion handed out a manual for each teacher and catechist with helpful hints to introduce vocations into discussions and a glossary of important terms. The Office also provided three-ring resource books to schools for curriculum of students in first through twelfth grade. “The binder has project ideas, prayers, a catalog of vocational material, VISION Magazine which has stories of people in religious communities, and many other things,” Father Quinn said. There will be a follow-up session in the schools during the first weeks of December where members of various religious communities will be available for students to meet.
“Teachers need to tie in some times from each lesson to promote vocations. Include in a classroom prayer a brief prayer for vocations. Keep the consciousness and planting the seeds that Jesus will reap,” Brother Jim said.
Father Quinn said vocations are constantly changing and the church needs to adapt strategies to continue the flow of men into priestly vocations and women into consecrated life.
“We need to have absolute trust in God. Look at me for instance. I was ordained before Vatican II and the priesthood looked very different then than it does now,” Father Quinn said. “The closing of parishes might not be the worse thing to happen. Many of them were opened for ethnic reasons and now, the present culture is different. The church is changing again.” Sister Deanna said the church of the future would be different from the one she was consecrated in.
“We are in the middle of a mystery. I don’t understand it, but I know God will take care of it. We will be who we have to be. I don’t have the master plan. All we can do is work toward uncovering what is God’s plan,” Sister Deanna said. “This is a very exciting time in the church. Vocations will probably look very different. We just have to work together and be willing to stick it out.”
The future of the church is Jesus, Maloney said. “With all of the problems of the church, and the statistics that say priests are getting older — this is all getting viewed as depressing. But we are nowhere near that,” he said. “We need to hope, trust and be open to the Holy Spirit.”