In this week’s “My Place in the Sun,” Bishop Robert J. Cunningham writes that each person has “the responsibility to cultivate a culture of vocations” and must “look for opportunities to encourage vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.” The Sun sat down with Father Joe O’Connor, Diocesan Director of the Office of Vocation Promotion, to find out how each member of the faith community can play a role in leading young people to consider vocations to religious life.
Q Your office is tasked with promoting vocations in the diocese, but each Catholic is tasked with that too, right?
A Absolutely. You see that lived out in the Bible. How did people encounter the call of God? It seems to me there was often family or friends or other adults or even just a random crowd around them. That’s just as true today, and there are lots of examples from scripture that we can draw on and model ourselves.
Q Can you give us some examples?
A Well, for instance, families support vocations. Joseph is led through dreams to take Mary and baby Jesus to safety [Mt 2]. Mary, as she interacts with the angel, is afraid but she goes forward [Lk 1]. Mary and Joseph had to build their trust in the Lord. There’s a realness about those two parents encountering the Lord and teaching that to their child. Or there’s Andrew, who brings his brother Peter to meet Jesus [Jn 1:40].
Our priests can be great mentors. Take Ananias, who saw something in Saul and helped him [Acts 9:10-18]. There’s nothing more special than the father of the family — the pastor of the parish — saying, “Have you considered this?”
For all of our faith formation and school teachers, one example is Eli and Samuel [1 Samuel 3:1-10]. Young Samuel hears something. He doesn’t know yet it’s the voice of God, but he finds a mentor, a teacher who says, “This is how God works. Let me explain it to you. Let me teach you how to pray.”
How about friends? When Phillip encounters Jesus, he immediately goes to Nathaniel and says, “Look what we found” [Jn 1:45-48]. Maybe your buddy at school who you never thought would come with you to youth group, maybe the Lord is ready to work in his heart too.
Then there’s the crowd, the parishioners who gather at church each week. In the story of the feeding of the 5,000 from John’s Gospel, the crowd picks up momentum and starts to include this young boy who’s holding five loaves and two fish. When the time comes and Jesus asks, this boy gives everything. The momentum we pick up as a parish community, the people we pick up along the way, who knows if we’re putting them exactly where God needs them when it’s time?”
Q So we should be looking everywhere for young people who might be receiving a call to religious life — in our own families, in our classrooms, on our sports teams?
A Yes. You might see them at faith formation class, at pancake breakfasts, at youth group meetings. You might see someone who’s serving you at a restaurant or who babysits your kids. Keep your eyes open and you’ll know when the Holy Spirit moves you.
Q If we’ve got our eyes open, what should we be looking for in these young people?
A I think you should just start with what qualities you want your priest or [religious] sister to have. Take stock of that. Is it kindness? Patience? Determination? Once you have that, you can start to see it in the young people around you. “This kid is a great leader,” or “This kid is the first to volunteer.”
Q Seeing something might be a lot easier than saying something, though. How do we ask the question?
A I don’t think it’s what you say as much as how you say it. You might stumble on your words, it might not come out poetic, but it doesn’t need to. They need to see that you, in your heart, are fired up about something you saw in their heart. Give it the seriousness it deserves. Just let them know that you see great qualities in them and that you’d be proud if they ever considered a religious vocation. That goes a long way.
Q Won’t that sound strange coming from someone, let’s say, who is married or who hasn’t discerned a calling to consecrated life personally?
A We can never be afraid to tell our own stories. You might think, “I’m married, how am I going to inspire someone to a religious vocation?” Talk about it. How God brought this person into your life, how you got to know them, how you struggled. Your discernment story of choosing a spouse or a career can inspire a young person to consider a religious vocation.
Q If we have that conversation with a young person and find that they’re interested in exploring religious life, what should we do?
A Encourage them to pray daily, receive the sacraments regularly, and seek spiritual direction with a priest or religious brother or sister. Have them visit the Office of Vocation Promotion website [www.vocations-syracuse.org]. And tell them to contact me [(315) 470-1468; email@example.com]!