What is at the heart of a call to the priesthood or religious life? Why do some young people seem to respond more willingly to "the call" than others?
In the Diocese of Cleveland, Father Michael McCandless, the vocations director, says there are a number of key players that encourage or discourage a priestly or religious calling.
"Within a young person’s life, there are a number of key people, such as parents, peers, priests and youth ministers, that either act as supports or inhibiters to his or her call," said the 33-year-old Father McCandless. "The young person who is discerning needs to be able to move through conversations that are either initiated by these people or that they initiate with these other people."
In his own journey to the priesthood, Father McCandless related that he very much had the call of the Church and the call of the Holy Spirit.
"I served Mass as a teenager, and, one day, an elderly couple approached me and said, ‘We think you belong on the altar. Have you ever thought of being a priest?’ At the time, I didn’t think too much about it."
However, similar vocation suggestions by others happened: once from a Holy Cross brother at his high school and once from his theology teacher.
He thought that there had to be more to these suggestions than just coincidences. Eventually, that led him to enter the seminary.
Father McCandless cited a recent report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University that confirms his own experience: Young people who have encouragement have a greater chance for allowing their vocations to grow.
"Growing vocations are like growing tomato plants," said Father McCandless. "If you stake it not just once or twice, but four or five times, it will continue to grow strong in a consistent direction. The branches will have enough support to support the fruit it needs to."
In Alton, Ill., at the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, 24-year-old Sister Teresa Maria told the Register that she comes from a typical Catholic family.
In August, Sister Teresa made her first profession of vows with her congregation.
The oldest of three girls was embraced by her proud parents, Tom and Cindy Leis of Cashton, Wis., and sisters, Clare and Kateri.
In particular, her father couldn’t have been happier.
"Just before I entered the convent, I learned from my dad that, since I was little, he had been praying daily for his job, his marriage and that his girls would have good Catholic husbands," the new sister related. "And it worked. I am now a bride of Christ."
Her mom, who was a Lutheran and converted to Catholicism when she got married, encouraged her on the vocations front, too. When Sister Teresa was just 9 years old, her mom took her on a "Nun Run," a weekend where discerning young women visit a number of area convents in order to better discern what religious life is all about. The women on one of these weekends are usually college-aged or slightly older, not girls under 10 years old.
In this case, mom and daughter spent a couple of days with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, Sister Teresa’s order.
"I remember that mom wouldn’t get up for early-morning prayer with the community, but she made sure my alarm was set to make it to the chapel," Sister Teresa recalled.
She added that her mom and dad wanted their daughters to know the faith better than they did.
"Mom has been very edified in my decision to become a nun," Sister Teresa explained. "She is very virtuous and has always wanted to do the right thing. I remember her telling me while I was discerning that she felt that I had surpassed her already very-informed conscience."
Love and Prayer
In retrospect, Sister Teresa thinks that it was her parents’ unconditional love that made the vocation decision easy for her.
"Whether I became a nun or a doughnut maker, I knew that Mom and Dad loved me," she explained. "Since leaving home, my parents have been honest with me. They have told me that they miss me; and I’ve respected that. They haven’t sugarcoated it."
At the Office of Vocations in the Diocese of Dallas, Father John Szatkowki says he runs across a number of young men whose parents are not as supportive as Sister Teresa’s.
The 30-year-old priest, who is the director of the Dallas vocations office, said the story of Jesus lost in the Temple is a good example of parents accepting a different path for their children: "Though Mary and Joseph did not understand what Jesus said to them about needing to be in his Father’s house, they never for a moment prevented him from following and fulfilling the will of the Father."
Father Szatkowski said that one of his goals in creating a culture of vocations is to reignite the fostering of vocations at the parish level.
"I’ve visited many parishes of the Dallas Diocese to preach and celebrate Masses for a weekend," he said. "I always speak about the importance of parents encouraging their children to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. We’ll never get anywhere as a Church if everyone thinks such vocations always come from someone else’s family."
Father McCandless noted, "The vocation director’s role is that he or she becomes one of the first representatives of the wider Church that says to the young person, ‘I will help you keep this alive.’"
In terms of laying a foundation for a culture of vocations, both vocation directors agreed that nothing happens without prayer.
"Pray together often as a family, and present the concept of vocation to your kids from a young age," said Father Szatkowski. "Let them know that God is calling them to do something awesome, whether that’s to serve him as a priest, deacon, religious brother or sister or in the sacrament of matrimony. It’s never too early in one’s life to begin to pray for guidance."
Eddie O’Neill writes from