SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Kenneth Kozinski, 11, shyly approaches Bishop John D'Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend at a reception after Mass. He proffers his program from the service and a pen, never taking his eyes off the bishop as the smiling cleric hands off his punch to do the honor.
Kenneth had the privilege of serving for his hero at Mass. Kenneth says he wants to be a priest.
It will be many years before the young man's desire will reveal itself as a true vocation. But his parents, Joseph and Sabrina Kozinski of Granger, Ind., are doing their best to support him: They pay tuition and drive him 20 minutes to his Catholic school every day. His altar service is already treated like a vocation, and when he discusses priesthood, his parents listen.
“Some days, he wants to be a priest, some days, its a priest-doctor-artist,” Sabrina said. “We just think he's great. We think he can do anything.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Holy Cross Father Jim King is director of vocations for his religious order at the University of Notre Dame. Father King says the kind of support the Kozinskis are offering their son — example and practice — are the best ways to encourage vocations at home.
“Vocations start in homes where there is not only an involvement in church, but where the Church has become part of the home culture,” he said. “Parents must prioritize church — above sports or anything else. If they do that, they may end up with an adult with a vocation to religious life. Or they may end up with adults who are simply very good Catholics. Either way, they win.”
San Diego Catholic mother Barbara Finkelstein agrees, saying parents should not be afraid to let children “play” at religious life, the way they play firefighter, dancer or teacher.
“Anything else your child might show an interest in, you'd support,” she said. “Why not priesthood or religious life?
“We should model [our family lives] after the Holy Family,” she said, “and treat our kids the way Jesus was treated in the home.”
Learning by Example
Kenneth, many religious might say, is not just blessed with supportive parents. He also has several other blessings he can lean on: There are priests in Kenneth's life who are not afraid to talk about their own vocations.
In talking about her vocation, Holy Cross Sister Margie Lavonis says the example of religious women in her life was crucial.
“When I graduated Catholic grade school, I informed my mother I wasn't going to a Catholic high school, because I was sick and tired of all those nuns and priests bossing me around,” said Sister Margie. “We fought about it, she wouldn't budge. I went to Catholic high school run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.”
Sister Margie saw something in those women that changed her life, and now, after 25 years of religious life, she is vocations director for the sisters at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame.
“They were just so happy with their lives,” she said. “And they were happy in a way nobody else I knew was happy. Whatever they had — I wanted it. And I have never regretted a moment since.”
Go Easy on the Goods
Sister Lois DeLee of the Sisters of St. Frances of Perpetual Adoration, and also their vocations director, advises parents to “go easy on the goods” when raising their children — to avoid giving them too many material possessions.
“There is an individualism in society, the focus on self, that I think is perilous to vocations,” said Sister Lois who works from her order's Midwest provinical house in Mishawaka, Ind. “Kids these days grow up in a family of one or two. You go into their homes — what do you see? Here's my bedroom — I have my own phone, my own computer, my own TV — my own world, and I am at its center.
“Young people grow up thinking the only thing that will make them happy is money and possessions. The religious live a counter-cultural lifestyle. We live a life of simplicity and detachment. What we do have, we share.”
Pray Without Ceasing
But whatever a parent tries to do, nothing but nothing can take the place of that powerful tool given by God that makes all things possible: prayer.
Louise Christianson is a mother of five grown children and a grandmother several times over. As a young homemaker, she founded the Mishawaka, Ind., chapter of the Theresians, a group committed to praying for vocations.
The Theresian prayer implores the intercession of St. Therese of Lisieux, that members might “create in our homes and parishes an atmosphere where religious vocations can grow, where young men and women will learn to be generous with their God.” Louise believes the Saint not only answered her prayer, but called her to stand behind it.
“Two of my daughters are nuns, they're Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ,” she said. “To this day, both my daughters say they'd do it again — in a minute.”
Vocations for All
Each year, all Fort Wayne-South Bend diocesan schools are invited to the all-schools Mass at the Joyce Athletic Center at Notre Dame. In his homily this year, Bishop D'Arcy asked the more than 6,500 grade school children to pray that their true vocation would be revealed to them.
“You should never pray that God make you one thing or another when you grow up,” the Bishop said. “Your prayer should simply be: ‘Lord, show me, teach me my vocation in life.’”
And that, said Sister Lois, is how parents can most successfully foster vocations in their children:
“A person's job, their vocation, whatever it is, is to help others follow Jesus, completely and totally,” she said. “It is my job, my vocation, to help my sisters become saints. It is your job, as a married person, to help your spouse become a saint, to help your children to become saints.
“That's what vocation is about. It's that tough, and that simple.”
Susan Baxter writes from Mishawaka, Indiana.