MONTREAL—It was the best of times and the worst of times to talk about Church vocations, but many of the 1,133 delegates to the North American vocations congress here said they were encouraged by what they heard, especially from the young Catholics who attended.
Even in the midst of the crisis created by the clergy sex-abuse scandals, Bishop Paul Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., one of 63 bishop delegates to the Third Continental Congress on Vocations to the Ordained Ministry and Consecrated Life in North America, said he left with a great deal of hope.
“We cannot deny the terrible mistakes that have been made,” he said, “but despite that, we can be people of hope and I think that's what the delegates felt.” Bishop Loverde said he thinks the congress will prove to be a “moment of grace” for the Church in North America.
Sister Catherine Bertrand, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, said the scandals were on everyone's mind at the summit.
“Some looking at us would say this is the worst time to be focused on vocations. Some would say it was the best time,” she said. “My comment was that this is the only time we've been given. This is the moment to look at the challenges and see how to respond.”
Those attending the conference cited the presence of 130 young-adult delegates and the statement they produced as among the highlights of the four-day congress, which met here April 18-21 at the invitation of Pope John Paul II.
“The young people had a way of bringing honesty from the depths of their heart and it was accepted,” said Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman, co-vicar for religious in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
“One sister said they don't come with the residue of the past,” she said. “They're just coming, almost like they're a clean slate. They don't know what's gone on 20 or 30 years ago. So what they're coming and asking for is something very much from their hearts. They're not reacting to anything. They really have a very deep desire to follow Christ and to give authentically their lives to him and to the church.”
Sister Eva-Maria said she found the younger delegates very open to the possibility that God may be calling them to religious life. “It's kind of nice to know there's a generation being raised up today.”
The young-adult delegates' statement, which was forged in an all-night session that started late on the congress's third night, was the first to come out of the meeting and was done completely on the young people's own initiative, said Father Raymond Lafontaine, chaplain and professor of theology at Concordia University in Montreal and co-chair of the congress's executive committee.
It began by saying, “We desire a covenant relationship with our Church. Everything we ask of the Church we will offer in return. … We strive to be saints of today and come to cultivate saints of the next generation. Please give us the resources we need to be what God has called us to be!”
The statement called for the creation of discernment teams and mentors in parishes and on college campuses to support and nurture vocations and opportunities for meaningful catechesis, ongoing formation and education.
“Please openly witness to your faith, by being available,” the statement said. “Specifically, to you who live the consecrated life and serve as ordained ministers, offer us authentic joyful witnesses to your way of life, that we may experience the passion of your service. Invite us to share your excitement and deep love of Christ and the church.”
Lisa Moran, a 24-year-old delegate who is director of religious education at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Union Grove, Wis., in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said the young adult group tried to avoid using political language in the document while expressing a desire for more solid catechesis and for religious to live authentic, joyful lives in fidelity to the Church. “We wanted to let them know what's attracting us to religious life and what's not,” she said.
Moran said most of her peers at the congress seemed to be interested in Christ-centered communities that were not self-promoting. “They're so hungry for the truth,” she said. “They want more opportunities to pray and go on retreat and to check out the communities. They want solid catechesis, solid food. They want to know why they're Catholic, why pursue this life, why be Catholic. It gave me a lot of hope. It seemed like a microcosm of the new springtime that [Pope] John Paul is talking about.”
Sister Barbara Anne Gooding, coordinator of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, said for her, another strong positive was the camaraderie among people celebrating priesthood and consecrated life, particularly in the table discussions. “I think that's what made people go away thinking something had been accomplished.”
Father Michael Sis, a Catholic campus minister at Texas A & M University, said he was especially struck by a talk by Father Ronald Rolheiser, general counselor for Canada for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who said the Church needed saints more than the right vocations strategy. Likewise, he said, a talk by Father Gilles Routhier, professor and vice dean of studies of the School of Theology at Laval University in Quebec City, resonated with his own experience of helping young people discern their vocations.
“What I found so helpful was his claim that the Church needs to inspire young people with a new missionary project, risking, bringing the Gospel to our people today,” Father Sis said. “Young people need a sense of adventure, risk, venturing out into the deep, not just staying on the shore we know so well. It was so true from my experience working with young adults. If they're going to commit their life to something, they need to have a sense of direction where they will go.”
After Father Sis's efforts to create an atmosphere conducive to the discernment of vocations, 42 former Texas A & M students are now in seminaries or in formation for consecrated life.
Despite the congress's more upbeat moments, some delegates said they were disappointed that no forum was provided for those who, like Father Sis, are having success with vocations.
“I did not think the talks addressed the objective, which was to give a lot of good ideas for increasing vocations,” said David Craig, who was a parent delegate representing the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., with his wife, Brigid.
Craig said he also thinks an annual meeting and Web site focusing on ideas from those who are generating vocations would be helpful to bishops and vocations directors.
Sister Catherine Bertrand said information about various kinds of vocations strategies was collected in regional gatherings in Canada and the United States leading up to the congress and will be incorporated into a plan that should be available by late summer or early fall. “Obviously we drew on what we have seen working,” she said. “We didn't want to just get stuck in everybody telling success stories.”
The Craigs, who have promoted eucharistic adoration for vocations in the Norwich Diocese, also were disappointed that their efforts to arrange adoration during the congress were unsuccessful.
Both were encouraged, however, by interest from other delegates in starting adoration specifically for vocations. In their diocese, each of three perpetual adoration sites devotes one week a month to adoration for vocations.
Judy Roberts writes from