To Be or Not to Be a Priest or Nun

Encouragement Key to Vocational Discernment

As a college junior six years ago, Marisa Cirenza told her family she was discerning whether God wanted her to change her vocational plan from “doctor” to “religious sister.”

Emanuel and Linda Cirenza of Charlottesville, Va., challenged their only daughter, realizing that if she became a religious sister with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (often known as the Nashville Dominicans), it would mean a big change for the family.

“We weren’t going to have grandchildren [of hers],” Emanuel said. “We weren’t going to have a wedding. It’s not like you’re going to be able to visit a lot. You’re not going to be able to phone anytime. All the things that people take for granted you’re not going to have. You’ll have other things that are really nice, but it’s different.”

Marisa — now Dominican Sister Chiara — said she recognized their hesitation. “I saw their pain. I saw that they didn’t understand yet. I knew I couldn’t enter peacefully unless something changed. I couldn’t be the one to change that. It had to be the Lord.”

In time, her parents and two brothers have not only accepted but embraced the decision of Sister Chiara, who made her first profession with the Nashville Dominicans this summer. They learned about the Nashville-based order and got to know the sisters, some of whom were struggling because their families weren’t at peace with their vocations.

“For parents, I think the most important thing is to respect their child’s decision and to ultimately grant them your blessing,” Emanuel said. “It means a lot to the young woman entering to know that her parents are behind her.”

Support from parents — or lack of it — along with the encouragement young men and women receive from priests, sisters, relatives and other parishioners are important factors in discerning a call to the priesthood and religious life, according to recent reports from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. At the same time, experiencing a relationship with Christ, often developed through a parish youth group, conference or event such as World Youth Day, helps young people to be open to a priestly or religious vocation.


Encouraging Environment

Vocation directors look at these factors and what clergy and laity can do to further support young people in discernment by building up a culture of vocations, as called for by the U.S. bishops.

“Across the board, our Church has to be more intentional about developing this positive, encouraging environment in which young people can hear the call and then respond to it,” said Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

God, not the Church, generates vocations, he said. But “it is clear that he desires that the Church be so intimately involved in the discernment of a vocation. It’s not just between God and an individual. The Church does have a role in there that’s essential.”

Recent reports from CARA at Georgetown University indicate that there is a greater openness to the priesthood and religious life in general.

Catholics should be ready to ask young people about a vocation, and if it’s appropriate, point out characteristics that would make him or her a good priest or religious, said Father Roger Landry, pastor of St. Bernadette in Fall River, Mass. He added that young people respond when more than one person asks them.

“The first thing that’s needed is for people to be asked the question: ‘What do you think God wants you to do when you grow up?’” he said. “That question is asked in a vocational culture; it’s not often asked in other cultures, where people just say, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’”

To encourage vocations, we need to be vocal, said Father Robert Barron, rector of the University of St. Mary of the Lake seminary near Chicago and the creator of the Catholicism film series. “If I see a young guy with gifts that would be useful in the priesthood, I’ll tell him, ‘You should be a priest,’” the priest said, to get a young man thinking about the possibility of God’s call. “I think Catholics should be much more vocal and much more intentional as they approach young people about the priesthood.”


Personal Example

Data indicates that contact with priests and religious also has an impact on young people’s discernment. A CARA report of men ordained to the priesthood in 2014 indicates that 71% were encouraged by a parish priest, while a report of religious professed in 2013 shows 46% were encouraged by a religious sister or brother, and 39% received encouragement from a parish priest.

“It’s indispensably important that priests approach young people,” Father Barron said.

Many of the roughly 18 women entering the Nashville Dominicans each year receive encouragement from a priest, said Dominican Sister Peter Marie, vocation director for the community of 300 sisters. “Sometimes they point out something in the woman that she might not have seen herself.”

Father James Peterson was an 11-year-old altar boy when he received his first encouragement about the priesthood, in the form of a letter from his then-associate pastor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“It was something I really did take to heart,” said Father Peterson, who was ordained in 2013 for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and serves as parochial vicar at St. Odilia in Shoreview, Minn.

“Eventually, over time, the words really resonated, and the truth was right there in front of me. I felt a deep sense of peace and joy not only observing but helping the priests in sacramental celebrations and also seeing even beyond the liturgical worship the impact they had.”

During his discernment, Father Peterson said he received encouragement from campus ministers and parishioners as well as at a youth conference.

He asked God for a sign regarding whether to continue for a second year at the seminary in St. Paul. While sitting in the seminary lounge, the priest who had given him the letter when he was 11 walked in. “My jaw hit the floor,” he said. “It really was confirmation that that was where God was calling me to be.”

In an effort to reach young men, Father Barron has produced a video using basketball to talk about the priesthood called Heroic Priesthood. He wants young men to share it on social media, as well as with their youth groups.

“My hope would be that they watch it and they send the link to some kid who’d be a good priest,” he said. “I’d like people to be missionaries with this. So if parents see it, grandparents see it, pick it up and say, ‘Here’s a kid in the neighborhood who’d be a great priest. I want him to see it.’ I want it to be sent like seed by means of these various missionaries.”


Parents’ Concerns

In CARA reports, 11% to 26% of mothers and fathers of the ordained or professed who were surveyed discouraged their children.

Most parents, grandparents, relatives and friends are more peaceful about the decision when they are given information and answers to their questions, said Father Brett Brannen, pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament in Savannah, Ga. A former vocation director and seminary vice rector, Father Brannen has written several books on discernment including, most recently, A Priest in the Family, a guide for parents and family members of men discerning priesthood (see review on page 11).

Parents’ objections often reflect a limited understanding of religious life, agreed Sister Peter Marie.
An opportunity to teach them, as well as young people, about consecrated life comes as the Church enters the Year of Consecrated Life in October. The designated year coincides with the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Lumen Gentium (the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church), which has a specific chapter on consecrated life.

Families that regularly make sacrifices in the home will find it easier to sacrifice a child for the priesthood or religious life, Father Landry said.


It’s God’s Call

It’s not possible to promote vocations without evangelization, Father McKnight said. “We want [young people] to be intentional about what they’re going to do with their lives and to be open to what God may be calling them to do.”

God is calling people all the time, said John Beaulieu, director of participation and engagement at the mission office of Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio, which organizes Steubenville Youth Conferences.

“I don’t think there’s a priest shortage,” he said. “I think there’s a listening shortage. People just aren’t listening to hear if God has a call in their lives. God’s calling many men and women to the priesthood and religious life, but they’re not listening.”

Only after young men and women experience Christ in the sacraments and prayer do conference leaders introduce the idea of a vocational call, he said. Priests who responded when they were teens are returning to the conferences as youth leaders, Beaulieu added.

Most of all, falling in love with Christ and his Church is essential to responding to his invitation of love — a vocation, Sister Peter Marie said. “I don’t think you can underestimate how powerful it can be for another person to lead you to Christ first of all and then to encourage you to look into a vocation,” she said. “The power of encounter is huge.”


Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.