Vocations Reads

An interview with author Elizabeth Ficocelli regarding her new books that teach children about the priesthood and religious life.

Where do our priests and nuns come from? From our heavenly Father, who blesses us with them and calls us to them, of course.

To explain religious vocations to children, Elizabeth Ficocelli — a New York City-born mother and convert to Catholicism who now lives in Ohio and author of books like The Imitation of Christ for Children — has penned Where Do Priests Come From? and Where Do Sisters Come From?, the latter of which has just been released by Bezalel Books, a small Catholic publishing company.

Where did the idea for Where Do Sisters Come From? come from?

The inspiration for Where Do Sisters Come From? (and its companion book, Where Do Priests Come From?) came from a need I perceived for Catholic families with young children to recognize and appreciate the special calling of the religious life. As an adult convert, I had many questions myself about how a young man or woman pursues this calling, and so I hope the children reading these books — together with their parents — will find the information enlightening and enjoyable, and that these books will help foster openness to the possibility of a religious vocation.

You surveyed women religious as part of the research you did for this book. Did you learn anything that might surprise readers?

I learned the important distinction of “nun” and “sister” in writing this book. A nun is a female religious who lives a cloistered life in a convent, focused on contemplative prayer and acts of service. A sister, on the other hand, serves God in active ways in the fields of education, health care and social services, although her work is always rooted in a prayerful foundation.

There’s an image of a young girl in a ballerina outfit on the first page. A company called Wee Believers does have a sister doll, but I don’t know what their sales are like. Do girls actually dream of being sisters?

Many sisters, when asked how they discerned their calling, will mention a particular sister they had in early grade school who served as an important role model for them. Today, laypeople typically fill parochial teaching jobs, and many Catholic children will complete their schooling without ever having met a religious sister.

Fortunately, as vibrant religious orders, traditional in their appearance and in their teaching, begin to be a visible presence again in schools and parishes, young girls will have appropriate role models for this vocation. In the meanwhile, it is my hope that books like Where Do Sisters Come From? will at least plant seeds of awareness, interest and intrigue in the hearts of young girls.

What’s the age range for your audience?

Where Do Sisters Come From? is a children’s picture book geared toward early grade-school children, although younger children can benefit from having the book read to them. The book contains vocabulary words such as “convent,” “novice” and “chastity” that make it an ideal learning tool for the home and classroom.

“A sister is the only bride who gets to wear her wedding dress and veil every day of her life!” Well, that is pretty cool. Move over, Kate Middleton! Did you dig into your girlhood for that inspiration?

Not having grown up Catholic, that inspiration did not come from me, but from one of the sisters I surveyed for the book. In fact, many of the expressions in the book come directly from my written surveys of sisters because of their beauty and meaning. But I do think it’s great that these women are recognizable symbols as brides of Christ. We need those kinds of symbols of commitment and sacrifice in our world today.

Did religious sisters play a role in your life growing up?

Although I went to public school, I did encounter sisters in my early childhood. There was a Carmelite orphanage for young boys located down the street from my elementary school.

I remember driving by their convent often on the way to my grandparents’, and watching curiously as these women strolled the grounds in their long black-and-brown habits, with large rosary beads hanging from their waists. I found their presence very mystifying and intriguing, but it was not a subject I could pursue at home because my parents had difficulties with the Catholic Church.

You mostly have sisters in habits. Was that by design?

Yes, this was a conscious decision. While there are still a number of religious orders whose members do not wear habits, my research for this book indicated that two-thirds of young women entering religious life today are being drawn to orders that promote habits, Eucharistic adoration and traditional prayers and practices. These are also the largest and fastest-growing orders of our day.

Our feeling was to go with that trend for our young readers. Besides, the late Pope John Paul II asked that religious men and women return to the roots of their orders, including in their attire. In the book, we attempted to show a variety of styles and colors of habits being worn today.

You implore readers to say “Thanks!” the next time they see a sister. Is that for any age of reader? Is not appreciating our sisters part of the vocations crisis? Has the absence of books been part of the problem?

The long absence of vocations-awareness tools for young people — and not-so-young people — I believe is attributed to past decades where families promoted prestigious careers and lifestyles for their children over religious vocations aimed at serving others. That, I believe, was the fruit of former generations turning away from Catholic teaching to embrace what they perceived to be an easier and more convenient secular lifestyle, especially in the areas of marriage and sexuality.

As people are beginning to grow tired of the empty promises of society, however, and thanks to the positive influence of people like the late Pope John Paul II, they are returning to (or seeking out) the Catholic Church to discover truth for themselves and their children. Religious life is becoming attractive again, and, therefore, the time is ripe for books, websites and youth-group activities and events to foster awareness of and appreciation for this holy vocation. I’m proud to play a small part in that effort.

Do you find it’s easier to explain discernment to a child than to an adult?

Discernment is a deeply personal process. The message I try to communicate to my four boys, and to my audiences of all ages, is that the most important thing is to spend time with God in prayer to discover what special mission he has in store for us.

Each of us has been chosen for a mission that we’ve been perfectly equipped for, and our task is to discover it. Once we discover that mission — whether it is being a busy mom with 13 children, a cloistered brother in a monastery, a popular preacher and evangelist, or a quiet but good listener and friend — that’s when we’ll discover joy and purpose in life.

Read the entire interview here.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online

and a nationally syndicated columnist.