Responding to God’s Call: A Priest, a Monk and a Religious Sister Reflect During National Vocations Awareness Week

ROUNDTABLE: The Register speaks with Father Paul Hedman, Brother Leven Harton, and Sister Alicia Torres share how they discerned and what they love most about their vocation.

Brother Leven Harton, Sister Alicia Torres, and Father Paul Hedman.
Brother Leven Harton, Sister Alicia Torres, and Father Paul Hedman. (photo: Courtesy photos / St. Benedict's Abbey/Church of St. Peter/Franciscans of the Eucharist)

It’s National Vocation Awareness Week, the weeklong period in the Catholic Church in the United States dedicated to promoting vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education.

The practice began in 1976, likely tied to the dramatic decline in religious vocations in the U.S. that began in the 1960s, a time of significant changes in American culture and the life of the Church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops promotes vocations awareness by offering prayers for vocations, vocation discernment tips, and help finding vocations directors and retreat houses.

To get a better sense of what helps young people become “aware” of the possibility of a vocation, the state of the “vocations crisis,” and how Catholics can better support those pursuing a vocation, the Register spoke with three Catholics living out a call to the priesthood or religious life.

Father Paul Hedman is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, currently serving as associate pastor at the Church of St. Peter in Forest Lake, Minnesota.

Brother Leven Harton is a Benedictine monk at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas, where he serves as prior and vocations director.

And Sister Alicia Torres is a member of the Franciscans of the Eucharist in Chicago and currently serves as an executive team member of the ongoing National Eucharistic Revival.

When would you say you first became “aware” that a vocation to priesthood/consecrated life was something you could be possibly called to, not even that it necessarily was your vocation, and what helped foster that awareness?

FATHER HEDMAN: When I was just 3 years old, I started “playing Mass.” My parents encouraged this, with my mom even sewing me little vestments I could wear. Later on, I’d start altar serving. Being close to the Mass both by pretending to say it and by serving really helped foster my vocation early on.

BROTHER LEVEN: I can honestly say that growing up I never thought of being a celibate in the Church. My first awareness of this path of being consecrated to God only emerged once, as a college student; I began to clear away the junk in my interior and take seriously what I really wanted in my life. The stupidity of most proposals to junior-high and high-school students for happiness (mostly provided by the free market) left me unaware of the depths of my person. I think that I was largely estranged from my heart through my teenage years. At Benedictine College, however, I had peers, professors, monks and administrators who were living with a real sense of community, and it was deeply attractive to me. Wanting the joy I saw in them, I started to turn over my life and give myself to attempting to pray. I persevered at it because I was sick of the selfishness that I was used to. When I did that, I could see that I had a hunger for prayer. And my vocation flowed naturally from following that hunger.

SISTER ALICIA: For me, it was during college. I saw so much unhappiness around me, and my heart was heavy for my peers. I began to take my own faith more seriously, and it was during Lent of my junior year that I made a deeper commitment to daily prayer and the Mass. It was during those times of intentional, daily liturgical and devotional prayer that I began to sense God’s call.

People often talk about a “vocations crisis,” but this can be understood in several different ways, for instance, as a numerical lack and/or as a deeper problem of openness to vocation. What comes to mind when you hear this phrase? What exactly is the crisis?

FATHER HEDMAN: Our Lord is always going to call enough workers for his vineyard. I think the issue is that young people aren’t hearing the call. Whenever I pray for vocations in the Prayer of the Faithful at Mass, I always phrase it that way — not for an increase in vocations, but that people would hear and respond generously. There are so many young people out there who are called, but don’t respond because they might not even know to listen in the first place.

BROTHER LEVEN: I think the vocations crisis is real, in some sense — you need priests to have access to the sacraments. I would hope every young man who has received goodness from the Church would receive this fact as a real provocation for his discernment. However, I think the word “crisis” is often used to describe the dissipation of a former way of the Church (especially in America and Europe) functioning, one which is not necessary. The Church, of course, has existed for 2,000 years in many different cultures and contexts. There is a real crisis for each person to recognize his/her dignity, to awaken to it and move from it. And for us in the Western world, secularism and ideologies are certainly a threat, but I think it is important to recognize the threat of wealth and comfort, as well. These foundations of our American life have deadened our souls [as a society]. I think Pope Francis’ criticism of unfettered capitalism is a prophetic voice in this regard.

SISTER ALICIA: When I hear vocation crisis, it makes me think identity crisis. God is our Father, and we are his children. Period. God sent his only Son, Jesus, to redeem us. Period. That is the Gospel. If we don’t know Jesus and believe in what he’s done for us, and if we don’t understand that we are beloved children of our Heavenly Father, how could we say “Yes” to a vocation to the priesthood or religious life?

On a more general level, what’s the single most important thing the Church can do more generally to foster a basic kind of “awareness” and openness to a vocation?

FATHER HEDMAN: I think a lot of it falls on priests joyfully living out their vocations. Pretty much every seminarian can point to a priest who influenced them in a deep way. Parishes that have priests who joyfully live out their fatherhood and show that priesthood is a fulfilling and joyful life seem to be the ones that have the most seminarians coming out of them. Parents who are encouraging and open to the possibility and respond positively to however their children discern play an important part, too.

BROTHER LEVEN: Awareness of identity comes through community, authentic community. I think the Church is right to worry about the destruction of the family in the wider culture, seeing that unit as a vital place for identity to be conferred and lived into. Supporting family life is paramount. Alongside this venture, offering hospitality to ministries and movements can positively supply contexts for an authentic search for self. Of course, the sacramental life provides the grace that powers everything.

SISTER ALICIA: I think we have to help young people to enter into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. He is literally alive in our midst, and his presence is mediated to us through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. But if we don't know Jesus, why would we even want to go to Mass on Sunday or spend time with him in the silence of adoration? We have to get back to basics and lead with the proclamation of the Gospel. People need to know God loves them and they are not alone.

We often hear that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is a “superior” calling than married life. But we’re also told that the vocation one’s called to is also a fulfilment of his or her deepest desires. How do you “reconcile” these two ways in which the tradition speaks about vocation? Shouldn’t someone always want to do what is “superior”?

FATHER HEDMAN: I don’t think the theological texts of the Church use the word “superior” — rather, “higher,” in the sense that it is closer to how Christ lived. A bishop is more closely conformed to Christ the High Priest than a priest or a deacon is, and one who lives out a celibate life for the sake of the Kingdom is more closely conformed to Christ in that way. In that way, a consecrated religious who vows poverty lives a life “higher” than a diocesan priest. But that closer conformity doesn’t mean someone is better. I lack nothing in what I’m called to by not being ordained a bishop. What is “better” and “superior” is to follow whatever the Lord calls for each of us.

BROTHER LEVEN: I think the word "superior" can be an obstacle to discernment, so I don’t like to use it with young people who are discerning. I think what is more important is to focus on the freedom that celibacy gives to the person discerning it. The celibate person has the freedom to offer a remarkable witness to eternal values. The permanent commitment to that witness lends the vocation a character that sets it apart from a holy married life. Consecration etymologically means “to dedicate” or “to set apart.” I think the celibate vocation is better said to be “set apart” as a witness to God’s love, rather than “superior” to the married call.

SISTER ALICIA: I think we need to focus on the divine call. It is God who calls men and women to the priesthood or religious life. No one can choose that vocation for him or herself — that would be sheer presumption. Yet, if God is calling, that means he is giving the person the grace they need to live this unique vocation in the Church. God needs some people to give up the natural vocation of marriage and family life to witness to how we will all be in heaven. Celibacy is not a “No” to love, but a “Yes” to a different way of loving that best reflects what love will look like in heaven. It frees those called to share in Jesus’ mission in a unique way, because we are not bound by the duties of marriage and family life.

What’s one thing about your vocation that you love but isn’t widely understood or known about from the outside?

FATHER HEDMAN: Hearing confessions is not only a joy because I can be an instrument of bringing freedom, but also because hearing the humble and contrite confessions inspires me to be a better penitent myself.

BROTHER LEVEN: As a monk I get to live with men of all ages, 23 to 90. Intergenerational living is a gift in the monastic life that consistently surprises me in the way that it makes me happy. It is unnatural to live the way we too often do in America, segmented by age. Being with older monks is a grace that continues to deepen for me, and I regret that it is not open to more young people.

SISTER ALICIA: I love the times throughout the day dedicated to prayer. It is literally my life line. The Mass is the high point of every day — no matter the distractions I may experience, I believe I am literally witnessing the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery. Every day. That is literally mind-blowing. But I think, for most Catholics, we have such an underdeveloped sense of the reality of what happens at Mass, and it can seem tedious or unattractive. It is only through coming to know Jesus as a real Person that we can begin to perceive the depths of what happens at Mass.

National Vocations Awareness Week is also about supporting people discerning, pursuing or living a vocation. What’s one way in which you’ve felt personally supported in your vocation, and how can the Church better support those with a vocation to the priesthood and/or consecrated life?

FATHER HEDMAN: In seminary, it was always nice to get little letters and packages in the mail from people saying they were praying for me — and, completely honestly, especially when those packages contained a check or some cookies! Sometimes seminary can drag on — six to eight years is a long time — and having those little consolations, knowing people are supporting you and helping along the way can be the little boost that can help keep you looking forward.

BROTHER LEVEN: So many ways! I want to say that the witness of laypeople is very important for celibates. Holy married couples and good parents show us something that is not available to us as consecrated and priests. Being in contact with that, in whatever way our respective states in life allow, is essential for being healthy and being fully alive to God’s dynamism. His activity extends so far beyond my narrow corner and the narrow corner of religious life. I need to see him at work in the family life, too.

SISTER ALICIA: I know so many people are praying for me. That is the greatest gift. Please pray for your priests, you deacons, your bishops, our Holy Father, for religious and consecrated people. We need your prayers.