Vocations Under the Christmas Tree?

2 children’s books help plant the seeds that find fruition in 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.

But religious vocations need support — just as any more secular vocation does. Vocations need to be introduced into the lives of children. Most children are introduced to the possibility of later being firefighters and astronauts — or absolutely stunning at everything she does, that’s Barbie — at an early age. But what about women religious and priests?

Into that breach steps Elizabeth Ficocelli, a New York City-born mother and author (of books like The Imitation of Christ for Children) living in Ohio and convert to Catholicism. This year she has penned the children’s books Where Do Priests Come From? and Where Do Sisters Come From?, the latter of which has just been released by here).

Why would you want to encourage girls to be oppressed victims of a patriarchal Church? Haven’t you read any Maureen Dowd?
I find it amusing how often non-Catholics and disgruntled baptized Catholics criticize the Church as an oppressive force that enslaves people with its rigid and unpopular teachings. One of the greatest blessings of my decision to enter the Catholic Church in 1983 was the discovery of what true freedom and dignity really means. It is not, as society contends: freedom to do what we please, when we please, but rather a happiness, peace and fulfillment that comes from working in accord with the natural order and seeking to serve others rather than ourselves.

How many of us have (or know families who have) teenagers or young adults, for example, who have bought into the lie of casual sexual encounters only to find themselves enslaved by addiction, crippling diseases, unwanted pregnancies and limited options in terms of career and relationships?

Women, in particular, seem to be in greater bondage than ever by society’s oppressive dictates telling us what to wear, what to drive, how to smell, how to act and what will make us sexy, desirable and important. While society is busy setting traps for enslavement in the forms of materialism, consumerism, money, greed, power and vanity, the Church offers a radically different path for total and lasting fulfillment — “a peace the world cannot give.” And it drives the world crazy!

As a Catholic wife and mother of four sons, I recognize my precious God-given gift of authentic femininity and I relish in my equality in dignity as well as my unique characteristics and qualities as a woman. That, to me, is truly liberating.

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 idea 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.

Why don’t you mention Nancy Pelosi and the nuns she thanked? Did the health-care debate give people a skewed view — or worse — of women religious?

Once again, Nancy Pelosi misrepresented facts regarding the Catholic Church when she thanked “nuns representing 59,000 orders” for supporting President Obama’s proposed health-care reform. Besides incorrectly using the word “nun” versus “sister,” the fact is: There are only 793 religious communities in the United States. If she meant to say the signed petition represented the opinions of 59,000 American sisters, she was also wrong.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh confirmed that the letter grossly overstated its numbers, was signed by a few dozen people, and did not come anywhere near representing 59,000 American sisters. Pelosi, in my opinion, was using this as another opportunity to attempt to divide the Church in an effort to conquer it.

But here’s the good news: Every time the secular media pumps out stories on “nuns” who disregard the bishops’ concern about abortion funding in the new health-care reform or Pope Benedict making statements about condoms, we have the opportunity to counter with the truth. And we don’t need to be a Catholic television or radio host or journalist to do that. We can communicate the truth through social media, in conversations around the water cooler or wherever our circle of influence may be. This is what it means to be a part of the New Evangelization.

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.

Thanks for including my hometown Sisters of Life. Is it news to people that there are young orders of sisters with waiting lists of young women who feel called to join?

I’m sure the fact that there are young orders of sisters with waiting lists would be startling news to most people. These are not the stories making news headlines. The religious orders in the news tend to be the aging, dying orders with many dissenting sisters who have seemed to lose their direction and momentum.

Although I do have to say I was edified to see the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mich., fairly portrayed on Oprah!

I had a conversation once with one sister who gave a Lenten retreat at our parish. She was not in a habit, and she made numerous comments in her talks that let me understand she did not agree with a number of positions of the Church.

In speaking to her afterward, she explained how, back in the 1960s and 1970s, women felt unimportant in a male-dominated Church. She said there was a lot of hurt and resentment against the Church, and in an effort to reach out to these estranged people, she and her fellow sisters discarded the habit.

While that may have been a viable need in the 1960s and 1970s, I do not see the same need now. What I see from the audiences I encounter is a need for more tradition, more truth and more solid teaching from clergy and religious. I don’t see all of the religious orders responding to this need. They seem stuck in the 1960s and 1970s, and that’s no longer progressive, is it? 

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.

What has the feedback from your Where Do Priests Come From? book been like?

While it’s still early, the reviews have been very favorable, and the book and its developing series seem to be most welcome among families and teachers. We especially would like to see this series being used in vocations-awareness programs, religious-education classes, parochial school settings and the like. We’ve been blessed to have significant endorsements for both books, including from the USCCB.

Do you have any other vocation-awareness books in the works?

Our third book in the series, slotted for mid-2011, is Where Do Deacons Come From? After that, discussion is taking place about other areas of focus, such as religious brothers, missionaries or lay vocations.

A vocations-awareness week is coming up in January. How might you recommend parents of young children — or even older ones — celebrate? How might the rest of us observe it?

Vocations Awareness Week is a wonderful opportunity to personally thank a priest, deacon or religious sister or brother for their vocation. It can be in the form of a card or letter, a small token of appreciation or an invitation to dinner. Let these men and women know what their vocations mean to you and your family. Pray for these people, not just during Vocations Awareness Week, but all year long. They can really use our prayers! This is also a good time to recognize young men and women or boys and girls who you feel might have a calling to the religious life and share that with them. 

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy