I responded to the first inklings of a call to religious life as if playing the arcade game, Whac-a-mole. When God’s invitation started slowly popping up in different ways, like those little moles, I would promptly “swing my black mallet” and stuff them right back down. Eventually, the “vocation moments” were jumping up like maniacs all over the place until I couldn’t ignore them anymore. I reluctantly gave in and began to find my way through a discernment for which I didn’t quite feel prepared.
During this National Vocation Awareness Week, I’d have to say that I grew up rather “vocationally unaware,” as, unfortunately, do many Catholics. Although my practicing Catholic parents lovingly brought me up in the faith, and although I attended 16 years of Catholic school, I didn’t deem religious life a viable option until my 20s. Sure, we covered the “Vocations” unit in various religion classes, but there were few experiences that encouraged me to consider that my vocation really could be something besides marriage.
Consecrated life can be a tough sell in today’s society, especially since young people don’t know as many religious. I did have two sisters as teachers, but they were grey-haired and, therefore, “grandma-age” in my little-kid-eyes. During high school, one of my religion teachers, a former religious herself, invited a grey-haired sister to speak to our class. I found her life to be interesting and impressive, but the disparity in age made it difficult to connect to her story. I admired her and at the same time excluded the possibility from my life plans, fairly sure that, “Nobody does this anymore.”
The way we pray for vocations reinforced my belief in that sentiment as a child and teenager. If you’re Catholic, certainly you’ve chimed in with a Vocation Prayer at the end of a Mass or two. They most often focus on vocations to the priesthood and religious life. I wrote in 2013 about my experience with these prayers (adapted from original blog post):
I always thought the prayers sounded a little desperate. They gave me the sense that our church values brothers, sisters and priests, but that becoming one is not really something someone in their right mind would freely choose to do. And so, we had to beg God to rope people into it: “Pretty pleeeease with sugar on top, God, force some poor suckers to take one for the team! (p.s. NOT me, of course)” or “(p.s. But not MY kids or grandkids. Someone else’s will do just fine).”
Little Me always felt sorry for the unsuspecting victims whom God selected after hearing the Vocation Prayer enough times. They would now have to live weird, lonely lives with no money, no husband or wife, and no kids. They would be really nice and God would be proud of them, but they would have no fun! What a drag!
Once God started pestering me into becoming one of those “poor suckers,” despite a more mature appreciation of religious life, I grew to resent the Vocation Prayer. I watched my fellow Catholics mouth the words all too calmly.“Easy for you to say,” I thought indignantly. Those people had no idea what they were doing to my life with all that stupid vocation praying!
My resistance echoes what I find to be common misunderstanding of this uncommon life. Even though most congregations have long abandoned unhealthy, outdated lifestyles found in pre-Vatican II convents, I find people still perceive the religious life as one of sacrifice. This assessment is reflected when questions about my life frequently focus on what I can and can’t do as a sister.
“Yes, I can drink beer (obviously in moderation).”
“No, I don’t have to chop off my hair.”
“Yes, I use a personal cell phone and drive a car.”
“No, I won’t be wearing the ‘special dress.’ Our congregation stopped requiring the habit over 50 years ago when my parents were kids.”
Although there are wonderful religious communities for whom these questions might still feel relevant, to me they are a far cry from the heart of my experience as a hope-filled young religious in a progressive, apostolic congregation. It would be like asking a newlywed if she puts on heels and a dress to serve her husband dinner when he arrives to her freshly-cleaned home after a long day of bread-winning. It just doesn’t resonate anymore.
If a prevailing image of religious life is negative and antiquated, is it any wonder that I freaked out when I first felt the fateful nudge to explore it? Is it any wonder that parents don’t more zealously promote it? When I began to give religious life a chance, how surprised I was to discover that contrary to my “poor sucker” philosophy, people actually choose religious life because it brings them great joy. As we grow in greater “vocational awareness,” I hope continue to shift our fixation on the ‘Noes’ of religious life (no money; no sex; no freedom) to celebrate the ‘Yeses.’
Yes, a deep relationship with God. Yes, a wonderful trust in God’s providence. Yes, a focus on what really matters. Yes, freedom to serve where and when it is most needed. Yes, opportunities to discover and develop my gifts in ministry. Yes, community support. Yes, life-giving friendships and family relationships. Yes, peace and justice. Yes, great meaning and purpose. Yes, life-long learning and growth. Yes, joy. Yes, love.
And the list goes on.
How do we continue to create the “culture of vocations” to which the church invites us this week and always? Of course, we will continue to pray; prayer is important. But we must put our prayer into action.
- Educate authentically about the more uncommon vocations. There are wonderful resources that give a vibrant, realistic picture of religious life and priesthood in the context of today’s world. Of course, keep up with Global Sisters Report. A Nun’s Life Ministry has a great list of sister-bloggers and an awesome FAQ page that you can check out and share with young people.
- Teach discernment of vocations AND as a way of life. This practice of prayerful decision-making (complete with tried-and-true techniques!) was not introduced to me as something valuable throughout every Christian life. We teach young people about the various vocations, but do we equip them with tools that will assist them in listening to God’s voice as they journey? Check out this discernment resource page from Jesuit Collaborative. Young women will love E-voc, an online discernment newsletter from the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.
- Invite! Many of us have suggested a possible romantic interest to a close friend. We’ve told people that they’d be great in this career or that career. How often do we tell someone that we think they would be an incredible religious Brother or that we could see them finding joy as a religious sister? If you see this in someone, especially a young person who trusts you, find a way to (un-creepily) say so. Your encouragement could lead them to discover a treasure for which they weren’t previously seeking.
- Live your vocation to the fullest. Each and every person is an inimitable channel of God’s presence. The Vatican II concept of the “universal call to holiness” reminds us of the preciousness and power of each call. When we, whether married, single, priest or vowed religious, live our particular life with passion and purpose, we inspire others to do likewise. The church will not just be better on the day that we have more priests and religious. The church is better when we know that we are the church, each of us, and live as such.
Although I was stubborn at the outset of my journey to religious life, I now couldn’t imagine my life any other way. I look forward, with crazy excitement and gratitude, to professing first vows next summer in the presence of family, friends, and my congregation! I pray this week that we as a culture become ever more fertile ground for vocations to grow and flourish. May each person find that which makes them jump up and down for joy, kinda like they just got the all-time high score in a good ol’ game of Whac-a-mole.
[S. Tracy Kemme is a novice with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She has a background in Hispanic ministry, having served both in Ecuador and at the U.S.-Mexico border prior to novitiate.]