Welcome to National Vocations Awareness Week!

124px-Spas_vsederzhitel_sinaySince 1976 the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has been promoting growth in vocations through “Vocations Awareness Week”.  Over the years it has moved around the calendar — from the 28th Sunday of the year to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and Finally to the first week of November.  Through all of that, the aim has always been to develop a “culture of vocations”.

According to a press release on the USCCB website:

“Encouraging others to recognize the promptings of the Holy Spirit and to follow Christ without reservations are key elements in supporting a culture of vocations,” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh, North Carolina, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. “With God’s grace, we can have a positive impact on others who may be open to considering a vocation to priesthood or religious life, by simply inviting them to think and pray about it. Our enthusiasm and willingness to speak directly to others about vocations just might be the conversation someone need to respond to God’s call.”

The USCCB website supports Vocations Awareness Week with a variety of resources including a parish prayer card, homily points for priests and deacons, Holy Hours for Vocations (both with and without a priest) and prayers for vocations.

Please take a moment during your busy week and pray for vocations — both for those who are actively pursuing their vocation and for those yet to be called.

Priestly Formation: Basic Supervised Ministry

When we started this blog, one of Evan’s seminarian brothers commented that there’s a lot to write about at the beginning of the journey and a lot more at the end — but not much in between.

There’s some truth to that.  After the novice year, it’s mostly about being a graduate student.  Like all graduate students seminarians have books to read and lectures to attend and papers to write and tests to take.  Some of the content is what you’d expect; close readings of scripture and a good understanding of Christian history.  Some of it, though, is more practical that you might realize.

Students preparing for the priesthood at CUA are required to take a two semester course called Basic Supervised Ministry.  This course is practical in every sense of the word.  Much like the clinical rotations of those training for health care, the Basic Supervised Ministry course gives those in formation the opportunity to learn and practice the skills involved in being a minister.

The course descriptions sums it up this way:

652A: A student spends a minimum of four hours each week at a designated ministerial placement and two hours in a supervision seminar. Through the use of verbatim presentations, the seminar explores communication skills, interpersonal dynamics, theological reflection on issues raised, and the student’s emerging pastoral identity. Students receive a written evaluation at the end of each semester.

652B: Building on TRS 652A, the seminar explores how to communicate the gospel in an appropriate, pastoral, caring way. Through the use of verbatim, video and role-play, attention is given to the process of theological reflection on ministerial encounters. Students receive a written evaluation at the end of each semester.

In simple terms, this means the student is assigned to go into a pastoral setting such as a hospital to minister to those in need.  After each encounter, they document and reflect on their experience in writing so they can discuss it later in a classroom setting.  As the course descriptions note, they also use video and role-playing to further hone their skills.

It sounded pretty intense to me and, I expect it can get that way at times.  I was encouraged, though, by a recent blog post from Msgr. Charles Pope.

As a younger priest I felt a lot of pressure to “have the answers” when tragedies occurred or when people experienced persistent setbacks in their lives. In more recent years I’ve learned to say less and to be more willing to sit quietly with people in their pain. To be sure, we have some answers, but explanations are poor substitutes for understanding and acceptance. Whatever explanations I can offer still leave even more things unexplained.

This seems consistent with the two principle texts that Evan is using; Availability and The Good Listener.  In the end, it seems, the beginning (and perhaps end) of ministry is the simple act of being mindfully present to those who are suffering and need a companion on the journey.

A Proper Reason?

Picture courtesy of Matthias Ulrich via Wikimedia CommonsThere have been a number of reports of a surge in vocations for priests and other religious.  The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reported that an estimated 595 priestly ordinations in the U.S. in 2015.  That’s a 25% increase over 2014.  That’s a good growth no matter how you slice it.

Naturally, when people hear about the increase they tend to wonder what’s up.  Dominican brother Dominic Bouck, O.P. has certainly heard the questions.  In a recent blog post he says:

One thing that I’ve heard from several people when I mention the surge in Dominican vocations (and the surge of many dioceses and orders male and female) is “Oh, it must be the recession.”

That’s a natural reaction — particularly for us in America who tend to evaluate a person’s success in terms of professional or material accomplishments.  It also has a whiff of “well, he can’t make it in the real world so he’s going to retreat into religious life.” Except, as Dominic explains, those perceptions are completely wrong.

Truly, I have not met one religious who set aside marital joys, self-determination, and wealth because he or she couldn’t find a job.The man who sets aside his personal dreams to more perfectly subject himself to God is not primarily saying “no” to the world, but saying “yes” to a renewed life with God … there are over fifty of us studying for the priesthood or preparing to live life as a consecrated brother, about to be joined by fifteen more on July 25.

Among those roughly 75 men are lawyers, a medical doctor, a congressional staffer, professional musicians, a radio host, several PhDs and professors, a particle physicist from Stanford, a former Google employee, a dean of admissions at a medical school, Ivy Leaguers, Golden Domers, and more who were successful in the world, but sought a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church, and desired to serve his people.

A similar phenomenon is taking place among religious sisters.  Another CARA report (cited as part of the Global Sisters Report) points out that the age of women professing final vows is creeping upward.

In 2010, 47 percent of women professing final vows were aged 40 to 59. Another 26 percent were between 30 and 39. The median age for the class was 44.

Those numbers have steadily changed in the years since, reflecting an increase among younger women: By the class of 2014, only 27 percent of women taking final vows were aged 40 to 59 and those younger than 30 had increased from 18 percent to 25 percent. The median age of the class had dropped to 35.

But 75 percent of the class was still 30 or older.

The report tells the story of Marie Racine.

Marie Racine was well established, a software engineer for 17 years, when something happened.

“We had a meeting, and all of the sudden when they introduced the new projects, I just wasn’t interested anymore,” Racine said. “It just no longer mattered to me.”

That awareness propelled Racine onto a new path — and into an emerging trend about women committing to religious life: Racine entered a Benedictine monastery the day before her 40th birthday and made her final vows seven years later, in 2007.

All of this is consistent with what I’ve seen among the Paulists.  Among the students and priests in the Paulist Community we’ve met Financial Advisors, Mechanical Engineers, Park Rangers, and an actor. Some of them entered formation after they had established themselves in “respectable” careers and (to a worldly point of view) were on a successful path.  Yet, for all of them, God’s call drew them into a new venture which allowed them to use their gifts in service of the Faith.

When you’re looking at your son or daughter who is in discernment and you’re wondering what’s going on with them — set aside your notions of success and consider the work that God may be doing in their life.

— Dad of Evan

Come and See!

Pam’s post about visiting the seminary with her son reminded me that I’ve never mentioned the “Come and See” weekends.

A “Come and See” is a retreat which offers discerners the opportunity to taste religious life.  The Dominican website OpCentral.org describes it this way:

Information is always helpful, digitally, in print, or otherwise, but there is no substitute for a real human encounter. That’s why a Come and See Weekend is a must for anyone seriously discerning their vocation. Dominican Come and Sees are a sixty-four hour immersion experience into the very rhythm of religious life. It’s that “gut” experience which offers the visceral clarity that is the goal of discernment and the only true test of whether or not your home is here.

Fr. Larry Rice, the Vocations Director for the Paulists, confirms this:

When a man is contemplating a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most of the discernment is internal work: prayer, reading, prayer, spiritual direction, and prayer. This is a good and necessary process. But it can also feel a bit isolating, as if no one else is wrestling with these issues and questions. And it can also take on a hypothetical and imaginative quality. What will life in the novitiate be like? Is the seminary a strange place where I’ll feel uncomfortable? Will I be out of place, surrounded by people who are so much holier than I am? Can anything good come from Nazareth?

Come and see. That’s the invitation that the Paulist Fathers make three times each year. Come for a visit. See and experience our common life. Pray with us. Dine with us. Come to class. Come to the chapel. Have a soda or a beer, and ask your questions.

Evan participated in a couple of these weekends early in his discernment.  He came back enthused about the community and taken with the beauty of the liturgy of the hours.  Each visit increased his conviction that he needed to pursue the call.

Now that he’s a member of the community, Evan gets to experience these weekends from the other side.  Meeting potential seminarians is a great opportunity for him to share part of his journey and to remember his early days of discernment.

“Come and See” weekends are pretty common.  A quick Google search turns up a long list of possibilities.  Some of them are associated with particular communities like the Dominicans, Paulist and Mercedarian Sisters — yes, there are “Come and See” retreats for women discerning religious life as well.  Some of them are associated with diocesan seminaries.   All of them follow the same basic pattern of welcome, prayer and participation.

The point, I guess, is that discernment is something to be lived.  That means actively exploring religious life.  Don’t just sit in a pew and say “I think God is calling me”.  Get up and answer the call.    Find a “Come and See” weekend, talk to a vocations director, immerse yourself in experiences that will let you encounter God.  You might be surprised at what you learn!

— Dad (Evan)

Dinner with a Side of Answers

meat-569073_320Want to know what seminary is like?  Ask someone who’s been there.  Ask a priest.

Cathy and I stumbled into this accidentally a few months after Evan told us he was in discernment with the Paulists.  Our pastor, Fr. Clarence, had invited Fr. James DiLuzio, CSP to come to the parish to present the Luke Live mission.  A couple of weeks before the mission date, the parish office put out a call for people willing to feed Fr. DiLuzio a meal.  If circumstances had been different, we might have glanced past the notice and hoped that somebody stepped up to help out.

As it was (and since Fr. DiLuzio is a Paulist) we jumped on the opportunity and scheduled a lunch and a dinner with him.  The lunch was Saturday at noon, so Evan came down to join us.  At lunch we talked about the seminary, the discernment process, and life as a priest.  We continued the conversation over dinner a couple of nights later.  It set our minds at ease on many of the questions we’d been asking.

Since then, we’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to dine with visiting priests.  We’ve talked Star Trek with a geek priest, interfaith politics with a priest who worked at the Vatican for ten years, genealogy with a priest who has traced his family back to the Mayflower, life in the Holy Land with a Franciscan, formation with a man who attended minor seminary (high school seminary), travel with a retired priest from California and seminary with several.  We’re learned about their backgrounds, how they were called to the priesthood and what their formation was like.

To a man, they’ve all been good company and we’ve enjoyed our time with them.  Getting to know them has given us insight into Evan’s journey and let us see the human side of the priesthood.  Those informal conversations have been a real blessing for us and I imagine they’d be a blessing for you as well.

So…next time you have a visiting priest in your parish, offer to take them to dinner.  Oh, and don’t forget your pastor as well.  You’ll be surprised at what you can learn from him.

— Dad (Evan)

P.S.

We took the Franciscan — in full habit — to a lovely restaurant with outdoor seating.  The habit got all of the looks.  In Utah (where the LDS church makes up the majority of the population) you just don’t see men in habits that often.

— D

E-mail and a Note about Discernment

This week a lovely note landed in the Seminarian Parents inbox.  It came from the Mum of a seminarian who…well, since she graciously offered permission to share her letter, I’ll let her tell the story.

Three years ago our 19 year old son entered a Diocesan seminary.

While not shocked – we were initially quite surprised and unsure that this was a good idea for someone so young.

At the time my husband and I tried to encourage him to ‘live’ a little before he entered. Maybe gain a bit more maturity, and life experience.  To his credit he was not to be deterred by our initial reticence and lack of enthusiasm : he was sure of his decision. He proceeded initially to ‘pre-seminary’ for a year and then the national  seminary.

And of course we supported him, loved him and were proud of him.

As parents we have always tried to support our children (he has an older brother & sister) – and when necessary offer guidance – in their life choices. University, and overseas travel for the others was a more familiar path for us  – but the seminary and priesthood was an altogether different scenario – and one I assumed other people’s sons would follow – not ours!

I desperately wanted to talk to someone in my situation who understood what I was going through – another mother of a seminarian. There seemed to be no one around – I assumed that they must all be very holy – too busy praying and going about the Lord’s work – and would have no understanding of my feelings, fears and worries for my son and his future!

I quickly became aware that the role and relationship of parents and their seminarian son is at times different than that of our other children. (Not better or worse – just different)

Because of this unique role, the opportunity for the parents and families of our seminarians to meet and get to know one another (for both support & friendship) is important.  Whether the family are heavily involved in ‘church’ – or not at all – the procedures, processes and emotions are usually uncharted territory for everyone. But nothing seemed to exist – at a local level or online.

Towards the end of last year, our son decided to leave the seminary  – I didn’t want him to enter – but now I found I didn’t want him to leave! More uncharted waters – and once again, another parent to talk to would have been great.

While he has learnt a lot in these 3 years in the seminary – I know we as parents have as well.

In immersing himself in all things ‘Catholic’ – much has also been absorbed by us too. There have been many conversations as we talked with him before he entered – and in holidays when he was home

(I am a ‘cradle Catholic’ though I think the term ‘cultural Catholic’ would have been a better description. I loved the culture and familiarity of being catholic – the nitty gritty of my faith was largely ignored. )

For me I know my knowledge of catholic ‘stuff’, liturgical matters, seminarian studies and subjects, canon law, has increased – but above all this superfluous information, my Faith has deepened and (I think) matured. For that I will always be thankful and grateful to my son  – for testing my understanding of my faith, challenging my assumptions and encouraging me to seek and develop a more personal relationship with God.

This letter was encouraging to all of us.  We recognized our own questions, fears and concerns in this mother’s story.  Cathy and I chuckled at her assumption that the parents of prospective priest must somehow be above-average on the holiness meter.  We certainly aren’t, but we are trying to improve our relationship with God.

One of the concerns she had was her son’s age.  Cathy shared that concern and … well … I’ll let her explain:

Worry about Evan being too young was a big concern of mine as well. I spoke to the formation director of his order and he offered me an interesting perspective. He stated that they encourage men to explore the priesthood as early as possible (as soon as they hear the call). If it doesn’t work out there are no hard feelings, on the contrary, they often remain friends of the group for life. If they discern that the ordained life isn’t for them, they are still young enough to enter into the secular life and have a full career. If they wait till their late 30’s, for example, they are in their forty’s when they go back to their careers and it can be difficult.

All of which brings me to a brief point that I’d like to make about the discernment process.

Discernment is a process.  Some people think that discernment is sitting around, praying for Divine guidance and getting a lightning bolt from the sky in response.  Prayer is definitely important, but prayer needs to be accompanied by action.  A great post over at Verso L’alto talks about the danger of “passive discernment.”

People tend to talk about a priestly vocation as if entering seminary is a final decision with ordination as a foregone conclusion.  That isn’t the case at all.  You might as well start making wedding plans the first time your son takes a girl out on a date.  Yes, it could lead to marriage, but it might not.  It’s important to live through the process — it’s a journey, not a destination.

When young people perceive a call to religious life, they should explore it.  That means investigating seminaries and talking to vocations directors.  It probably means entering the seminary.  Whatever happens — that time in seminary is part of the journey.

I’d be so bold as to say that active discernment is good practice for all of us.  If you think God is calling you to something — a ministry in your parish, some task in your neighborhood or your workplace, or even more prayer and study — don’t sit back and think about it.  With openness to the Spirit, jump in and listen to God through your actions.

Lessons from the Seminary

The always excellent Word-on-Fire recently posted an essay by Diocesan Seminarian Joe Heschmeyer titled 10 Things I Learned in my First Year of Seminary.  The whole essay is worth reading, but I wanted to share his tenth point because I found it particularly encouraging.

Perhaps nothing exposes one’s lingering faults quite like seminary. It is a group of Christian men who are serious about sanctity, and have cultivated an attention to detail. Furthermore, we are encouraged to engage in “fraternal correction,” on the theory that iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), and we have a moral duty to look out for one another. But fortunately, God is there through all of this. Where I succeed, it is due to His grace. Where I fail, He stands ready to pick me up again. No matter how big my failings, faults, and sins, God’s Mercy is always bigger. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux is said to have said, “everything is grace.” 

The first year was quite a journey, but it’s one that I was humbled and thrilled to take.

I don’t know if Joe’s experience is universal for seminarians, but I have to imagine that a year spent in prayer and contemplation with a focus on spiritual growth couldn’t help but bring about a change.  And, even more encouraging is Joe’s reminder that God is always there to pick us up when we fall.

— Dad (Evan)

What’s Life Like in the Seminary

A couple of weeks back Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble linked to this video on her blog.  It’s a nice peek into life in the seminary and well worth your eight minutes.  (In case you’re curious, the video comes from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.)

Brotherhood from Adspectus on Vimeo.

On a related note, Sr. Noble’s blog is also worth your time.  And she’s written a terrific book called “The Prodigal You Love.”  It’s a great resource if you want to help lapsed Catholics find their way back into church.  And — spoiler alert — the book says you’ll need to start by changing yourself.

Welcoming a New Contributor

Just a quick note about this post.

It has always been our hope and prayer that this blog would become a place where those discerning and their parents came for information and encouragement.  Pam contacted us on Easter Sunday to let us know she’d found the blog and to inquire about our experience as seminarian parents and bloggers.  It was clear from her e-mail messages that she was a great writer and had a different perspective.  Our conversation naturally turned to asking her to contribute and we’re thrilled that she accepted.

As she notes, her son is in a college seminary and entered shortly after high school.  This is different from our experience, but is an experience shared by many, many parents.

In the coming months, you’ll see posts from all of us as our individual journeys continue.

As always, we want your questions.  Feel free to e-mail us at seminarianparents@gmail.com.

— Dad of Evan

What is a Spiritual Director?

Mid-remodel. Yes, it is a mess.  Thank you for noticing.It strikes me as funny that we Americans often take a “do it yourself” attitude to spiritual development.  By contrast, we are willing to pay vast sums of money to small armies of consultants, advisors, and coaches.

When Cathy and I remodeled our home, we hired professionals to hang the cabinets, update the wiring and connect the plumbing.  (Safety pro tip: Never – EVER – enter a building where I have personally done any of the wiring or plumbing.)

When we remodeled, we were concentrating on the interior of our house — taking what we already had and improving it.  We wanted a more functional space and a more comfortable life.  I guess you could say that we wanted our house to be more of what we knew it could be.

It would be a mistake to reduce the work of a spiritual director to a mere remodeling of the soul, but there are some useful similarities.  As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “You wouldn’t think of building a good house to live in here on earth without an architect. How can you ever hope, without a director, to build the castle of your sanctification in order to live forever in heaven?”

William A. Barry, SJ, clarifies a bit in his book The Practice of Spiritual Direction when he notes that spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”

The work of a spiritual director is done in a series of private meetings between the individual seeking direction (sometimes called a “directee”) and the the director.  An article on the OSV website explains the process this way:

Since the goal of spiritual direction is to deepen your connection and commitment to Our Lord, sessions are always deeply personal. In general, you will meet with your spiritual director on a regular basis, be it weekly or monthly, but not less frequently than every two months. In your session, you will talk about your desires and struggles in the spiritual life — not confessing sin per se, unless your spiritual director also happens to be your confessor — and trends and tendencies in such areas as prayer and self-control. Your director will make suggestions for reading or devotional exercises, and help you find answers to your spiritual questions. Often you will end the session by praying together.

A spiritual director is a guide to interior growth and renewal, not counselor or therapist.  The discussions center on the relationship between the directee and God.  The Ignatian Spirituality website lays out four key points about spiritual direction:

Spiritual direction focuses on religious experience. It is concerned with a person’s actual experience of a relationship with God.

Spiritual direction is about a relationship. The religious experience is not isolated, nor does it consist of extraordinary events. It is what happens in an ongoing relationship between the person and God. Most often this is a relationship that is experienced in prayer.

Spiritual direction is a relationship that is going somewhere. God is leading the person to deeper faith and more generous service. The spiritual director asks not just “what is happening?” but “what is moving forward?””

The real spiritual director is God. God touches the human heart directly. The human spiritual director does not “direct” in the sense of giving advice and solving problems. Rather, the director helps a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship.

All seminarians — in fact all religious — are required to have a spiritual director.  All of the Paulist Novices and Students have one.  As do all sisters, brothers, priests and deacons.  Interestingly, while all religious are obliged to have a spiritual director, spiritual directors themselves are not obliged to be religious.  In fact, Saint Pope John Paul II’s first spiritual director was a tailor by the name of Jan Tyranowski.

More importantly, anyone can have a spiritual director.  Anyone who is seeking to improve their relationship with God, to better carry out the mission of their Baptismal call, or to deepen their spirituality can engage the assistance of a spiritual director.  Fr. John C. McCloskey reminds us:

During his pontificate, Benedict XVI several times urged faithful Catholics who desired to pursue holiness and grow closer to God to make use of a spiritual director: “We always need a guide, dialogue, to go to the Lord. . . .We cannot do it with our reflections alone. And this is also the meaning of the ecclesiality of our faith, of finding this guide.” By this means, he explained, we can avoid being limited by our own subjectivist interpretations of God and what he might be calling us to do, as well as benefiting from our guide’s “own supply of knowledge and experiences in following Jesus.”

After.  Much nicer, isn't it?If you are interested in finding a spiritual director, a good place to start is with your parish priest.  Not that he would necessarily become your director, but he probably knows you well enough to steer you in the right director and he should be familiar with the resources available in your parish and your diocese.  Once you’ve identified a director, you’ll begin to meet with them to pray and discuss.  You may have a defined “trial” period to see if the relationship is a good fit for both of you.  You will certainly be introduced to new readings and (possibly) new devotions.

Along the way — if you are open — God will be speaking to you and helping you grow to become more of what He knew you could be.

— Dad

Eighteen Months and Counting!

We’ve been posting thoughts here (off and on) since June of 2013.  For those of you who have followed from the beginning, thank you!  For those just joining us, welcome.

Looking over our logs, the links below represent some of our most popular posts, serve as a great overview of our adventure, and answer the most common questions we’ve received.

As always, we welcome your questions.  If there’s something you’d like to know, we’ll do our best to answer.  E-mail us at SeminarianParents@gmail.com

— Dad