An international conference to encourage vocations

An international conference to encourage vocations

WHEN THE CHRISTIAN BROTHERS and Presentation Brothers held the Edmund Rice Vocation Symposium April 11-17, 2007 in New Zealand, the event was the culmination of nearly 15 months of planning. The gathering, entitled “Called to a Deeper Journey—From Vision to Action,” brought together 65 delegates representing the Christian Brothers’ Edmund Rice Network from Europe, North America and Oceania and the Presentation Family worldwide. (The Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers share a common founder: Blessed Edmund Rice.) Participants reflected on presentations that examined the current vocational reality in the developed world. They prayed and broke bread together. They discussed their own experiences of being called and explored marketing strategies. By the end of the conference, each geographic region had formed a preliminary strategic plan for vocation ministry in its part of the world. Symposium participants left the event with both concrete plans for vocation promotion and a reinvigorated desire to invite others to consider life as a brother.

In order to share with other communities a process that worked well for us, this article attempts to document what we did and how we did it. I hope this program overview might help other communities to inspire their members to invite a new generation of young people into religious life.

Envisioning the symposium

The seeds of the 2007 vocation symposium were planted in January 2006 in Manila, Philippines. The Edmund Rice Christian Brothers sponsored a meeting of provincial leadership from around the world. One important topic for discussion was vocation promotion and the congregation’s efforts to seek new brothers. It quickly became apparent that these efforts in the developing world were doing extraordinarily well, as novitiates in Africa, India and Latin America were filled with young men exploring the charism of Blessed Edmund Rice. When the focus shifted to the present vocation situation in the developed world, it became equally apparent that the lack of new vowed members in Europe, North America and Oceania was a major cause for concern.

Following these discussions about vocation ministry, Dominic Sassi, CFC, a member of the Christian Brothers Congregation Leadership Team, decided it was time to be proactive in challenging the malaise surrounding vocation promotion in the developed world. Thus, Sassi approached four of the Manila meeting’s participants to discuss the possibility of sponsoring a developed-world vocation symposium for the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. All four men enthusiastically endorsed Sassi’s proposed vision and agreed to serve with him as the planning committee for the gathering. In time the planning committee would come to represent the Christian Brothers in Europe, North America, and Oceania and the Presentation Brothers worldwide.

Before leaving Manila in January 2006, the newly formed planning committee agreed to the following initiatives:

  • The conference would be co-sponsored by the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers and would take place in Auckland, New Zealand from April 11-17, 2007.
  • The Christian Brothers would send 30 representatives, 10 each from Europe, North America and Oceania.
  • The Presentation Brothers would send 10 representatives from their worldwide Presentation Family.
  • Someone was assigned the task of locating a suitable facility in Auckland for the conference.
  • Two men took charge of seeking both a facilitator and a keynote speaker for the conference.
  • The planning committee would meet in July 2006 at the Christian Brothers’ Congregation Center in Rome, Italy to plan the details of the conference.

It was Brother Dominic Sassi’s wisdom and courage in envisioning a conference aimed at seeking new brothers in the developed world which lit the fire and fanned the flame that would become “Called to a Deeper Journey—From Vision to Action.”

The members of the planning committee left Manila with the task of returning home and convincing the other members of their respective leadership teams of the need to support and finance the monumental undertaking of sending 10 representatives to New Zealand for a developed-world vocation symposium.

Planning the event

Between January 2006 and July 2006, the planning committee kept in contact via e-mail to report on efforts at promoting the conference and to finalize the choice of a facilitator and a keynote speaker. It was quickly reported that the congregation leadership teams for both the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers, as well as individual provinces from throughout the developed world were fully behind the conference and would give it complete support.

In July 2006 the planning committee came together in Rome for two full days of meetings to organize the substance of the conference. Anne O’Leary, PVBM, the conference facilitator, and Gemma Simmonds, CJ the keynote speaker, joined the planning committee for its deliberations. The group agreed on many details and assigned follow-up tasks. The committee made the following decisions.

  • The conference theme would be Called to a Deeper Journey—From Vision to Action.
  • Participants would be male, female lay, and consecrated religious.
  • Special efforts would be made to invite a significant number of young people to the conference.
  • Each of the four represented groups (Christian Brothers in Europe, Christian Brothers in North America, Christian Brothers in Oceania and the worldwide Presentation Brothers’ Family) would prepare a 20-minute presentation on the current reality of their geographic area, particularly in relationship to vocation promotion. The “Current Reality” presentation would include a five-minute video featuring young people speaking about their view of the brothers’ vocation. Some of these young adults were to be familiar with the Christian Brothers or the Presentation Brothers and others would not.
  • A Web site would be established to promote the conference and to provide pre-conference reading materials and tasks for conference delegates.
  • The keynote speaker would deliver three distinct presentations: “Seeking New Brothers in a Changing Global Context,” “Seeking New Brothers from a Theological Perspective,” “Seeking New Brothers and the Journey toward Human Wholeness.
  • Three members of the planning committee would present 20 minute talks on their personal journeys toward human wholeness.
  • A presentation focused on marketing strategies would be part of the conference.
  • Significant time would be given to each of the four represented groups to develop strategies for promoting vocations in their part of the world.

The rationale behind beginning the conference with the current-reality presentations was to aid the participants in gaining an understanding of the efforts being made throughout the developed world in promoting vocations in the Edmund Rice charism.

We had hoped that our keynote speaker would shed light on the global realities of our world from a theological perspective, particularly with regard to seeking new brothers in the tradition of Edmund Rice. This would lead to an exploration of each participant’s personal journey toward human wholeness. In moving from the global to the theological to the personal, we envisioned a process that would engage each participant in the task at hand. We wanted to be very clear that our goal was to generate enthusiasm for seeking new brothers. Thus we called upon all participants to journey deeper into themselves and to summon their energies for promoting vocations to vowed membership with the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers.

Once the participants were able to deepen their own commitment to seeking new brothers, it was felt that we could begin to envision how this might be done. It was here that the presentation on marketing strategies was most valuable, as it led to a vibrant discussion on possibilities for the future.

It was following the discussion on marketing that we felt it was time to move from vision to action. Thus significant time was given to each of the four represented groups for the purpose of developing an action plan to promote vocations in the different geographical regions present.

Each day’s theme was deliberately chosen with the hope of moving the participants toward enthusiastically committing themselves to seeking new brothers by following a process that would lead from vision to action.

In addition to settling the content and structure of the conference, we also made several other decisions at our planning meeting in Rome, including the following.

  • A presentation would be made by the New Zealand Edmund Rice Network (young people who commit themselves to living and/or ministering with the Christian Brothers) to discuss the network’s role in promoting vocations.
  • Base Groups would be established by each of the four represented groups for the purpose of generating enthusiasm for the conference and to assist in pre-conference preparation, as well as post-conference follow up. The Base Groups would consist of vocation and formation personnel, Province Leadership Team members, conference delegates and others with energy for promoting vocations.
  • The pre-conference planning would include an element of applied theology whereby each conference participant would engage in some kind of spiritual activity with young people.
  • A conference secretary would be hired to assist with daily tasks once the conference had begun.
  • The conference delegates would be officially welcomed to New Zealand in a Maori (Native New Zealander) Powhiri ritual.
  • Each of the four represented areas would finance the transportation and conference costs for its delegates.
  • The four organizers of the four represented groups would be responsible for identifying and inviting conference delegates. They would also organize all local details in preparation for the conference, including travel arrangements to and from New Zealand. With much of the conference content and details agreed upon, each member of the planning committee was given specific tasks to complete. They included the following.
  • The New Zealand representative to the committee would: 1) coordinate conference details with Kings College, the conference site, 2) coordinate registration via e-mail for all conference delegates, 3) coordinate the arrival of conference delegates (airport pick ups, etc), 4) develop the conference Web site and serve as its webmaster, 5) invite an expert to present a session on marketing strategies and 6) procure the services of a priest to preside at liturgy.
  • Another member agreed to write the following for the conference Web site: 1) an introductory welcome to the conference, 2) guidelines for the “Current Reality” presentations, 3) a rationale for the role of the Base Groups, 4) an explanation of the applied theology element.
  • The keynote speaker agreed to write three distinct abstracts with reflection questions for each of her conference presentations to be posted on the conference Web site.
  • Brother Dominic Sassi, CFC of the Christian Brothers Leadership Team agreed to write a letter to all Province Leadership Teams announcing the conference and to prepare a welcoming address to be given at the conference’s opening gathering.
  • Brother Martin Kenneally, FPM, the Presentation Brothers Congregation leader, agreed to prepare remarks introducing the planning committee, facilitator, keynote speaker and liturgists for the conference.
  • The facilitator agreed to develop a conference schedule based on the agreed-upon tasks for the conference and to procure the services of a liturgist to plan conference prayer experiences and rituals.

By the end of this meeting the planning committee was confident it had put together a formidable program focused on seeking and inviting new brothers in the developed world. All agreed to gather in Auckland two days prior to the start of the conference to coordinate last minute details for the gathering.

The next several months, from late July 2006 through early April 2007, again saw the planning committee keeping in contact via e-mail to report on the progress in the preparations. Slowly things began to fall into place, and what had been a thought in the mind of Brother Dominic Sassi, CFC in January of 2006 was beginning to take shape as April 2007 quickly approached.

Arriving in New Zealand

On Monday, April 9, 2007 each member of the planning committee, the facilitator, the keynote speaker, and the liturgists for the conference arrived in Auckland to put the finishing touches on the pre-conference preparation. The facilitator presented a working copy of a proposed conference schedule. After much discussion and a few minor alterations, the schedule was agreed upon and finalized. However, as one might imagine, unforeseen realities often dictate changes in an original plan and a large degree of flexibility in moving things around becomes necessary. Thus the paragraphs that follow reflect the actuality of how activities and events unfolded during the conference.

The conference takes place

The conference began on the evening of April 11, 2007 at Kings College in Auckland, New Zealand with an opening address by Brother Dominic Sassi, CFC and a prayer ritual. Sassi remarked, “The aim of this conference, ‘Called to a Deeper Journey—From Vision to Action,’ is to deepen our appreciation of the vocation of a brother so that we may more confidently engage in vocation ministry in concrete and active ways. This calls for faith, imagination, and a prophetic engagement with the key issues of our day. We have invited each of you here especially to participate in this conference because we believe you have a passion for seeking new brothers in the spirit of Edmund Rice.”

Prior to his prepared remarks, Dominic read a brief statement from Bro. Philip Pinto, CFC (the Christian Brothers Congregation Leader). Philip’s message stated: “I pray that every participant will have a good experience and leave with a deep desire to live out their calling more fully. May the conference ignite the fire that is inside us and that has to be shared. That is what will influence others to come and see—and for some—to remain.”

The first full day of the symposium centered on the question “Can you hear the call of God in what your brothers and sisters are saying to you?” The format for exploring this question was four 20-minute presentations on the “Current Reality” in each of the four regions (Christian Brothers in Europe, Christan Brothers in North America, etc.). We allowed time for dialogue on these presentations. Each “Current Reality” presentation included a five minute video segment featuring young people speaking on their view of religious life today. Perhaps the events of the day were summed up in the following statement from Mr. Simon Purcell, a 19-year-old delegate to the conference from Perth, Australia, who had spent a year living in a Christian Brother community while doing volunteer ministry. Purcell commented: “Living with the Christian Brothers gave me a close up look at the life of a brother. The Christian Brothers are good men and live a life worth considering. Through my experience in community, I was able to recognize that living life as a Christian Brother is a real option for young people.”

The day concluded with a spirited gathering liturgy that included the official lighting of the conference candle. The next two days of the conference were given to Gemma Simmonds, CJ the keynote speaker, who presented three sessions focused on: “Seeking New Brothers in a Changing Global Context,” “Seeking New Brothers from a Theological Perspective,” “Seeking New Brothers and the Journey toward Human Wholeness.”

In her presentation, “Seeking New Brothers in a Changing Global Context,” Simmonds challenged the conference delegates to develop a culture in which the option of becoming a religious brother is readily available to young people. She stated that “religious life is a public statement of commitment to the Gospel which needs to be made visible.” Simmonds exclaimed that in seeking new brothers, we must “offer something significantly different from what the secular world offers—otherwise, why would someone come to us?”

With regard to the theme “Seeking New Brothers from a Theological Perspective,” Simmonds used several Scripture passages and personal stories in encouraging all to “cherish God’s vocation within—and to make it transparent and transmittable to others.” She stated that “our task is to become people of desire in order to transmit this to others and to help them discover the deep desire within themselves.” In speaking of the Body of Christ, Simmonds noted that the task for vocation promotion is to recognize that “the Body of Christ is me, and if I can believe and live this myself, I will transmit it to others.”

On the topic of “Seeking New Brothers and the Journey toward Human Wholeness,” Simmonds challenged us in our vocation ministry to help young people come to an understanding of how God sees them. She stated: “Do I ask Jesus, ‘Who do you say I am?’ In vocation ministry, this is what we can offer people—the opportunity to stand before Jesus and ask, ‘Who do you say I am?’ In finding this out, I will find my deepest, fullest self…. I am a sinner, sure, but I am a loved and forgiven sinner.”

In concluding, Simmonds remarked, “The gift of the Edmund Rice charism is that of holding a vision of a redeemed society, communicating that to others, and inviting them into it.” In addition, feedback from small group conversations on Simmonds’ presentations revealed that “young people are yearning for experiences of spirituality and community, and that we, as religious brothers, can offer this.”

On Saturday, following Simmonds’ final presentation, three brothers from the planning committee shared their personal experiences of journeying toward human wholeness in their lives. The three presentations focused on brokenness, sexuality, celibacy, spirituality, reconciliation, joy and wholeness. As one of those three presenters, I remarked:

When I graduated from Blessed Sacrament High School [New Rochelle, NY], I joined the Christian Brothers because of the interest they took in me. I joined to be for others what the Christian Brothers were for me. The Christian Brothers provided me with a wellspring of acceptance. Today, I realize more and more that the call—the journey—is to union with God. In my broken journey toward human wholeness, that is what I seek, union with God through a personal relationship with Jesus and Edmund.

In response to the three presentations, conference participants embarked on an Emmaus walk in groups of two or three to share their own journey toward human wholeness with one another.

At this point in the conference, several younger participants approached the planning committee with a concern that there was no specific spot in the schedule for their voice to be heard collectively. After some discussion and clarification, we agreed that a time slot would be given for a panel of younger delegates to tell their stories. Thus several young brothers and lay participants shared their personal journeys as men and women committed to the charism of Edmund Rice. This session pointed to the need to specifically invite young people to voice their concerns and opinions as we move forward in seeking new brothers.

On Monday, following a free day, the conference reconvened. The theme for the day centered on “Toward Seeking New Brothers—From Vision to Action.” The presenter, Kevin Malloy, a marketing strategist from Auckland, offered insight into the world of marketing, challenging the conference delegates “to devise new strategies for getting the message of our brotherhood out to young people.” Malloy encouraged us “to embrace the digital world and to use it to our advantage in promoting vocations,” and he asked that we find “connections that captivate” in identifying and communicating with our target audience as we seek new brothers. In relating marketing strategies to vocation ministry, he spoke to the importance of having a focused plan that makes use of the Internet—the place where many young people spend much of their time. Malloy identified establishing a Web site for vocations with appropriate hyperlinks as the most important component for getting our message across to young people today.

After the marketing presentation, for the next day and a half, each of the four groups at the conference convened and developed strategies for promoting vocations in their part of the world. The closing liturgy for the conference took place in a spirit of sending forth. Brother Martin Kenneally FPM delivered a stimulating reflection that challenged all “to seek Christ through Edmund.”

Going home

As the conference unfolded, it became apparent that there is a great deal of energy and enthusiasm for promoting vocations to brotherhood. We concluded that two major aspects of seeking new brothers remain:

  • Living lives characterized by joy and happiness and transmitting this to others, especially young people.
  • Taking the necessary steps to INVITE, INVITE, INVITE young people to our brotherhood.

Each of the four groups that took part in the conference returned home with a newly devised action plan for promoting vocations (page 34). Now it is up to all of us who have returned home with renewed enthusiasm and new ideas to implement our strategies and encourage our brothers and colleagues to INVITE, INVITE, INVITE young men to join our brotherhood.



Deepening our spirituality of evangelizing youth and young adults

  • Encourage our brothers and others in the Edmund Rice Network to INVITE young people to our brotherhood and to serve as MENTORS for them.
  • Provide retreat experiences/gatherings for young people—particularly young alumni and those who have attended/participated in mission trips, Kairos, Encounter, and similar experiences.
  • Organize participation in World Youth Day (July 2008 in Sydney, Australia) and/or the Eucharistic Congress (June 2008 in Quebec City).
  • Provide daily opportunities for the brothers to pray for vocations.
  • Deepen our own (each brother’s) spirituality of brotherhood.
  • Explore the possibility of conducting summer camps in North America modeled after the Chicago Brother Rice High School Edmund Rice Camp. [This camp offers high school students and young adults an opportunity to minister with the brothers while serving disadvantaged inner city children in Chicago.]
  • Investigate the possibility of establishing Christian Brother communities near college campuses for young men and women seeking an alternative to dormitory living. Such communities could assist young people in exploring their spirituality in a community setting.
  • Seek assistance from associates and Edmundians (former brothers) in promoting vocations.
  • Develop a “young associates” program in North America.

Marketing, ads, communications

  • Revise our present marketing strategy to make better use of the Internet in our advertising.
  • Investigate ways of driving young people to our Web site.
  • Insure that all schools and ministry sites are linked to our vocation Web site
  • Insure that our vocation materials are prominently displayed in schools, ministry sites, Newman Centers, college campuses, etc.
  • Work with Christian Brothers advancement, development, and communications personnel to insure that the good works of the brothers are proclaimed in the media.
  • Seek exposure for the vocation symposium in the NRVC newsletter and HORIZON.


Kevin Griffith, CFC has been involved in formation ministry for the past 12 years and currently serves on the province leadership team for the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers North America.

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