Presenting the option of religious life: Where should vocation ministers be?

Presenting the option of religious life: Where should vocation ministers be?

By Dianne Perry S.S.N.D.

Reflecting on this title and its reality in the life of a vocation director reminds me of a T-shirt I see around Minnesota during the summer. A shirt covered with golf clubs says, “So many clubs and so little time.” Another with about 25 types of fishing lures on it says, “So many…so little time.” Vocation directors could have a shirt covered with faces and places inscribed, “So many options, so little time.”

Because there are many options and little time, a vocation director can get into the routine of simply taking opportunities as they come along. However, to be effective, we must deal with our options deliberately. We must make choices and be proactive in seeking out which options we will engage in.

Over the past few years certain words repeat themselves over and over in my reading and discussions about this ministry. Target audience, visibility, personal contact, “blue chip” people, and clarity of message are the most prominent. If we use the wisdom marketing experts give us in articles and presentations, we will realize these target words send a clear message. Whatever activities we choose should have these words directing them. In fact, we can set up a checklist to help us make good choices for activities. If at least two of these words are not in a proposed activity, we may need to decide not to participate. I know it’s very hard for us to think of doing this. Yet we need to face the fact that choosing not to operate this way may keep us from the very people who are our future. We know clearly that where young adults and youth are gathered in mission is where the future of the church and the future of religious life lies. If we are not present in the places where young adults are, then the reality of religious sisters, brothers and priests is absent from their consciousness. So too is the option of choosing this life. Barbara Zajac, in the July-August, 1999 issue of Review for Religious, says, “If my analysis is correct, a significant factor explaining today's small number of vocations to religious life is that this life is no longer considered a viable option for many people. The underlying reasons for this would be that religious life is no longer visible and people have little contact with it…. If people cannot see religious life, they are not likely to consider it.”

While her statement may simplify the vocation issue, her point about our presence in certain places rather than others is crucial. We need to ask ourselves over and over, “How much time do I have? How much energy do I have? Where do I find the target audience? How can I be with them?” Asking myself these questions and discussing them with others with whom I work closely, I have come up with a few answers. I would like to share some activities I’ve chosen, based on my own reflections on options and time. I believe these activities make good use of the little time we have. These activities can help us make great inroads in presenting religious life to a future generation.

Catholic high school religion classes

The “good old” vocation day is a new thing in this day and age. Members of one of the Serra clubs in the Archdiocese of St. Paul Minneapolis decided it was time for their alma mater to stir the embers for vocations to priesthood and religious life. They contacted the Archdiocesan vocation office and the staff of a local Catholic high school with their idea. Together we created a vocation day blitz.

For one day in January, the school swarmed with priests, brothers and sisters. At any given time during the day twenty of us were around the halls, cafeteria and classrooms. Two by two we went into religion classes with a message simple and clear: “We have lived this life of priest, brother, sister; it has been a gift to us. We believe God continues to call young people to this life. We would like you to consider that perhaps God is calling you to share this life with us. Do you have any questions?”

A table was set up in a general place and materials on vocations to religious life and priesthood were available. We invited the diocesan newspaper to interview some of the students and staff about the day. Each participating group also did a follow-up evaluation. The assessment was unanimous. The day generated energy, spirit, a renewed appreciation for religious life and priesthood, and a marvelous mutuality in dealing with the issue. We set a date to do it again the next school year. Word got around and now almost every Catholic school in the Archdiocese has a date for such a day during the 1999-2000 school year. This day met the criteria of target audience, visibility, contact, clear message and maximization of time and energy.

Parish confirmation classes

Confirmation classes provide another opportunity to present religious life. The key to becoming part of these programs came to me in the form of a challenge by a parish priest. I was talking with a group and encouraging them to call me and invite me to speak. At that point Father interjected a very concrete and helpful idea. He suggested that rather than waiting for invitations I might be proactive and call directors of programs and get dates for presentations. It is a simple but concrete way to guarantee contact, visibility and the target audience. I have now targeted certain programs and will ask to be on their class program once during the coming school year.

Along with class presentations, vocation ministers can also tap into the service component that most confirmation programs require. Consult your community members to identify any service projects that could use the help of confirmation students. Call the confirmation programs and offer volunteer options within your communities’ ministries. It is my experience that those who teach confirmation classes are looking for service projects for the students. Beside meeting the goals in our checklist (target audience, visibility, personal contact, “blue chip” people, and clarity of message) this also involves our community members in vocation ministry, which we know is crucial.

Campus ministry activities

College campus ministry centers and Newman centers are definitely places we need to be present. The question again is how do we get there and what do we do when we are there? A number of possibilities exist at the college level. Students are clamoring for Catholic identity information. Contact the campus minister and ask about Catholic identity classes. Inquire about the possibility of covering one or two topics. This activity provides us with contact without too much preparation.

Another popular activity on campuses today is Bible study. Again, call the campus minister and ask who directs these study sessions. Contact that person and ask if you can simply attend. Joining in even once a month is a way to be with students of faith without needing to be in charge of entire programs. Some campuses also have individual evenings dedicated to faith topics. These give us another chance to offer to conduct an occasional session. This kind of presence in activities that college students area already involved in is effective. And it is faithful to the request of the young adults at the 1996 convocation of the National Religious Vocation Conference. “Come to where we are. Don’t make us always go to you,” they told vocation ministers.

Service projects are another prominent part of campus ministry programs. One of our sisters is very active with the students who serve at her drop-in center. Jana talks with them about religious life and has directed any number of them to speak with me. In talking with Jana I realized that getting on the service project list of campuses is another proactive approach. This works the same as getting involved with confirmation service projects. Ask members of your congregation where they might be able to use college-student volunteers. Then call the campus ministry director and present these service possibilities. Most directors are grateful for ideas. By making a few phone calls, you can get contact and visibility with “blue chip” people, as well as religious-community involvement in vocation ministry. With this project you never even have to leave your office!

Parish young-adult groups

Many of the same principles I’ve already mentioned work for adult parish groups. Be proactive. Call the directors of young adult groups and ask if there is any way you can fit into an existing program. This may or may not mean giving a vocation presentation. If not, arrange also to give a presentation directly on vocations to religious life.

In my area these focused efforts of contact and visibility, especially at the college level, have led to very direct vocation programs, such as regular monthly discernment groups and periodic question/ answer sessions.

One other possibility is connecting with youth programs and committees at the diocesan level. While it takes time to be on a committee, doing so provides a direct link to the types of programs that young adults are setting up in the diocese. It provides visibility among dedicated and active young adults. It also provides an excellent place to receive advice about where to be and how to be there. Again involvement is not more than a phone call away.

The challenge of involvement with diocesan- level programs and committees takes us back to the second phrase on our Tshirt, “so little time.” This challenge can be met in a few ways. To start with, choose only a few of these options. You may want to choose one, focus on it, get it going and then add another once it is underway. Enlist other vocation directors to work with you on these projects. If you have an active diocesan or regional group of vocation ministers, work at this level. Many of these projects are best accomplished with the collaboration of many vocation directors. We also know involving community members in vocation ministry is crucial. These projects allow our members to participate at various levels without great difficulty on their part.

Perhaps the saying on the vocation director's T-shirt should change from “So many projects. So little time” to “Checklist: Target audience, personal contact, ‘blue chip’ people, visibility, clarity of message! Two out of four, good! Three out of four, don’t pass it up!”

The T-shirt slogan may sound too simple, but, in fact, choosing the projects in which we invest our time and energy may be almost that simple. We need to be where the young adults are, especially “blue chip” people—those who exhibit leadership and love of the gospel. We need to share with them our message about religious life and the gift it has been to us personally. And we need to invite them to consider the possibility that this may be a life God is inviting them to live.

Dianne Perry, SSND has been the Vocation Director for her community— the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Mankato, Minn. Province—for six years. As HORIZON goes to print, she is increasing from part-time to fulltime her vocation ministry work with the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Dianne has been an active member of the National Religious Vocation Conference. She is co-chair of region VIII, serves on the editorial board, and just completed two years on the national board.


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