How we nurture vocations among our volunteer teachers

How we nurture vocations among our volunteer teachers

By Fr. Lou DelFra C.S.C.

The lifestyle of teachers with Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) closely resembles religious life. They live together, pray together, and minister in a common mission. Pictured here are ACE teachers in Bellflower, California.

The ALLIANCE FOR CATHOLIC EDUCATION (ACE) Teaching Fellows Program at the University of Notre Dame has a mission to uplift Catholic schools by training and placing volunteer teachers in under-resourced schools. Along the way during our 22-year history, we’ve discovered ACE has also encouraged vocations to religious life and the priesthood. Vocation cultivation eventually became a conscious goal of our program. We hope to share here some of what we’ve learned about helping our volunteer teachers understand and embrace a sense of vocation and a habit of discernment.

First a few details about the ACE Teaching Fellows Program are in order. Our participants are recent college graduates who live in intentional Christian community while taking master’s classes in education during the summer and serving as full-time teachers in under-resourced K-12 Catholic schools during the academic year. We select ACE teachers primarily on their potential to be effective in the classroom. But we also select them on their potential to nurture the spiritual and moral growth of their students and peer community members. We want them to be able to contribute to the Catholic character of their schools. To this end, ACE is structured around the “three pillars” of teaching, community, and spirituality, with an emphasis on the Eucharist as both our central prayer and a way of life.

ACE’s efforts have had an intriguing side benefit: over the 22-year history of ACE Teaching Fellows, vocations to the priesthood and both men’s and women’s religious life have been numerous, and increasingly so. With an annual graduating class of 90-95 young adults (50 percent male and 50 percent female), 35 ACE graduates have now entered religious formation. That means 1.7 percent have chosen clerical or consecrated life, which is a much higher percentage than for the overall Catholic population. Many of these vocations have been to the priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the founding congregation of ACE, with other ACE graduates becoming diocesan priests or joining other religious congregations, especially those with educational apostolates, including Jesuits and Dominicans. Especially over the past five years interest in religious life among ACE’s female graduates has been on the rise. Fully one third of the current female participants this past year attended an optional day-long retreat exploring women’s religious life. Over the past two years, two women have formally entered religious communities—one joining the Salesians and the other the Carmelites.

Given the amount of start-up costs to forge the ACE Teaching Fellows Program, the cultivation of religious vocations was neither an explicit nor a deliberate goal of the early years—though, of course, as a program founded by a religious order, our eyes were always on the lookout! However, perhaps more important than alertness to already-apparent vocations in each entering ACE class, the number of ordained and vowed vocations emanating from ACE has been due to the founding Holy Cross priests’ willingness to frame an unapologetically lay formation program with religious language and ritual. We use an explicit language of vocation—broadly understood—from the beginning to the end of the ACE formation program. We invite program participants to assume an explicit, publicly and ecclesially recognized identity as evangelizing members of the church by being Catholic school teachers. Through this matrix of invitation and identity, ACE has attempted to create a culture of vocation in which our young adult participants understand their experience in ACE not merely as two years of Christian service but as a revelation of God’s plan for their lives. By augmenting this daily culture with explicit invitations and opportunities to explore a religious vocation, many ACE teachers over the years have explored religious life and priesthood.

Building a culture of invitation

An ACE teacher’s experience begins at an opening retreat each April, while many of them are still college seniors and none has yet begun life in ACE as a full-time teacher. The theme of this opening retreat is “Come and See,” and accordingly the opening Gospel that begins their ACE journey is Jesus’ call of the first disciples in the Gospel of John, from which this well-known invitation is taken. The soon-to-be teachers are invited to stand with the crowd in the desert by the Jordan River, driven there by all kinds of motives, but one common characteristic—restlessness. With that crowd in the desert, something in each person’s life is missing—or else, why go to the stark unpleasantness of the desert, and moreover, listen to the challenging spewings of the wild John the Baptist?

While listening to John, and allowing our hearts consciously to assent to the fundamental incompleteness of our lives and brokenness of our world, we find ourselves gradually opened to the unexpected event that next unfolds. A mysterious figure appears on the scene. John the Baptist suddenly interrupts his preaching. He directs the crowd’s attention to the figure and exclaims: “There is the one I have been speaking about. Follow him.” Two adventurous listeners take up the challenge. They begin to follow. Jesus, sensing their curiosity, turns and speaks his first words in John’s Gospel, a question: “What are you looking for?” Of course, they don’t have much of an idea yet, and so counter with a question of their own: “Teacher, where do you live?” Jesus responds with the three words that are the threshold for the rest of John’s Gospel and utterly change these followers’ lives forever: “Come and see” (John 1: 35-39).

Accordingly at the opening ACE retreat, our new candidates spend time in individual reflection and small faith-sharing groups, wrestling with questions evoked by this foundational passage, questions like: “What restlessness invited you to apply to ACE?” “What are you looking for? What are your hopes as you begin this service?” “As Christ invites you to ‘come and see,’ what excites you? What are you fearful of?” Responses range from personal spiritual quests to social justice aspirations, from the desire for a professional initiation into life as a teacher to an attempt to close the achievement gap for disadvantaged students. Others speak of a desire for an intense experience of Christian community.

During this conversation, the new ACE participants begin to understand what they are doing as discipleship, an intentional response to a call from Jesus Christ to enter into these two years of service as teachers. They begin a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit understanding that their presence in ACE is not merely the result of their own decision nor “two years off while they figure out what they want to do with their lives,” but rather it has grown out of the Spirit’s leading and inviting them into a deeper relationship with Christ, just as happened with John’s disciples by the Jordan. In other words, the new ACE teachers come to discover the language of vocation.

An ACE retreat provides time and space for reflection.

Brendan Ryan, a graduate of ACE’s 15th class and current Holy Cross seminarian, experienced this culture of invitation from his first days in the program: “The language of vocation was always present, always lingering, and if it wasn’t stated, it was always in the background. One of the first talks was ‘Teaching as a Vocation.’ Because of this, people were comfortable discussing what they were presently doing and who they hoped to become as ‘vocation.’ ”

Throughout the ACE participants’ two years of service, study, and community life, a series of mostly-required spiritual formation retreats probe, deepen, and make more overt within the participants this sense of Christian vocation. As they begin their first summer of studies and preparation for their teaching and community life, they again attend a retreat, framed by the Gospel passage of Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). They take a morning to reflect on and articulate the different ways they have answered this question throughout their lives, culminating in how they are trying to answer this question now as they begin public ministry as Catholic school teachers.

At mid-summer, as the grind and stress of studies and student-teaching begin to wear on them, we retreat again, and engage Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mk. 10:51). Responses to these questions are always first processed individually and then shared with peers in small groups. This continued interweaving of the Gospels’ calls to discipleship with the ACE participants’ daily experiences creates a space within the participants, as well as within the community as a whole, of growing comprehension and comfort with the spiritual reality that Christ is inviting each of them into deeper relationship and into the ministry of evangelization.

Year two: theme of discernment

With the beginning of the ACE teachers’ second year, the primary spiritual theme of discernment is now explicitly introduced. Using passages such as Jesus’ parable of the treasure uncovered in the field and his exhortation “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt. 6:21), the ACE teachers reflect on questions like: “Through your experience as a teacher and in community, what have you discovered you treasure? Where is that treasure calling you? What sacrifices might this entail?”

As November approaches, accompanied by the increasingly felt pressure of the question, “What will I do next year after ACE?” we electronically send to each second-year teacher a weekly series of discernment aids, such as Father Michael Himes’ three vocation questions:

“What brings you joy? What are you good at? What do others need you to do?”

ACE teacher Ryan Gallagher reads with a fourth grade student at St. Ann’s School in Chicago. During the two-year ACE experience, participants prepare not only to be teachers but to be committed disciples of Christ, disciples with a distinct vocational calling.

This leads to the first weekend of Advent, when we gather all 190 of the ACE teachers from around the country in Austin, Texas for a much-needed Advent retreat. Our theme for these second-year teachers is explicitly one of discernment. While listening to spiritual reflections on Gospel invitations to deepen one’s discipleship, the second-year teachers can also choose from a number of practical workshops on continuing their discipleship: from “Continued Service in the Classroom” to “Becoming a School Leader” to “Graduate or Professional Studies” to “Lay Ministry, Religious Life, and Priesthood.” While acknowledging the reality that many, perhaps most, will not have discovered their permanent Christian vocation during their two years in ACE, it is nonetheless apparent that most of the second-year ACE teachers will engage the question “What’s next?” not randomly or without reflection, but to some significant degree out of a framework of: “What has God revealed in my life in these two years? And, so, what might God be inviting me to consider next?”

Brogan Ryan, a member of ACE’s 15th class and current Holy Cross seminarian, describes the impact of these retreats on the discernment that eventually led him to seminary:

ACE creates places for prayer and serious conversation about discernment and vocation. Even non-explicitly vocational retreats and conversations were huge for me in developing and growing in my spiritual life. Honestly, one of these retreats was the first time I publicly acknowledged that I had considered a vocation to Holy Cross.

Consolidating identity

While ACE encourages intense reflection on the themes of vocation and discernment, at the same time the program also addresses the question of identity.  After their first summer of M.Ed. classes, each ACE participant abruptly assumes a professional and ministerial identity that is publicly and ecclesially recognized: “I am a Catholic school teacher.” As this identity is daily affirmed by their principal, students, and their students’ parents, it becomes steadily magnified and internalized. Important questions inevitably arise: “What authority, and what responsibility, comes with this identity? How does this identity affect my daily choices, both in and out of school? What sacrifices does this identity entail?”

Increasingly, as this ministry relentlessly demands late-night lesson planning and grading, Saturday nights chaperoning school dances or leading student retreats, summers spent in education classes honing their craft, an important vocational lesson is gradually learned: my vocation will not just be what I do, my vocation will be who I am. My vocation, whatever it is, will require my whole life. The demands on the near-totality of one’s life that full-time teaching requires is a powerful source of vocational calling.

Ian Corbett, who served in Sacramento, California, captures the internal shift that many make from “this is what I do” to “this is who I am,”—from job to vocation:

Whether your role within the ACE community is rushing home in order to give a fellow teacher a lift, or raising the spirits of a third grader who had a difficult morning, or offering advice to a staff member at school, you become more than simply a member of the community. You are a counsellor, a role model, a guide, an inspiration.... It’s your job to love; to love as Christ the teacher did—to love selflessly.

Moreover, and crucially, ACE teachers are often experiencing this enhanced sense of ministerial identity while working closely alongside religious. Emily Lazor, a graduate of ACE’s 18th class and leader of ACE’s Women’s Vocations Retreat Day, discusses the important role in discernment provided by the witness of religious:

In their first days of formation as teachers, ACErs are taught that they stand in a place of great privilege, having inherited their new ministry as Catholic educators from some of the church’s most remarkable saints. The Elizabeth Ann Setons and Frances Cabrinis of the church’s history are greatly admired within the culture of our community, as we aim to serve students with the same boldness and mission as these religious who were central in imagining and building the largest private school system in the world. This narrative continues to extend into their ACE experience, as the ACErs witness how Salesians, Daughters of Charity, and a number of other religious orders provide the lifeblood for their schools to offer faith-filled education to the children entrusted to their care. We have seen over time that our teachers find a great sense of purpose in the giving of themselves that is modeled for them by these religious.

The combination of experiencing a daily ministry that resembles the total calling of a religious, with a home life lived in intentional Christian community, is rich with calling power to religious life. Brogan Ryan reflects, “I think ACE is effective in promoting vocations to religious life, especially because the life of an ACE teacher is similar to that of a religious. We live in community, pray together, work together. Our community supports our mission and ministry.”

This discovery of a professional, ministerial, and vocational identity has borne lasting fruit in the “stick-rate” of ACE graduates in the field of education. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of ACE participants were not undergraduate education majors, to date, 76 percent of our graduates remain in the field of education, whether as teachers, principals, administrators, superintendents, graduate students in education or a related field. The ACE participants’ two years of service—filled with invitations to deepen their identity as teachers of God’s children—opens a path, and often a way of life, that extends well beyond the two years. The vocation to marriage has also certainly been discovered within these two years, as to date 13 percent of ACE teachers have married other ACE teachers! And for a steady group of graduates, the ACE experience has led to exploration of religious life and priesthood, a reality that called us to provide more explicit opportunities for discernment.

Opportunities to explore religious life

Ten years ago, as steady interest in religious vocations continued to build in ACE, we began to offer days of religious vocational discernment during the summer M.Ed. classes, as well as a religious vocations pilgrimage over Christmas break. The combination of continuously inviting all ACE participants to experience life as an unfolding vocation, along with targeted invitations to explore a religious vocation, has been helpful to many. Drew Clary, a graduate of ACE’s 18th class and now a Holy Cross seminarian, recalls:

Being in a culture that discusses all paths as vocations and emphasizes the need for each one of us to discern how God is calling you was extremely helpful. But then, for me, what went a long way was being asked explicitly if I would think about a religious vocation. And it’s more than just vocation directors—parents of my students, my students themselves, my ACE community members, and other religious [urged me to consider a religious vocation].

Brogan Ryan certainly felt the power of this dynamic within his classroom:

Even though I dragged my feet for some time on this and played the affirmations down, I was very encouraged and affirmed that what I felt deep on the inside was recognized exteriorly. I will never forget one of my students blurting out in the middle of math class one day: ‘Mr. Ryan, you gonna be a priest, ain’t you?’

In the summer of 2014 we began hosting a day focused on women’s religious communities for our female ACE teachers as well as our graduates. For the past two summers, we have hosted 10 sisters from 10 orders, along with about 35 of our women for a Sunday afternoon of prayer, talks, panels, and mealtime discussions. This has been a helpful way to draw in women with varying degrees of interest in religious life. We have had women who are very interested in entering formation after their time in teaching, as well as women who have never met a Catholic sister. A great fruit of the day has been the ability for our women to see both the diversity and the unity within women’s religious life. This event has increased and normalized the discussion of religious vocations within ACE.

Reflecting on Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias

Each year over the teachers’ Christmas break, a number of religious involved in ACE lead a pilgrimage to various religious destinations for participants who are actively considering a religious vocation. The invitation is broad and welcoming, making sure to emphasize this is not a pre-commitment to a seminary or convent, but for those for whom a religious vocation is a “live possibility.” Interest in the pilgrimage has steadily grown, and we now take around 25 young men and women a year.

As we began the ACE experience with the John 1 invitation to “Come and see,” we turn during the pilgrimage to the end of John’s Gospel, the well-known scene from the Sea of Tiberias in John 21. It is an appropriate scene for ACE teachers. It occurs just after the crucifixion, and the disciples are lost. They have followed Jesus, accepting his invitation to “Come and see” at some personal cost, and now find themselves at a crossroads. He has died and left them. And they don’t know what to do, or how to continue. So this is a story about trying to find direction; in this sense, it is a story about discernment.

As the disciples spend the night fishing, a mysterious figure again, as in John 1, appears on the horizon. The figure, Jesus of course, asks Peter, “Are you catching anything?” The question seems innocent enough, but in fact it is the preparation for Peter’s moment of discernment and eventual total commitment. “Look at your life,” Jesus seems to be saying to Peter. “Is it bearing fruit the way the deepest part of your heart knows it can?” It is a question about finding true joy and meaning and fruitfulness: “Are you catching anything?”

Jesus is simultaneously gentle and challenging here, invitingly asking a hard question about Peter’s life: “Might not God be asking more from your life?” Whether one has a vocation to religious life or not, Jesus gently but constantly challenges here: “Is your heart restless for more?” And if so, “Cast your net where I will show you….” An overwhelming catch of fish is the result. But it is what happens next that is perhaps most instructive in vocational discernment.

When Peter and the disciples realize their life has been made fruitful beyond what their own efforts could have produced, they scream out: “It is the Lord!” And Peter throws his whole self into the sea to be with Jesus. He has experienced the call of the heart of Jesus to his own heart, a call of love. This is the end of every vocation: our ability to say from the depth of our hearts, “It is the Lord!” And to follow in love—to follow for no other reason than that we have come to love the one who calls. It is a movement from what we do—“I caught a lot of fish” or “I teach well”—to the call of who we are at our core, our deepest identity, our vocation: “I have come to believe that it is the Lord who has called me, and now I desire to be wholeheartedly with him.”

These are the themes of the ACE vocation pilgrimage, and it is notable that our teachers express the same ideas themselves. We close this exploration of vocation development among our participants with the words of a recent ACE teacher who surely has a sense of calling:

Perhaps my favorite metaphor for teaching and for ACE is gardening. God has provided me with seeds to plant. The seeds are my students and it’s my duty to make sure that they are provided with rich and fertile soil to grow into exactly who God intends them to be. In giving of myself entirely, in mind, body, and soul, I provide the water that nurtures them. And … I will continue, as any dutiful gardener would, to happily toil in the fields and offer these fruits to God.


Father Lou DelFra, C.S.C. is a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross who serves on the faculty and as director of pastoral life for the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education. He has also served as a middle and high school religion and English teacher, and he lives in residence at a men’s dorm on the Notre Dame campus. 

Emily Lazor, the former associate director of ACE Pastoral Life, also contributed to this article.

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