57th Day of Prayer for Vocations to the Priesthood and Vowed Religious Life
(4th Sunday of Easter)
Pope Paul VI designated the Fourth Sunday of Easter as the World Day of Prayer for Vocation in 1963. Much in the Church and religious life has changed since then. One thing that hasn't changed, nor will it ever change, is the uniqueness of the vocation stories of men and women who choose to enter religious life or the diocesan priesthood.
I am writing this homily with two underlying presuppositions: first, discerning a religious vocation takes time, prayer, conversation, and a willingness to risk it all for God; heavy emphasis on all. Second, as is true of the vocation to marriage or any of the professions considered vocations, living one's vocation is not always smooth. Persevering in a religious vocation also requires prayer, open conversation with others, and, in a variation on risking it all, not looking back with a sense of longing for what one left behind; rather, looking back with gratitude that the sum total of one's unique life experiences, some of which may have seemed absolutely insignificant at the time, led to this particular order, congregation, monastery, or diocese; to this particular vocation.
Vocation stories are not new. Abram's vocation gave him a new name--Abraham--as he became the father of many nations. One of the most beloved vocation stories from the Old Testament is from 1 Samuel 3:3-10. The narrative is frequently chosen as a reading at vow Masses, as it was at ours on 14 August 1999. Many will recognize the roots of the popular hymn "Here I Am Lord" within the story.
The most important vocation story in the New Testament and, indeed, in all of recorded history, is that of Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Theotokos. Upon hearing the angel's message she responded:
"Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum."
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done unto me
according to your word.”
Vocation derives from the Latin root: Voco, vocare, vocatus.
To call. To name. To summon. To invite. To challenge. There is obvious overlap in the meaning of each of these words but each also has unique resonances that help us understand the nature of a particular vocation. What one man or woman sees as a call another may interpret as a challenge. An invitation and a summons do not call forth the same feelings from an individual. Each of us had to figure out the subtle shadings on our own.
Some Vocation Stories.
Over the past seven years I've come to know Mother Dolores Hart, and the community of Benedictine nuns at Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT. (Except for a virus the-name-of-which-is-not-to-be-mentioned, I would have spent Holy Week there as main celebrant for the liturgies). Mother's name will ring a bell with those of a certain age as the actress who gave Elvis his first screen kiss and one of the stars of the movie "Where the Boys Are," a movie that played a role in popularizing the idea of spring break in Florida. Much to the chagrin of Hollywood, she entered the Abbey in 1963. She celebrated the 50th anniversary of her profession in 2016.
Mother's definition of a vocation is spot on: “Many people don't understand the difference between a vocation and your own idea about something. A vocation is a call – one you don't necessarily want. The only thing I ever wanted to be was an actress.
But I was called by God.”
"One you don't necessarily want . . . . " That resonates with many of us. Indeed, many of us strenuously fought the sense of being called by God, until we could no longer find reasons to fight.
The transition from Hollywood and Broadway star to Benedictine nun was not easy. As Mother wrote about her first night at the Abbey, “I lay awake on the cot for a long time. I reached out my arm . . . I could touch the opposite wall . . . I lay there, terrified by the enormity of the step I had taken. I began praying as hard as I could that, in spite of the isolation engulfing me, the love in my heart was God Himself trying to strike, if not lightning, at least a match. I cried myself to sleep that night. I would cry myself to sleep every night for the next three years.” If nothing else, novitiate ain't easy.
For fans of women's basketball in general and Villanova sports in particular, the vocation story of Michelle (Shelly) Pennefather is worth knowing. Still the holder of the basketball scoring record for both men and women at 'Nova she entered the Poor Clare Colletines in Alexandria, VA in 1991. The PCC is an austere order in which the nuns pronounce the vow of enclosure. They do not leave the monastery for any reason except medical emergencies. In explaining her intention to a Villanova teammate she said. " . . . I would never choose this for myself," . . . . I would never leave my family and my friends. But this is what I'm called to do. I know it. God is calling me. And I'm going to do it." The echoes of Mother Dolores' 'one you don't necessarily want' are loud and clear.
The sense of being called, summoned, or invited is the mystery behind every religious vocation. Chase Hilgenbrink, now a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, played professional soccer in both Chile and Boston before entering Mt. St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD (just across the border with PA on Rt 15). to become a priest. An ESPN article from 2008 when he was a beginning seminarian included the following: "Chase realized that while he was fulfilling his dream of being a professional soccer player, he didn't actually feel fulfilled. He wondered if he was meant to do something else . . . . Eventually, (he) came to a startling conclusion, . . .: I felt that [God] was calling me to the priesthood." This feeling didn't emerge overnight -- "Chase says he contemplated the possibility of becoming a priest for about 2½ years." It does take time, if for no other reason than to get used to the idea oneself before sharing it with family and friends.
My own vocation story began not with a bang, a blinding light, or anything else I can pinpoint. Rather, despite a successful and thriving medical practice, nice house, adequate money and regular trips to Europe--though not Slovenia, that was a gift of being a Jesuit--there was a growing sense of emptiness, a yearning that had to be fulfilled. I did not have the vocabulary at the time but several years ago realized that I was seeking what Jesuits call the Magis. The more. The greater. However, I was unable to define what the more or greater was. That took time. It took about fifteen years from that realization until I entered the Society (It is important to note that at no time did I feel the call to diocesan or parish priesthood. Diocesan priesthood is a different life, a different vocation, and one to which I am neither called nor suited).
The moment when everything fell into place is a very clear memory: The Friday morning before Thanksgiving 1992. George Murray, SJ, MD, and I were having coffee at Mass General Hospital after rounds. Nothing unusual about that. But then . . . at some point he cleared his throat and stammered: "There is something I have to ask. You don't have to answer but I have to ask. Have you ever considered becoming a priest? Have you thought about the Jesuits? Have you given up on the idea?"
George picked me up at Logan and drove me to the novitiate in Jamaica Plain on entry day in August 1997. He vested me at ordination ten years later. I celebrated and preached his funeral Mass in November 2013, six weeks after he witnessed my final vows.
Not everyone understands a religious vocation. I told my Department Chief at the hospital a few hours before our monthly all-staff meeting two weeks after I was accepted to the Society.
At the end of the meeting he said, "Jack has something to tell you." Big gulp on my part and a stammer. The silence was absolute until someone, non-Catholic I might add said, "Congratulations . . . I think." They did in fact get used to the idea in the six months before I left the department. My chief came to the vow Mass two years later and to our ordination eight years after that. But, it is not always that easy.
There are stories of ruptured friendships and broken family ties
because a parent, sibling, friend or colleague did not accept the decision to enter. Some friends and family have refused to attend vow or ordination Masses or, as I encountered with a man from another order in another country, ever visit the community.
Many of us have been hit with arguments about throwing lives away, wasting educations, or the ever-popular whine, “But you would be an awesome parent."
The arguments, the cajoling, and the whining don't dissuade or convince. They disappoint. They hurt. They hurt a lot.
What should one do if or when a child, sibling, relative, or friend
reveals that he or she is exploring a vocation to religious life or the priesthood? How does one respond to learning that his best friend or her brother is going to enter a community?
First: Don't argue, whine, or try to convince him or her that parenthood would be awesome. Don't ask WHY? with "that" tone of voice. Second: Ask questions such as "what brought you to this decision?" Listen to the answers. Then ask more questions. If you truly don't understand admit it. One friend told me that he didn't understand what I was doing but would try to get used to it. He did, as was apparent by the time I was ordained.
Finally, on this vocation Sunday, pray that young men and women will say, with Mary our Mother,
"Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum."
“May it be done unto me according to your word.”
May it be done unto me according to your summons, your call, your invitation.
And, finally, if you know any young man, or are yourself, wondering about becoming a
Jesuit, call me any time. I'm on Facebook. Send a PM.
I frequently offer prayers of gratitude for my vocation. It took several years to realize that it is even more important to offer prayers of gratitude for the vocations of others who have helped nurture, live, and get over the rough stops in my vocation. George Murray was, of course, very important in all of those dimensions including the rough spots early on. Below are photos of another Jesuit whose vocation helped drive aspects of mine and to whom I am forever grateful.
I met Fr. Ignatius Hung Wan-liu, SJ when we overlapped in theology school. We became friends and remained so. Before going to Georgetown in 2002 I was allowed to spend three months in Taipei, where he had returned a few months earlier. Had my mom not still been living I would have seriously considered asking to return to Taipei to explore the possibility of working there. Several years later he spent part of a sabbatical at Campion Center when I was there.
When I went to Australia for tertianship I was allowed to stop in Taipei on the way down and the way back. The provincial had asked if I wanted to stop in Hawaii on the way home. As I've no desire to ever go there I asked about Vietnam and Taiwan instead. The photos below are from September 2011 during the return leg of the trip.
Benediction at Sacred Heart Chapel in Tien Center, Taipei, Taiwan.
Ignatius is six foot three. I always wanted to be six feet but never quite made it.
Took this from the vestibule to the chapel through the frosted glass doors.
I love visiting Taipei. It is very congested and densely populated. Because of the mountains, over half the land is uninhabitable. With a population of 23 million on an island the size of Maryland, people are squeezed in. The roads are a series of rabbit warrens with avenues branching off into streets, alleys, and lanes. With no sense of direction or Chinese language ability, it was a real challenge not so much going out as getting back.
Just down the street from the community.
Taken at Guting Riverside Park. The lighted bridge is a viaduct rather than a people/traffic bridge. Took this at 11 PM, having walked alone to Guting, a frequent destination as it was nearby, loaded with equipment including a tripod. There are only two cities in the world in which I would wander alone along a riverfront at night: Taipei and Ljubljana. D.C.? Not on your life.
Basketball is perhaps the most international of American-born sports.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD