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The Parish: Seedbed and Fertile Ground for Religious Vocation

by Sr. Kathleen Bryant, RSC


Over the years in vocation ministry, I have been mesmerized by observing which parishes seem to have more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than others. I have also observed how certain personalities in leadership affect the emergence of young leadership and a rise in Church vocations. Thirdly, I have seen how some parish programs to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life have a short lived vitality of their own but these programs can take root with key parish leadership.

In this article, I would like to examine five aspects of parish life which provide fertile ground for vocations to religious life and priesthood. These are the liturgical life of a parish, the faith formation, ministries, leadership and stewardship. Parish life does encompass more but these aspects will be the focus of this article. When the parishioners are most involved in their parish in a variety of ministries, and own the parish then “there is a strong sense of the baptismal call and a deep and growing awareness that all in the parish are responsible – to varying degrees and in different ways – for being and for building the Body of Christ in their own time and place.”

Every baptized Catholic has a vocation. From the start I would like to acknowledge that some are called to the married vocation, others to the single vocation, and some to the priestly or religious vocation. In January we have Vocation Awareness Week throughout the United States in which we honor our Baptismal call and all of the vocations. In February we celebrate World Marriage Day. On the 4th Sunday of Easter the Universal Church focuses specifically on the vocations to priesthood and religious life and so this article focuses on those vocations. This article does not intend to diminish the vocations of married or single people, or reduce the calling or “vocation” to mean only those in priesthood or religious life. This issue is dedicated to World Day of Prayer for vocations to priesthood and religious life.

Praying as a Parish Community
The Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” It is the apex of parish life when all are assembled together. Formed by word and sacrament the people of God gather together as a community of faith. If one is trying to till the soil, plant the seed, and nurture the young in terms of their own vocational calling, Sunday Eucharist is the primary place to start.

Which Sunday liturgies support church vocations to priesthood and religious life? In our own archdiocese Cardinal Roger Mahony has asked that a prayer for vocations be said at every liturgy during this year of prayer for priestly vocations. The need for vocations should be reflected in the prayers during Eucharist. Some have effectively done that through the General Intercessions. The National Church Coalition for Vocations provides a brochure for each of the cycles with an intercession for each Sunday. What is heard regularly, often takes root in the imagination.

The homily time of the Mass is a key moment for conversion and imagination. A priest’s appeal has a particular influence on the person listening. I have often asked young adults, “When is the last time you heard a homily on vocations?” I am often disappointed with the answer. I interviewed a young man who entered the seminary, who was moved at a Sunday liturgy by the priest’s homily in which he made clear the great need for priests and made an appeal to the assembly. This man was ordained two years ago.

The Sunday readings lend lots of opportunities to incorporate a vocation appeal and an invitation. When the priest incorporates some of his own ministry experiences into the homily, when appropriate, he is educating those present about his life. A story always goes a long way. A personal story goes further. It gives us a glimpse into a person’s life. When a personal story of ministry is meaningful, touching and relates to the Gospel it has a power of its own to engage the listeners. Perhaps what we need is not only intercessions for each Sunday but hints for homilies for each cycle of readings that relate to vocations, suggestions for incorporating some priestly experiences and segments of one’s own vocation journey.

The most vibrant Sunday liturgies are ones in which the faithful actively participate. Some parishes invite their youth and young adults to be ushers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, music ministers, catechists for the Liturgy of the Word for Children, and altar servers. These liturgical ministries are fertile ground for vocations. Many studies have shown that altar servers are led to think about becoming priests. Now we see active liturgical ministers that consider pursuing degrees in theology, liturgy, and some entering religious life and seminaries.

When families attend Sunday Eucharist together, they are providing fertile ground for vocations. When I interview the women and men coming to the vocation office, I am struck by those whose families not only worshipped together but more and more by those whose parents are involved in liturgical ministries. One young man had parents who were extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. Sometimes he would serve. It was familiar and natural for him to be involved in the Eucharist and he grew up watching his parents model that for him. After communion on World Day of Prayer, priests can invite the assembly to remember in silence a priest or religious who influenced them and give thanks to God. This only takes a minute but families can followup on the way home by sharing who these people were in their lives.

When youth are invited to be part of the Liturgical Planning for the youth liturgy, they learn more about the Mass itself. When they are invited to share their ideas and feel heard as a vital part of the parish community, we are encouraging them in their own vocation. Giving them the opportunity to pray with the Sunday readings and come up with a theme, music, or an opportunity to be creative with the environment and worship space nurtures their vocations and helps form future leaders.

The prayer life of the parish waters the seedbed of vocations. How does the parish pray outside of the Eucharist? Parishes that provide retreats, especially those which offer a weekend away, give youth an opportunity to have a significant experience of God that can be life changing. Some parishes offer Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament monthly for vocations. Retreats that dedicate a Saturday to all night adoration give the youth the space and silence they do not have in their lives to listen to God’s voice and to be touched by God in a special way. Vocation directors will tell you how these powerful experiences of Eucharist are often the beginning of someone’s sense of call. Many parishes have rosary  groups, faith sharing, bible studies, Divine Mercy novenas, social justice education and prayer, and other devotions that help support the faith life of the parish. Some parishioners pray the Liturgy of the Hours, Morning and Evening Prayer, in their parish churches.

An often overlooked parish tool for surfacing vocations is the bulletin. Even in this high tech age, the bulletin continues to be read. Including vocation invitations, suggestions for discernment, or short vocation stories in the weekly bulletin can also be very effective. Since most Church bulletins have an ongoing template on the front cover listing the sacraments, and preparation for sacraments along with phone numbers, I recommend that we include Holy Orders. It would be so easy to change this so that the template on the front cover includes something like: For information on Holy Orders and Religious Life please call the Vocation Director with the phone number. Believe it or not, some candidates say that once they felt called, they weren’t sure where to go!

Formed in the Faith
A second aspect of parish life is Faith Formation. This includes not only the Catholic school and religious education program but the ongoing faith formation of the whole community. I have observed over the years, that the parishes who provide solid Faith Formation programs and ongoing education also provide us more vocations. The more a parishioner learns about God, faith, morality, the sacraments, justice and peace, and our responsibility for the others, the more mature s/he becomes in the faith. Candidates for the seminary or novitiate who have been part of parish programs are often better read, more conversant with key Catholic issues and know their faith. One parish has an annual education day with many workshops entitled, “Get a Faith Lift!” A wide array of topics and speakers is available as well as Eucharist. On the archdiocesan level, we have an annual Religious Education Congress in which more than 40,000 Catholics come to learn more about their faith, get tools for their ministries and ideas about how to be more effective catechists and ministers. Many of our applicants have been fed and educated by these congresses which also happen annually on a regional level.

Parishes often provide a book store set up o n tables outside the Church after every Mass. When a priest or parish minister recommends a specific book, this is made available for parishioners. Some parish communities read a book during the Advent or Lenten Seasons and discuss it in groups. Many parishes invite in speakers for Faith Formation Days, Seminars, and Parish Missions. Usually the Advent and Lenten seasons are key times for a series of speakers on a designated theme. All of these efforts engage parishioners in their ongoing faith formation and in doing so indirectly nurture vocations to service. There’s always the possibility of slipping in a few good discernment books and vocation stories!

Hopefully, there is a place in the curriculum for vocations to priesthood and religious life that is integrated into the catechesis from early childhood through adulthood. Often the RCIA curriculum includes something on discernment and vocation. When the vocations to priesthood and religious life are woven throughout the faith formation programs of a parish, it is far more effective than one vocation talk from an outsider once a year.

Some parishes have offered a discernment support group for women and men considering a vocation. One of our seminary interns who is spending this year in a parish started a group and has thirteen young people, over the age of 18, attending. They meet within the parish, with other parishioners (in community) and with those who work in the parish. Having the presence of a “home” discernment group also makes this discernment “visible” and accessible to others who may share the same desire or curiosity about priesthood or religious life. In our archdiocese, we have 18 discernment groups facilitated mostly by sisters. These groups give young adults a safe and supportive place to learn discernment and journey together. Some of them wish to be anonymous and would not be comfortable meeting in their parish. Their vocation discernment needs time and they fear either the over enthusiasm of their fellow parishioners or that they would be “put in a box” and never treated the same again. Some fear that if they discern they are not called to priesthood that they may let down the parish. However, I have met others who feel supported by their parish, and find meeting at their home parish more conducive to their discernment.

Called to Ministry
Thirdly, I have seen a direct correlation between parishes which have many vibrant ministries and the number of young adults who are attracted to religious life and priesthood. I look at the parish bulletin and am amazed at the list of ministry involvements offered to the people which may include an outreach to the poor, evangelization, taking Eucharist to the sick, catechesis, outreach to inactive Catholics, prison ministry, and many more. One parish listed 80 ministries. Over and over again when I interview women and men, the best candidates are always involved in parish ministry. Once they taste the delight of serving others, whether in a liturgical ministry, social outreach, or youth retreat, they are further drawn into responding to God’s call to priesthood and religious life. One of the most fertile fields for church vocations are the Confirmation teams who teach and prepare the teenagers for the sacrament. A growing practice now is to invite the teens back to be part of next year’s Confirmation team. This is a special invitation and empowers them to use the gifts of the sacrament of Confirmation in a concrete way. I sometimes wish I could extract from a database all those single Catholic teens and young adults on Confirmation teams, since so many of them end up in our office!

At the Continental Congress for vocations in Montreal, I heard Fr. Routhier speak about ministry and young adults. Fr. Routhier’s observation was that it is the Mission that most powerfully engages new vocations. He suggested that we invite young adults into a mission enterprise from the planning stages onwards so that they are truly are part of the ministry and not just “volunteers”. How can our parishes engage more youth and young adults in ministry? This would be a good reflection for a parish council. There are endless needs within our parishes and lots of opportunities to get youth involved. Some of our priests take teenagers down to Mexico to help build houses for the poor. One of our own sisters. Sr. Margaret Farrell RSC involves her youth in raising money several times a year through car washes so that they, too, can go build houses for the poor in Mexico. This engagement frees the teens from boredom or feeling that they don’t have anything to offer.

Leadership for the Community
Fourthly, the Leadership of a parish that calls forth gifts from others in the community and empowers parishioners, will nurture the seedlings of vocations. In the establishment of parish councils over the last 30 years or so, we have seen the emergence of lay leadership in our church, also including those who head up each area of ministry. This opportunity to create leaders and form them is all the more feasible when there are rotating leaders on the Church council providing opportunities for many to serve. In the last ten years, I have met young adults who have been on parish councils and even teenagers who were the youth representative on the council. This call to leadership empowers them and encourages them to see their role in the parish community as integral to the direction of the parish. They share their ideas and are listened to. In one particular parish in Los Angles, three young adults were each put in charge of very important areas. One young man, who became a seminarian, was entrusted with Evangelization for the entire parish. His creative ideas and influence among his peers enabled him to create evangelization teams that visited homes and went door to door. They sought out Catholics who were disconnected from the community and not practicing their faith. They reached out with zeal and joy to parishioners and would be parishioners and went to meet them on their own turf. Imagine how enlivened our parishes would be following this model. Giving our young adults the opportunity to lead means also that they learn how to work on teams, take risks, and be flexible with the give and take of parish life.

Pope John Paul II wrote about youth’s involvement in leadership and its relevance to vocation, “As has happened in their involvement in the sphere of voluntary social service, young people are becoming more actively involved as leaders in the ecclesial community, above all through their membership in various groups — whether traditional but renewed ones or of more recent origin. Their experience of a Church challenged to undertake a "new evangelization" by virtue of her faithfulness to the Spirit who animates her and in response to the demands of a world far from Christ but in need of him, as well as their experience of a Church ever more united with individuals and peoples in the defense and promotion of the dignity of the person and of the human rights of each and every one — these experiences open the hearts and lives of the young to the exciting and demanding ideals which can find their concrete fulfillment in following Christ and in embracing the priesthood” .

A key part of leadership in the parish is the Pastor’s role. Once I was visiting a friend who was a vocation director in Kentucky. He did not need to run any vocation programs in his diocese. However, he had many seminarians. Since this is usually not the case in the U.S., I asked him what made the difference. He told me that their pastors tended to stay in the parish for years and years. They got to know the families very well. The pastor had baptized, married, and buried many family members. This familial spirit in a parish, where most people know each other, as well as the Pastor’s knowledge of his community, nurtures vocations. The parishioners then know who to invite to consider priesthood and religious life. The pastor knows them all really well and has this opportunity to invite and encourage. Since the term a pastor has in a parish can impact vocations, it seems there is wisdom in having him continue with a community when he is effective.

There are Pastors who make vocations to the priesthood and religious life a high priority and others who become so overwhelmed by the demands made on them that this issue falls off the radar. Including vocations in a homily, the prayer of the faithful or even encouraging youth to attend a vocation discernment event at the announcement time of Mass are easily done yet very effective. When priests hear confessions in the parish that is also an effective time to be listening for a possible Church vocation and to encourage the penitent to consider a calling. Outside the Church before and after Mass, in the greeting that goes on between the priest, deacons, ministers and people are also key opportunities to invite and encourage.

 In parishes now that have Parish Life Directors or Pastoral Associates and perhaps have non resident priests who celebrate the Liturgy, the lay leadership are called to assume this ministry of identifying and inviting candidates for all the parish ministries, and not to the neglect of those candidates for priesthood or religious life. Sad to say, sometimes we encourage catechists and other lay ministers but too often do not hear the same rousing invitations to priesthood or religious life. The leadership of the parish, whether it is the Priest, Parish Life Director, Pastoral Associate or Parish Council have a grave responsibility to include church vocations in their agenda and to hold each other accountable. It cannot be given a “mention” once a year but needs to be integrated into the life of the parish.

Stewardship — The Investment in our Future
This points to the fifth and final aspect of parish life and that is Stewardship. How does the parish ensure that the time and talents of the parish also include church vocations? How much energy is dedicated to integrating vocations to the priesthood and religious life into the ongoing agenda of parish life? I recently heard that one of our parish fiesta fundraiser profits will go entirely to the youth program. We are very good at raising funds for a new building. We also need to raise funds, give time and our best talent to encouraging youth and young adults to grow in their faith, give them opportunities for leadership and service in the parish, and encourage them in their vocational discernment. One of the practical ways we have endeavored to keep the vocation promotion alive and visible is to have a Parish Vocation Coordinator. This is one lay person who is willing to be a liaison between our vocation office and the parish. Whenever we have a Ministry Day, Retreat or discernment event, these Parish vocation Coordinators are the ones who advertise it, announce it and disperse it among key parish ministers. They keep vocations on the agenda of the parish.

Other practical parish ways to promote vocations are to have a Service Fair, with tables or booths set up highlighting ministries of the parish, and including a table on Priesthood, the seminary and religious life. We invite different religious orders to come and be present after every Mass and in the hall for refreshments. The seminarians and a sister will speak at every Mass. Some exhibits highlight photos, videos, brochures and young novices and seminarians to answer questions.

For several years we took Religious to the parishes for a creative outreach to each Mass on the weekend called “Sisters Bake Breads”. Each community had bread baked from the country where their community began. The bread was eagerly eaten and shared by parishioners after Masses and the religious had a chance to talk about their communities. It also gave a chance to families to introduce their children to religious life. Since we are such a diverse diocese, we had quite a variety of breads to sample.

The Serra Club created a program that we used for many years, Called By Name, in which parishioners fill out cards suggesting a parishioner as possible priest, brother or sister. For three Sundays, the homily is focused on vocations. Then there is a follow up session for those who were “nominated.” It only works well when the parish community follows up regularly with those who were named. It works best with the parish leaders are always on the lookout to identify and invite future lay leaders, priests or religious. The names are then referred to the diocesan vocation directors.

When we have our annual marathon for vocations, the parishioners are invited to be prayer sponsors. Some of the marathon participants, sisters and seminarians, have gone to talk to the children and youth about why they are running this pilgrimage for vocations. It is our largest annual prayer drive for vocations and raises the consciousness again. It helps to create a culture of vocations in awareness, prayer and promotion.

The Serra Club also has a 31 Club. An individual signs up to pray the same day every month for vocations. A parish could easily ask parishioners to dedicate one day a month to prayer. Some parishes offer a weekly Mass for vocations. Others have Perpetual Adoration.

Some parishes adopt a seminarian or novice and send them cards assuring them of their prayerful support. Other parishes have photos in the vestibule of the Church of the women and men from their parish who have gone on to become priests and religious. One of our local parishes had five women and men in formation and developed a prayer card with their photos and names.

In a parish community, where people truly care about each other, know each other well, and give opportunities to minister and lead also the young adults, we will see stronger vocations. When we are open and welcome new ideas and able to create new ministries, we indirectly support those feeling called to further service and we do not get locked into the way things have always been. Our parish leadership and ministry teams need to include all ages, backgrounds and cultures. We are all the richer for these experiences and the broader Church is richer for the vocations that emerge from these parishes.

In the words of our late Pope John Paul II, ”there are positive situations and tendencies which bring about and nurture in the heart of adolescents and young men a new readiness, and even a genuine search, for ethical and spiritual values. These naturally offer favorable conditions for embarking on the journey of a vocation which leads toward the total gift of self to Christ and to the Church in the priesthood.

These reflections on a vital parish life are suggestions for creating a culture of vocations within the parish. It is each Catholic’s responsibility, exercising his or her Baptismal call to invite others to leadership and to use their gifts for the community. We cannot stand back and leave this inviting to the priests and vocation directors. So ask yourself this question, “Who have you invited over the last year?” And if you can’t think of anyone, then there’s always next Sunday’s opportunity for you to use your two eyes to Identify and Invite!


 This article was published in “Vocation and Prayer — The Catholic Magazine on Vocation Ministry” April-June 2006 Issue #64 Volume XV No. 2., Used with permission.



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