Vocations Conference promotes positive vision for vocations


COLUMBIA — More than 100 parish and diocesan leaders gathered at a hotel across from the USC Coliseum on May 6 to hear about a hot topic for Catholics in South Carolina: vocations.

They heard Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, N.Y., and chair of the National Council of Catholic Bishops’ Vocations Committee, tell them that priests and religious need to move back to the forefront of vocation recruitment. That will take both the right attitude and improved involvement.

Bishops speak out

“Recent research revealed that only 18 percent of the youth surveyed have been personally encouraged by a priest, sister or brother to consider a Church vocation,” the bishop said. “Surely the joy-filled, positive witness of consecrated persons will be … powerful in inviting those called to hear and to respond ….”

He called for the whole Church of Charleston to “adopt a new attitude,” and he enjoined priests and religious: “Don’t apologize for celibacy.”

Bishop David B. Thompson, who told The Miscellany before the conference that he was 90 percent recovered from his recent hospitalization, followed Bishop Loverde with a rousing speech. The bishop of Charleston quoted a Swahili proverb that says a person not taught by his mother will be taught by the world: “A world which pays little attention to faith, morals, the spiritual life, couldn’t care less about vocations, so it’s not going to help us very much in promoting them. Vocations are a matter for believers.”

Bishop Thompson said that in the immediate aftermath of the Synod of Charleston, as after Vatican II, the Church can expect, historically, periods of “upheaval, change, defection, conversions, adjustment.” The key to succeeding through all this change is to recognize that these movements are works of God. He talked about the changing nature of vocations also, how the average age of seminary candidates has increased while their numbers shrink.

“This has been painful to many, even unacceptable, because they haven’t adjusted to the times…. One thing both the Council and our Synod have emphasized is the importance of the laity in our Church, their vocation to carry out functions that require neither sacred orders nor solemn or simple religious vows. We must recognize this as the will and the work of the Holy Spirit…. We must believe and accept that,” he said.

Vocation directors

Father Henry T. Barron, diocesan Vicar for Vocations, believes. He announced that the Curia is now considering a proposal he made to appoint a lay person to work for his office to actively recruit vocations at youth conferences and on campuses and among young adults. The vicar also said that the Diocese of Charleston may be heading out of lean times — at least for a while.

“This could be a very good year for us,” Father Barron said. “We have accepted two candidates for the seminary and have two more probable. There are 11 in the seminary now, with one to be ordained to the priesthood in 1998 and three next year.”

He said that the Diocesan Vocations Board has been part of the improving picture, citing ideas that have come from board members, such as the new requirement that all seminarians for the diocese study Spanish.

Dorothy Foss, director of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, told the crowd what to look for in potential candidates for the priesthood and religious life and what she thinks those same religious leaders ought to do to increase vocations.

“Remember why your hearts were on fire, and tell that story,” Foss said. “Don’t be afraid to be holy. Let your parishioners know that you are happy; take advantage of your honored position, your high standing in the community. Use your talks and homilies. Vocations come from God, but they are nurtured in the parish.”

Hispanic vocations

One vocation that is being nurtured in a parish is that of Alberto Anaya. The 23-year-old came from Mexico to Florida and then to South Carolina, where he was doing golf course work. Anaya is one of the hundreds of Hispanic males in his age group who make up about three-quarters of the congregation at the weekly Spanish Masses at St. James in Conway and the Church of the Resurrection in Loris. He became a leader among the men and, when three Grand Strand parishes funded a grant to start a Hispanic Ministry Office in Conway, the pastor hired Anaya to fill the position.

“Recruiting vocations among the Hispanics in South Carolina is much more challenging than in New York, say, or Florida, where families are established,” said Father Rick LaBrecque. “Here, most of the men in Alberto’s generation have not been here long and are not with their families.”

Anaya, who said that he is “discerning a vocation,” sees the main problem in finding Church vocations among Hispanic men in Horry County is the language barrier.

“In my work with Hispanic outreach, I see a few men who are interested (in the priesthood), but most don’t speak much English. Part of my job is to let them know the need for more priests within our Hispanic community, let them know we need them,” Anaya said. Father LaBrecque said that the education level among the migrant workers ranges from illiteracy to college graduates. They all find a home in the Church that reminds the priest of days past: “This is like the old immigrant Church in America. The Church is one place where these men can feel at home. They may not have gone to mass so much (back in Latin America).”

Female vocations

Another place that draws people in search of a spiritual home is the mission in Gloverville where Sister Maureen Houlihan ministers to the poor. A member of the Diocesan Vocations Board, Sister Maureen is involved with vocation discernment for her religious community, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. She sees many young people looking for spirituality in both her vocation ministries, but it was at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Center in Gloverville where she experienced the single most encouraging phenomenon.

“(In response to one ad), 187 women called to volunteer to work the summer with the poor,” Sister Maureen said. “They live with the sisters, pray with us and get to see how sisters live. It’s a real opportunity for discernment.”

She said religious orders of women are finding candidates are older now than they used to be; many women are making “second and even third life choices,” she said. Since the consecrated life is easier now, recruiting older women makes sense to her: “Age discrimination is not wise, especially since more older people are discerning vocations. We live longer now.”

Lively discussion

The 1998 diocesan vocations conference ended with a lively discussion among participants that was precipitated when 18-year-old Catie Luksa of St. James in Conway claimed that the major problem among her age group was not so much not being invited to consider a Church vocation: “We’re not being listened to.”

Carson Bush of St. Peter in Columbia, a recent college graduate, countered that he was listened to but his friends weren’t listening.

“The idea of wanting to be a priest among college students is not a popular one,” Bush said.

Ann Shumaker, a teacher at Christ Our King-Stella Maris School, said that she was dismayed by poor parental example. Only half of her first-grade students in the Catholic school celebrate a weekend liturgy in any given week; she called poor Mass attendance “a great concern.”

John Waters, youth minister at St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken and at Our Lady of Peace in North Augusta, said that young people are sometimes not listened to because they aren’t saying much: “We do need to listen more, but we also need to speak out more.”

Waters and Luksa agreed that they found inspiration and cause for hope at the annual diocesan Catholic Youth Conference in April. Father Barron hoped that the many participants in the Vocations Conference found the same inspiration and hope. He asked everyone present to “have a sense of celebration about our own vocations. We face a challenge, true, but it is not as daunting as it is an opportunity.”

What to look for in a candidate for a church vocation…

According to Dotty Foss, director of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, potential priests or nuns should match the following profile:

    * -show charity to others
    * -have a prayer life
    * -want to help others
    * -show leadership ability
    * -demonstrate a sense of commitment in work or school
    * -be social and relational
    * -have a good self-image
    * -be fairly intelligent
    * -be healthy