By KATHY SCHMUGGE
LEXINGTON — In less than two years, the Diocese of Charleston has seen a 50 percent increase in their number of seminarians. This positive trend in vocations is being seen in other dioceses in the United States, shown by a slight increase in the national average.
Choosing this opportune time, Pope John Paul II invited the North American bishops to hold a Continental Congress on Vocations to the Ordained Ministry and Consecrated Life, so dioceses could share ideas with one another and produce a pastoral plan for vocations.
Since only 1,200 delegates can attend the congress that will convene this coming April 18-21 in Montreal, Canada, the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors (NCDVD) encouraged dioceses to hold their own diocesan/regional congress, so a cross section of church leaders could share their thoughts on vocations.
Under that recommendation, the Charleston Vocations Office, assisted by Dorothy Foss, executive director of NCDVD, held their diocesan forum at Corpus Christi Church on Nov. 5.
Father Dennis Willey, diocesan vocations director; his executive director, Deacon Joseph Cahill; and Katie Ramsey, administrative assistant, invited a diverse group within the S.C. Catholic community to attend the forum. Bishop Robert J. Baker, who has made vocations one of his top priorities, also attended the sharing session thankful for the additional ideas he can bring to the North American Congress.
The collective input from these diocesan/regional meetings will be incorporated into the April event and later added to the earlier Latin American and European Congresses to help formulate a working document that will be presented to the Universal Church.
“We want more than a document that will sit on a shelf,” said Foss, who is part of the executive team that will gather the information generated from the congresses. “Your input today is invaluable, and we are interested in what each of you have to say about vocations.”
Father Willey, who facilitated the daylong meeting, stressed that one should share their insights, not solve problems or debate the issues, in order to closely follow the format of the larger congress. Everyone was given a guide, prepared by NCDVD, that was filled with useful information and the three questions that would be addressed at the April congress.
The first question in the booklet asked for signs of hope concerning consecrated life and ordained ministry in North America. The large numbers of responses set a tone of optimism and hope that continued throughout the day.
Msgr. Thomas Duffy, dean of the Pee Dee Deanery, is hopeful because he sees the young people turning from self and looking toward the service of others, a disposition much more open to a religious calling. “I see more idealism and a greater identity of what it means to be Catholic,” he said during the first session.
Dominican Sister Pat Keating, Catholic Charities regional coordinator for the Coastal Deanery, added another perspective, “In spite of age, there is still a great deal of enthusiasm among the religious. Age has not stopped our religious community as we continue to stay focused on ministry and mission.” Such enthusiasm can serve to inspire and attract those considering religious work.
Others mentioned that the young are now searching for a deeper spirituality. This awakening may have contributed to the increase in “second or late vocations,” a blessing for many dioceses. Even the greater sense of service and compassion in men and women that resulted from the recent terrorist attack was mentioned as a positive outcome resulting from the tragic event.
“Sept. 11 is a date that will go down in history as a time when our culture has shifted gears on the way we look at life,” said Bishop Baker.
The next question discussed the obstacles faced in promoting or responding to a call to religious life in North America. Answers varied from interior issues like materialistic preoccupation, inability to commit, and lack of education in the faith to external factors such as absence of encouragement from parents and church community, cultural barriers, lack of joyful religious role models and a fast-paced society hindering prayerful reflection on God’s will.
The forum ended with suggestions on how to encourage vocations. One popular idea was increased prayer for vocation in formal settings such as eucharistic adoration to informal and extemporaneous conversation with God. Others felt there should be more opportunities to learn and experience religious life, and everyone recognized the need to make the personal invitation or suggestion to individuals who God could be calling.
Bishop Baker thanked those who attended the forum and re-emphasized some of the ideas that were presented. He said that the current volunteer program initiated by the diocese, where young people are asked to give one year of service, could be a possible stepping-stone to religious life. He asked everyone in the diocese to pray, make the invitation and try to nurture vocations in their parishes.