SOUTH CAROLINA—Finding a man or woman called to religious life has been compared to discovering a piece of gold glinting in the dark.
It is not an easy task; not for those searching for priests and religious women, or for those trying to discern a call.
Attempts to encourage vocations are being made on all levels, from Pope Benedict XVI’s Year for Priests, to a vocations campaign launched by the Diocese of Charleston in December.
An important element of the campaign is encouraging family and friends to create a vocations-friendly environment starting from the cradle, so children and young adults will know religious life is an accepted option.
Father Richard D. Harris, who served as vicar of vocations until his recent appointment as diocesan vicar general, said families should actively pray and dialogue around the dinner table as to how they can encourage vocations.
He urged parents to focus on the joy of serving God and neighbor.
Deacon Joseph Cahill, director of the vocations office, said at the very least, people should not discourage a young person considering religious life.
Some of the diocese’s current seminarians said overcoming discouraging words is easier when others offer support.
Stephen Beach, who entered seminary after high school, said some people in his life were concerned he was too young or inexperienced. He added that not too long ago, it was the norm to enter seminary straight from high school or even go to a high school seminary.
On the flip side, he also had people strongly in his corner. Beach, who attends seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said his best friend’s parents were very supportive.
“They were always helping me to grow in my faith by inviting me to pray, giving me books, bringing me to different things like holy hours, daily Mass … and encouraging me to consider the seminary,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Miscellany.
If you know someone who seems like a good candidate for religious life, you can submit their name at www.charlestonvocations.com/calledbyname. You can also show your support by becoming a fan on their Facebook page, listed under “Charleston Vocations.”
David Nerbun, a seminarian at Pontifical North American College in the Vatican, said he was encouraged his whole life by priests and family members.
“The witness of these people to authentic love — the gift of themselves to other people — is what has always shown me that our primary vocation is to holiness,” Nerbun wrote in an e-mail.
Some people, of course, are not supportive of a call to religious life, especially those in the secular community.
Nerbun said he had a mentor in college, a professor and father-figure, who was disappointed, even angry, that he chose the priesthood over a lucrative profession in research. The seminarian said it was hard to tell this man about his choice, but it didn’t alter his decision because he had support from others.
Sister Julienne Guy, OSU, director of senior life at St. Joseph Church in Columbia, said her family questioned her calling, but the Ursuline sisters of her high school were always there for her and helped change her life.
“It was something I knew I wanted,” Sister Julienne said.
She now returns the favor by encouraging other young women.
This blessing can be crucial as men and women struggle to discern their call. Especially tough for many is the choice between a celibate life with God and the vocation of marriage and family.
Several seminarians said their priests, who went through the same process themselves, were encouraging and enlightening.
One priest in particular helped Nerbun understand that his natural desire to be a biological father did not exclude him from the priesthood.
“Being a celibate priest does not mean lacking sexual desires or suppressing them. It means a huge ‘yes’ and a channeling of those powers with the grace of God to serve the church,” Nerbun said. “Discernment of the priesthood is in whether God will give you that extraordinary grace to be a chaste celibate.
“Discerning this doesn’t happen overnight, and unchaste behavior doesn’t necessarily exclude you from the possibility of the priesthood. Many saints, including St. Augustine, who even fathered children out of wedlock, became priests and bishops later in life.”
Deacon Cahill said it is hard for parents, especially now that families are smaller, to encourage interest in religious life. He said it may mean foregoing the joy of grandchildren or even watching the end of the family name.
But Beach said the ultimate factor lies in what God wants.
“From when we are little our parents ask us what we want to do when we grow up,” he said. “The problem with this is that doing what we want to do is not going to make us happy. It is in doing what God wants of us that we are going to be truly happy. So parents should instead ask their children what God wants of them and encourage them to put God first in their lives no matter what vocation they may be called to.”