Fostering vocations: 'A life of great, great joy'

As the universal Church celebrates the Year of Consecrated Life, Our Sunday Visitor interviewed Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. During the conversation, Bishop Burbidge witnessed to the joys of religious life and suggested ways Catholics might foster vocations in our own families.

Our Sunday Visitor: We are just over four months into the Year of Consecrated Life, which began Nov. 30, 2014, and runs through Feb. 2, 2016. Can you tell us about your position and how the year is going?

Bishop Michael Burbidge: I have this position at an incredible time in the life of the Church, when our Holy Father has called for this Year of Consecrated Life. We know that all vocations are from God and all vocations are God’s call that leads us in the faithfulness to the vocation, faithful to the call that God has given us to holiness. It will vary from one person to another, and what the Church so beautifully does is, at a particular time, [it] lifts up particular vocations. So we have ways and opportunities to lift up the priesthood, married life and the single life, and this particular year says, “Let’s lift up and focus on what a gift the consecrated life has been and continues to be for the Church.” So it’s a great thing we do. We need to do that; we’re human beings — body and spirit — and I think that these celebrations have a great way of calling our attention to something special in life, and that’s what I think the Holy Father’s intention was. This is a gift — a gift that we have to be mindful of — celebrate — and that has to be renewed.

All the work of our committee, along with working with the groups of men and women religious, together have to be an instrument. ... It becomes the responsibility of the diocesan bishop with his advisers to decide how they are going to celebrate this Year of Consecrated Life in their dioceses. As chair of this committee, and in working with the other bishops of this committee, we see ourselves as a tool, a resource. It has to be made real and public and concrete in each local church.

OSV: What are some of the resources your committee has to offer?

Bishop Burbidge: If you go to the USCCB [website], you would see the opening conference with myself and the leaders of the women and men religious explaining what this year is all about and the three ways that we hope it would be utilized in their local church: a day of prayer, a day of service, a day of community life. And you’ll see videos on these websites announcing the year, what the year is all about, and you’ll see resources, interviews of those living the consecrated religious life. There are also questions and answers about what religious life is and what we mean by these terms. ... In the Diocese of Raleigh, we developed a wonderful resource book, so you’ll have the vocabulary terms and the different orders serving in the consecrated life in our diocese, and you’ll hear real stories about what their charisms are. I think there’s a wealth of resources out there on those sites. We have the hashtag #YCL2015 that people could use also.

The things that I enjoy the most when I go on these area sites are the one-on-one interviews or stories of men and women religious. When you are exposed to men and women religious who have lived these lives so faithfully and so joyfully for all these years, you get excited; it touches your heart. That’s where we’re really hoping to go.

OSV: How is the year going so far?

Bishop Burbidge: I’m hearing wonderful comments. I’ve heard from the major religious superiors that the day of the open houses in the diocese opened doors to, not only young people, but also to families. And I’m hearing there’s great turnout among the local churches of people accepting that invitation. This summer, we’ve invited the religious communities to welcome people to join in a service project. Many of our religious communities are involved in direct outreach service, whether it be in education, catechisis, helping the poor or visiting the sick. We’ve asked people to join the sisters, brothers or priests in actually doing that work. Again, we ask them to do it as families, because we’re convinced that vocations are nourished and strengthened in family life. Sometime in the fall, we ask for a day of prayer, and that can take various forms of gathering with religious whether it be a Mass, vespers, a day of reflection or whatever to help them pray with the religious. So prayer, community and service are the three ways we’re asking people to celebrate the Year of Consecrated Life.

Days With Religious

OSV: Can you tell us about the benefits of religious life?

Bishop Burbidge: The call to religious life is a witness of one giving one’s entire life to Christ and his Church, and to do so with a promise to be faithful to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. All of us are called to reflect those counsels in our lives, but the life of the consecrated religious is devoted to providing such witness in a very formal way. It’s their way of life. It reminds all of us to do the same. We know that many who live religious life have a specific charism due to the founder or the foundress of their communities. These communities of men and women were gathered for a certain charism, a purpose which unites and joins them together. Those charisms are tremendous gifts to the Church. The Holy Father and his advisers say this year is to ‘wake up the world’ with this faithful witness.

OSV: Why should someone consider religious life?

Bishop Burbidge: First of all, because it could be God’s mysterious and divine plan for us. That’s the path that God’s chosen for us to grow in holiness and to live with him — not only now but forever. Whatever that path is, have an openness to it. For some, it will be to live as a consecrated religious. If God has planted this in your heart then consider it, because it’s from the Lord. That’s the main reason; that seed is there because God has planted it. Then pursue that call and consider it, because it’s a life of great, great joy. What a beautiful life it is to live in community with those who are joined together by a sacred bond, to wake up every morning and have the beautiful opportunity of bringing the compassion, love and face of Christ to others, whether its ministry to the sick, young people, elderly, dying, inmates, or whomever. It’s a life of great excitement, every day waking up not knowing where the Lord is going to lead you and whose heart he’ll touch with you being the instrument. If that’s in your heart, be sure to consider it. It will bring you such joy, so many blessings that you could not even begin to imagine.

OSV: How should one go about considering religious life?

Bishop Burbidge: One of the ways that we have to get on this journey of discernment is through knowledge. It’s important to have knowledge, and that’s what this Year of Consecrated Life is all about. You’re doing the research to study, read and also by talking to people who are actually living that life. So the first one is to know, and the second one is to experience it.

Those who may be called to religious life, participate in days of discernment to be with other men and women your age who also have the call. Take advantage of the opportunity for questions and answers, to pray with them and to be still and alive with the Lord. So, to know, to experience, but most importantly to be still and to create that sacred space in your life where you can simply listen to the Lord, because he will speak to your heart and let you know. Then, entrust to God that he will lead you where he needs you, and ask him for the strength and grace that you need. To know, experience, to pray and trust is the only way to seriously discern this call.

OSV: What are the best ways to encourage vocations?

Bishop Burbidge: Those attending and working in parishes and schools have a direct relationship with young people. You see those young people who are deeply involved in service, love being around the Church and come to Mass on a regular basis. If you recognize someone who you think would make a great priest or sister, don’t be afraid of asking or inviting, respectfully and without pressure. Just about everyone who has become a priest or a sister will report that one person asked if they’d ever thought of being a priest or sister. All of a sudden, life is different because someone else has asked the question. Sometimes, the person can honestly say, “No, I never have.” But most times, this becomes a motivator.

It’s very important for parents or grandparents to let their children and grandchildren know that they are supportive of whatever is God’s plan for them. Regrettably, many young people are not receiving that support in their own homes. As a parent or grandparent, you must always be for the Lord, and if that involves giving your son or daughter to the vocation that God has placed in their heart, then you have to be the instrument; you have to encourage that.

That’s why in this Year of Consecrated Life, we’re inviting families so parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are exposed to this, because sometimes they have misconceptions. How are they going to encourage their sons and daughters if some of those fears and concerns are not alleviated?

OSV: How can parents do this without overstepping a boundary and without feeling as though they are pushing their child?

Bishop Burbidge: You should not push or pressure your son or daughter. What you should do is say that, as your son or daughter’s parent, you love them so very much that you want them to be the persons that God’s calling them to be. Tell them that you want them to be happy, and that if it involves being a priest or consecrated religious, they have your full support. Create that path where that young adult knows that if the feelings are there, you are behind them as much as you’ll be if they tell you they’re going to be a doctor or go into the military. Your son or daughter has to hear that that’s a possibility from you.

OSV: What else would you like us to know about this year?

Bishop Burbidge: Also use this Year of Consecrated Life to express thanks to the priests and consecrated religious who have touched your life. Pray for those who died, remembering them by name. Give thanks for the many ways they’ve shaped your life.

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.

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