In the Diocese of Orlando, Fla., 11 is an important number for informing youth about religious vocations. Eleven-year-olds in the sixth grade are making decisions about moving into middle school. 

Father Torres
Father Jorge Torres of the Diocese of Orlando and a Focus 11 participant. Courtesy photo

“In 11th grade, they are thinking about college and are pretty much choosing a career,” said diocesan vocations director Father Jorge Torres. “A lot of those choices will also influence choices for vocations.” 

The diocese annually sponsors Focus 11 events for the two age groups from Catholic and public schools. The recent conference featured 30 exhibitors from a variety of religious communities. 

“With vocation work, you are planting seeds,” Father Torres said. “Part of what we are trying to do is affect the culture to recognize that thinking of a vocation is quite normal.” 

Focus 11 asks youth to hear God’s call and parents to pray with and for their children who express an interest in a religious vocation. Parents should assure them of support, too. 

“The first call is to holiness,” Father Torres told Our Sunday Visitor. “We can help our young people to get to know the Lord and to experience the love of Jesus and hear from him his desire for their lives. He will soothe any fears, heal wounds and show them the path to the greatest happiness they can ever have, whether it be the priesthood, religious life, marriage or single life. ”

Innovative outreach

Sister of Life Bethany Madonna Burwell was a Focus 11 speaker. The Sisters of Life community, based in Bronx, N.Y., has a charism of life and has given programs at schools and colleges. 

“First and foremost is for young people to encounter Jesus, especially through the Eucharist, because ultimately, it is Christ who calls people to vocation,” said vocations director Sister Antoniana Maria Macapagal. “The second is devotion to our Blessed Mother, who is the mother of all vocations. Then we should have them encounter priests and religious who live life joyfully.” 

The Sisters of Life were featured in Time magazine and have vocation videos on MTV — a contemporary way to effectively reach young people who, she said, “are looking for reasons for hope and to know that sacrificial and committed life-long love is possible.” 

Reaching parents and kids

In 2003 youth minister Michael Zak and St. Patrick Parish in St. Charles, Ill., founded the Here I Am Lord vocations conference to help young people and their parents understand vocations, including marriage and single life, but focusing on religious vocations. 

The conferences in March draw up to 5,000 people from the Diocese of Rockford, the Diocese of Joliet and the Archdiocese of Chicago. About 50 religious communities are represented, and a separate room is dedicated to materials from contemplative and cloistered communities. 

“This gives teens and young adults opportunities to meet religious and see who they are and how excited they are about their vocations,” Zak said. “It’s a chance for the religious to explain why they answered God’s call.” 

It’s good exposure, too, for parents who may be influenced by a society that generally doesn’t support religious vocations. 

“I think this generation is ready to look at vocations differently,” Zak said. “A lot of them are looking for more meaning in their lives and they may look to religious life as an avenue that provides satisfaction.” 

Brothers’ example

Brother Joseph Jozwiak wanted to become a priest, then he wanted to be a teacher. After a weekend retreat, he knew that he wanted to join the Brothers of the Christian Schools, an order that specifically teaches and is never ordained to the priesthood. His heart was prepared even earlier with the witness of his parents’ prayerful lives and their encouragement. 

“I think the seed of vocations is nourished by families, first of all, then by our churches and schools,” he said. “Parents need to have the willingness to talk to their children about going into the religious life or priesthood. I hear from people that it’s unfortunate that we need more vocations, but they are saying, ‘Not my children.’” 

Brother Jozwiak is principal at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, N.Y., one of the order’s 60 high schools and six colleges in the United States. 

“Certainly the presence of brothers in our schools is our No. 1 vocational promotion tool,” he told OSV. “What we give students is a realization that as a Brother of the Christian Schools, in education we have the ability to transform the lives of students and to touch their hearts and minds. To experience that can really call a person to religious life.” 

The schools have vocations committees and lay partners who promote religious life, and vocations directors from different orders visit the schools. The College Contact Program offers retreats and field work to students who are discerning religious life. 

“We accompany him in college, then if he desires to continue his vocation journey, he is invited to participate in a formation program,” Brother Jozwiak said. 

Witnessing in classroom

In the past 12 years, four graduates of the boys’ prep school run by the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Texas entered the monastery to become priests. Another alumnus returned earlier, and a couple of graduates joined the Franciscans. 

Brother Anthony
Brother Anthony plays football with students at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas’ Preparatory School. Photo by Jim Reisch

“The students see the Cistercians here — especially the younger priests in their 20s — and they think, ‘I can do this,’” said vocations director Father Ignatius Peacher. “That’s one of the biggest influences at the prep school and at the University of Dallas.” 

Younger brothers make connections with students by helping with coaching and extra curricular activities. Students see their interest in popular culture and in their faith and, Father Peacher said, “They see that the priests use their talents for the glory of God. They aren’t just guys who couldn’t find anything else to do with their lives. They chose to give their lives and talent to God.” 

Certain classes are assigned lay or religious form masters who help students with spirituality, morality and preparing for college. There are Bible studies for upper classmen and university students are offered retreats and service projects. 

Abbot Father Peter Verhalen, the school’s headmaster, notes that “too many options” may discourage young people from making commitments to marriage or the religious life, or to even limiting themselves to pursuing one option. 

“Too often, religious life is seen as a life of sadness and giving up,” he said. 

So what can adults and parents do to support vocations? 

“What we can all do is live a life of sacrifice and make it evident that this is a source of joy,” he said. “Adults and parents can be credible witnesses that through the life of sacrificial love they will find happiness and fulfillment.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

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