WASHINGTON — Although priests and women religious say a variety
of reasons led them to pursue their vocation, one thing many of them have in
common is that they went to a Catholic school.
Attending Catholic school certainly isn't a magic bullet that
leads to a vocation but for some it proved that a religious vocation was not
only a possibility but also looked appealing because of the example of priests
and women religious they saw on a regular basis.
That was the experience of Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, a
member of the Dominicans' St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville who is the
executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education of the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Sister John Mary is convinced she wouldn't be a sister had it not
been for the example of the women religious who taught at her school,
Providence High School in New Lenox, Illinois, which was a Joliet diocesan
school at the time and is now run by the Augustinian order.
The teachers there in the 1980s came from five to seven women's
orders and men's congregations along with diocesan priests. Their example — of
living their faith and being happy — "debunked the myth that living a
faith-filled life was not a happy thing," she said.
Five graduates of the school entered the Dominican Sisters of St.
Cecilia in Nashville and other graduates chose other religious orders and the
Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, chair of the USCCB
Committee on Catholic Education and chair of the board of directors for the
National Catholic Educational Association, similarly said the example of
priests in the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, who taught him were key to his
vocation. The Catholic school experience also led him, as a Methodist, to join
the Catholic Church as a fifth grader.
The bishop, who was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1979, said he
wanted to be like his parish priest and the priests who taught at his high
school. "I saw them as happy people — people we could put our trust in;
day after day at the school or the parish, they were helping us and guiding
us," he said.
These experiences confirm a 2014 study by the Center for Applied
Research in the Apostolate based at Georgetown University that linked Catholic
schools to vocations. The report: "Catholic Schools in the United States
in the 21st Century: Importance in Church Life, Challenges and
Opportunities," points out that half or more of new priests and brothers
attended Catholic primary schools as did 41 percent of new women religious and
45 percent of young lay ministers.
"If fewer and fewer Catholics enroll in Catholic schools, it
will become ever more challenging for the Catholic Church to foster vocations
to the priesthood and religious life," the report said.
Two members of the School Sisters of Christ the King, based in
Lincoln, Nebraska, which is an order with a mission to teach in Catholic
schools, said the religious sisters that taught them inspired their vocation
and now they both hope to do the same for their students.
Sister Mary Maximilian, who teaches second-graders at St. Peter's
School in Lincoln, said the teachers she had when she was in school "were
normal and had a lot of joy — something my heart just longed for."
"I, too, try to share the joy that was shared for me,"
she said in a phone interview Jan. 12. She said she does that by building
relationships with the students and answering all their questions about what
it's like to be a sister.
Sister Regina Marie, who teaches second-grade religion at four
different schools in Lincoln while also working as general treasurer for her
community, similarly was impressed by both the "normalness and the
prayerfulness" of the sisters who taught her.
She said she doesn't promote vocations with her young students
but she impresses on them that they need a foundation of prayer.
"I want them to know they need to pray — that God is real
and he wants to talk to them. If there is a religious vocation for them and
they have a foundation of prayer, it will be that much easier to
understand," she said.
Sister Regina Marie said she hopes to counter the feeling a lot
of people have about religious life "that it is a sacrifice" full of
things you can't do and hopes to instead show "that it is so
She and the other sisters also urge the boys in their classes to
love and respect the priesthood.
But even when Catholic schools aren't staffed by women religious
or priests — as is often the case today, the vocation message is still getting
Father Mark Ivany, director of priestly vocations in the
Washington Archdiocese, said St. Mary's Ryken High School in Leonardtown, Md.,
has had a high rate of men entering the priesthood in recent years. For
example, of the 11 men who entered the minor seminary in the Archdiocese of
Washington last year, five were from that school.
He said the school has "a handful of teachers that really
love the Lord and the church and see their teaching as a vocation and
He also noted that the school offers something unique for its
students by providing spiritual directors to any student who wants one, which is
200 this year. Eleven priests serve as spiritual directors meeting with
students once every two weeks.
Catholic schools also can foster vocations for teachers as proven
by Holy Cross Father Louis DelFra, director of pastoral life for the Alliance
for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame. He wrote in a blog post
last year that he found his vocation, planted by his schoolteachers, when he
was filling in as a substitute teacher at a Catholic school.
"Catholic schools teach us how to truly give ourselves to
one another — as students and as teachers. In doing so, they plant the seeds
for vocation in all of us," he wrote.
He also noted that "at a time when the call to religious
life can be difficult to discern, Catholic schools continue to provide an
environment where this call can be heard, nurtured and followed."