A theology of call -- How to be Good News to others

Sister Catherine Bertrand, S.S.N.D. entered religious life on a dare. "It was either that or the Peace Corps." After 25 years she continues to be surprised by all that her life has to offer, and she dares all Christians to respond to the gospel call to fidelity and commitment—whether they are single, married, religious men and women, or ordained priests.

According to Bertrand, every vocation involves asking yourself the questions, "How are you Good News to others? How do you bring life? And how do you share that life?"

And when it comes to religious vocations, Bertrand says religious orders aren't desperate. "I've had candidates say to me, 'I've tried everything else, and nothing seems to work.' To be honest, that's not the kind of person that religious congregations are looking for."

Bertrand, who is director of the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC), has written and lectured widely on religious life and vocation ministry and discernment. A recent article, "What young adults are saying about people in religious life," appeared in Vision '98, the annual religious discernment handbook published by the NRVC through Claretian Publications.

What does it mean to have a calling?

The notion of "being called" can be a bit misleading because it sounds like it's something out there that comes like a bolt from the blue and then you know you've been called to do God's work. I'm not saying that is impossible, but, by and large, for most people it's less dramatic than that.

On the other hand, the word vocation does not necessarily generate a great deal of enthusiasm and spark. If you advertise a meeting on the topic of vocations, don't expect massive crowds to arrive.

The root of the word vocation comes from the Latin for "to call." Vatican II attempted to explore vocation as a call, but as a common callto be a child of Godthat we all receive in Baptism. Everyone must ask: What will I do with my life? or: How will I respond to the call?

Yet when I ask audiences of adults as well as young people, "How many here have a vocation?", everybody looks at everybody else. Few Catholics today see themselves as having been called by God, or having a vocation. As much as Vatican II tried to encourage us to broaden that whole notion of who has been called and who is special in God's sight, we still have that sense that it's really only the priests and the sisters who have vocations.

No call is more special than anotherto be a priest, brother, or sister is not a higher calling. Being a committed single person or married person are significant and critical calls within the church today, too. We're in this together, and we need all the puzzle pieces to make the picture whole.

How do we know what we're called to do with our lives?

I like to say it's an inclination. I hesitate putting it on the same level as career choice. But in some ways, if you think about what it was that led you to do anything with your life, you realize you had some inclination, some sense that this might fit or this might work, and part of that inclination depends on the particular environment in which you might find yourself.

I have my doubts

How do you advise people when they're having doubts about their chosen vocation?

First, never make serious decisions when you're in the midst of the crisis. Second, don't make key decisions in a vacuum. Before entering life commitments, such as marriage or the priesthood, people usually discuss their decisions with numerous people. The same needs to be true at those times when you're having doubts. In any kind of commitment it is good to keep talking to people who can be objective so that you can make good choices.

We all go through what I call the "bail-out syndrome," when the grass looks greener and we have that desire to try something else. I have a little prayer that I use often, "God, remember my younger heart's desire." It helps me focus and get through rough days. It is addressed to God, but it helps me remember my earlier, more enthusiastic desire that led me to do this with my life.

In the calls that people received in scripture, that was always the bottom line—no matter how many questions and doubts they might have about their calling, God has the last word: "I'll be with you."

So I think we get into trouble when we talk about "the call" in the sense that if you stumble around long enough, then you'll find that little niche into which God wants you to fit. I don't think God plays games with us in that way. I really believe there are lots of things I could have done with my life in which God would have been just as delighted.

I've had candidates say to me, "I've tried everything else and nothing seems to work." To be honest, that's not the kind of person that religious congregations are looking for. I think the best candidates for religious life are those who have lots of options yet out of all those choices say, "This is what I want to do with my life."

What are the essential elements in all vocations?

The foundational layer is the baptismal call to live in Christ. Then you build on that in different ways. It's a parallel track whether you choose to live out your baptismal call as a single person, married person, vowed religious, or ordained priest. We're all moving on the same highway; we're just in different lanes. And yet just as any highway has intersections, there are similarities in the way we live out our particular ways of life. All of us are called to fidelity, to commitment. But you need to decide where you're going to put your focus and energies.

Of all the calls, or vocations, single life—in society and in the church—gets the least amount of support. That's partly because it may be the least understood and because people assume that for the most part it's not by choice. We're a very couple-oriented society and family-oriented church, so that often within parish communities it seems everything is being done for the sake of children and parents. But for the single person as well as for religious, ordained, and married people, the question is: How are you Good News to others? And this links into the whole question of generativity.

Even celibates are called to be as generative—as life-giving—as anyone who may actually have children. All of us in our chosen lifestyles need to look at how we are bringing life and how we are sharing that life.

What problems do you see with people's perceptions of religious life?

In the last couple of years the National Religious Vocation Conference has worked with young adults all over the country and asked them questions about what they find attractive and unattractive about religious life or the priesthood. "If you were in our shoes," we ask, "how would you do this work?" Some of the things we're learning indicate that in many ways, priests and religious are well-kept secrets. Young adults are edified by our lifestyle, although they don't identify with it to the extent that they could see themselves doing it.

Most people know that we work—they see us in ministry—but young people and parents also need to know what happens the rest of the time: how we live, and what makes our lives meaningful and fulfilling. Those are questions that we need to answer for people.

I go back to my own experience. I grew up knowing many priests and religious and saw them on a day-to-day basis, so I knew what their lives were like. I knew that they had good times and bad.

I remember when I was teaching and we were talking about religious life, one of my students said, "I couldn't pray all the time." I said, "You see me day after day, do I look like I'm praying all the time?" So even though people may no longer have contact with the stereotypical notions of priests and religious, the misconceptions are still there. And it has a lot to do with peer pressure. Becoming a priest, sister, or brother is not a popular thing to do with your lifeto even suggest such a thing as living as a celibate, you are looked at as very strange.

We have to help people understand how one can live this way and still be healthy and happy. It doesn't mean that you're friendless or that there are no opportunities for intimacy. Somehow religious or priests are thought to love generically, to love everybody the same. But that's impossible, and it's not healthy. One loves very particularly. I would never have survived in this way of life if I hadn't loved and been loved. But in our society, we assume that people have to give genital expression to that love. We have to let people know that it is possible and fulfilling to live, and love, in a different way.

True, most people will choose to be married and have a family. It's not as if we're looking for thousands of folks to choose ordination or vowed religious life, but I'm confident that there are more for whom this would be a good option, and for some, the best option.

When you're screening people for a religious vocation, what are some of the things that you look for?

What one looks for in potential candidates today is relatively simple. Not only is it a desire on the part of the person, but we want to know if there are other people in the person's life who think this is a good idea. And, more important, we want to know: "How will you be Good News for the People of God?"

We also want to know whether these are people who love the church and are able to serve within the church of the present as well as the future. Among other things that I look for is an absolute passion to serve others well. Candidates must demonstrate that this isn't just about their own needs or about finding a group of people that will give them a sense of belonging. The call to religious life and priesthood is primarily other-centered.

Other questions I explore are whether there is a real significant sense of God in their lives that leads them not only to desire greater spirituality but to have a ministry. Are these integrated, healthy people who can make a celibate choice and are not going to have to spend the next 30 years focusing on how to keep themselves together? Are these folks who have a good sense of themselves and their own sexuality, which will give them the freedom to be able to be of service to others and to be in a relationship with others? Are they good people persons?

For those of us who are in community, I ask if the candidate is someone we'd want to live with. And in looking at people preparing for pastoral ministries, vocation directors will ask if this is a person whom they would want to have present with their dying mother. Are these candidates that people would want to invite into their hearts and into their homes? Are they good leaders? Is their approach to ministry collaborative? Can they deal with a great deal of ambiguity and diversity?

We're looking for people who have a basic enthusiasm and energy for life and who believe that religious life and religious ministry are something good to be about.

What do you do when it's not a good fit?

Out of justice to the person, the congregation or diocese, and the People of God, we do not prolong the process. The best-case scenario would be when the aptitude and the desire are there, but that doesn't always happen.

Truth or dare

What did you find most surprising about religious life?

I entered on a dare. So probably one of the biggest surprises was finding that it could work for me. I've had incredible opportunities to meet some of the very best people alive. I don't mean just within my community. I've had opportunities in my life ministerially as well as communally to absolutely be bowled over by how God works. And to know within your ministry that you had a tiny part to play in bringing out the best in people, helping them make the most of their gifts and skills. When you have people come back and say thank you—especially someone you don't even remember—and they're telling you that you had some profound impact on their lives, you get a little glimpse that the path you've chosen may have been worth it.

On the flip side, what I found surprisingly difficult was having to make interdependent decisions when sometimes I'd be really good at making very independent decisions. Another challenge was and is the very real sacrifice of not having your own family and the day-to-day companionship with a particular person. Sometimes it's hard having people totally misunderstand the lifestyle and look at you like there really has to be something wrong with you. We're in an environment now where you end up feeling at times like you're supposed to justify living life this way.

I've certainly been afforded opportunities to grow in countless ways and to be more generous and self-giving. It has not been dull, I can tell you that.

Who dared you to become a nun?

A teacher. I had talked about it. But I was one of those people who would say, "Oh, I don't know if I want to do this." It was either that or the Peace Corps. One day he just said, "I don't even think it would work. I just dare you to try it." So I thought about it, and I said to myself, "Well, you'd just hate to go down in history not having taken up that dare," so I did.

And the rest is history.

The rest is history, but that would never happen in this day and age. You don't just sign on the dotted line. The discernment process is so much more involved today. Significant people in my life didn't push me, but they were consistently encouraging in whatever I decided. And that gave me tremendous freedom to choose.

I don't see myself as the star candidate either. I kept getting notes saying, "If you're coming, will you please get your papers in." I was dragging my feet that whole summer. I hardly even prayed. I thought, "I'm going to the convent, I'll have plenty of time to pray later."

Another problem is people who are in a rush. They say, "I would like to be ordained next year, and I'd like to make final vows in two years," and we respond, "Sorry, it just doesn't work that way."

Unfortunately, with so much being said about the vocation shortage, I've had people say, "I don't know if I really want to do this with my life, but I'm willing because there's a need." Of course, I respond, "We're not quite that desperate, thank you very much."

Sometimes I've worked with candidates over an extended period of time and they're top-notch people, but the fit isn't quite right for our congregation. So then I would refer them to another congregation. Or sometimes someone who is looking at religious life might be better suited for the diocesan priesthood. But we have an unwritten pact among vocation directors not to pass off problems to someone else.

The hardest thing is to say no to someone who really wants to enter religious life or priesthood. The second hardest thing is to have someone who either can't decide or simply says, "I just can't do it," when they seem to have exactly what it takes to do it.

A big part of the assessment that vocation directors do with candidates is based on lived evidence. You don't ask candidates questions such as "What do you think about service to God's people?" but rather, "What in your past have you done in terms of service that would say to me that this is going to continue?"

What are some behaviors that would be positive evidence?

Let's take the whole area of sexuality. You would ask questions about whether they have good friends and how they spend time with these friends and when was the last time they met with any of these people. So you get ideas of what someone thinks is good friendship, and you explore the whole area of intimacy and what they would consider to be a healthy and whole relationship.

The same thing would be true in terms of their spiritual lives—we look at what they've done already. We want them to tell us about a key faith experience in their life, a key prayer experience. Have they experienced a parish community that they really thought functioned as a community? What did that look like? Those things give us a real indication of what has already been a part of this person's history. We also spend some time with the person and see them in settings where they're with other people. They may relate to you spectacularly, but in a crowd they don't say five words.

What is a day in the life of a religious like?

First, let's look at what draws people into religious life. Certainly it would be an opportunity to respond to urgent needs in conjunction with other people. They want to live in community. They desire an opportunity to pray with other people in a consistent fashion. And they're attracted to religious life because of the collaborative mode that puts one in contact with laypeople and other religious and clergy.

So an average day, one would hope, would contain these elements. But our lives day to day may not appear to be all that different from any layperson's. You work, you come home, you might do some kind of recreational things. The difference comes when you put it in the broader context of trying to root it in prayer and commitment to the common life.

How so? How is your life different from any single person making a living and trying to live a good life?

Well, part of the difference is what it means to be a member of a congregation, where we profess public vows and life in community. For example, because of the vow of poverty, I can't just go out and spend my salary the way that I would like to spend it. Because I'm a part of something bigger than myself, I can contribute in ways that would never be possible as a single person. In my own congregation, we have countless people who are able to work with the absolutely destitute poor because of others who are receiving salaries and pooling their resources.

So as much as our day-to-day lives might look fairly similar, we are called to live simply. I don't want to make it sound like we're living as the destitute poor, because we're notthe very fact that we're some of the most educated people around certainly separates us from the very poor, but we try to make good choices in terms of how we use our resources. In vowing obedience, our whole life becomes more one of interdependence than independence. How I would choose to vacation, how I am educated, how I serve, all of that is assessed in light of the common good.

This, of course, is basic Christian living, but we're trying to live it to a radical degree. I'm not saying we're always successful. And the very fact that we do choose to be celibate—and vow it publicly—certainly is a definite distinction from how others choose to live.

Are most religious groups committed to community life? Aren't more religious living on their own?

The question of community life is going to be an incredible challenge to religious life in the next five years. If we have young adults attracted to our communities because of our common life, then we have to make sure that that's what we're offering them. Many religious who are living alone are doing so because it is essential in trying to respond to urgent ministerial needs. For example, in my congregation we've got people living alone because they're ministering in the hinterlands of rural Minnesota in isolated parishes that wouldn't be able to afford employing two people. They connect with other sisters in a variety of ways. But certainly communal living is normative in religious life. It is a key piece in attracting new members and in sustaining those who are members.

On the other hand, there's also a renewed effort on the part of religious to have community life be life-giving. That's another reason for doing the kind of screening and assessing that we do. If you're going to have healthy community life, you need healthy individuals who are going to be Good News for this community and continue to be Good News long after final vows. We're learning to ask ourselves, "What do I do to make myself wanted in a community? Do I continue to make myself a life-giver?" Religious are reclaiming the notion that community life well lived can be ministerial.

Once, for example, four of us moved into a neighborhood and didn't tell anybody we were sisters. Everybody went to sundry places for ministry, but pretty soon the word was out in the neighborhood who we were and what we were about. People were intrigued by the whole notion of community living, and this led to a natural invitation into our lives.

Do you find that people are surprised your everyday lives are similar to theirs?

Yes, sometimes people don't really want us to be human. Sometimes I wish there was more of an openness to be able to share what our lives really look like in a way that would be received and not judged.

It's like saying to a married couple: "Tell me about your relationship." You don't do that for the whole world to hear, yet if married couples never talked about their lives together with younger people, why would anyone think marriage is possible either? So it's knowing that there are healthy boundaries but also ways that we can share more freely what our lives are like.

Are you reluctant at times to invite someone in for fear that it might be misinterpreted or misconstrued?

Prudence is certainly a part of the picture, and right now we're starting from negative ten and working up to zero because of all the scandals and allegations. It saddens me when I hear from brothers and priests that what they used to do with their classescamping trips and sports eventsthey would never ever think of doing any more. We have to reclaim that trust that only a handful of people were responsible for destroying, but nonetheless, it's been destroyed.

Do you find parents reluctant in presenting religious or ordained life as an option to their children?

Yes. I find far less resistance among the young people themselves than from parents. Certainly the kind of press that clergy have gotten in the last years has not helped anything. Also parents usually want to be grandparents eventually. They'll say, "We need more priests, brothers, and sisters," but they don't want their children to choose that life. Well, it's got to be somebody's children.

In listening to parents and young people all over the country, one of the things that has come through pretty strongly is how reticent parents are to suggest anything for their children's future, and how much children would appreciate it if parents would at times say something.

My hope would be that parents would simply present various options for their children, and that religious life and priesthood could be considered among those. I think that there are young people who want to know more about religious life and parents who don't want to discourage vocations exactly, but they're not sure what they can say positive about it. So it's important to keep that conversation alive.

Why does the world need nuns and priests?

For their presence and service.

I often ask myself: Would it make any difference if there were no more priests and religious? Of course, I'm not exactly unbiased, but I would like to believe that our very lifestyle, not just our work, has significant value for the church in the world. I would hope that there would be something in the way I live that would call other people to live better the lifestyles that they have chosen, but the same happens in reversemarried and single people who are living faithful lives help me to live more faithfully in my commitment. We need each other.

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