Finding your path to holiness and happiness
Vocation — in everyday use, the word often denotes a career that one feels uniquely drawn to, suited for or passionate about; so one might say they have a vocation to be a doctor, a teacher or a writer. The sense of destiny, fit and fulfillment implied in this use of the word gives a hint to the way vocation is understood in the church: as a calling (vocatio in Latin) from God.
Within the church, this idea of a divine calling has many applications. Under the entry for “Vocation” in the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there are 36 sub-entries, from “of Abraham” to “society should permit each of its members to fulfill his.” In between, we find vocations “to chastity,” “to the Christian apostolate,” “to cooperation with God in creation” and “to divine beatitude.”
“Love,” says the catechism, quoting St. John Paul II, “is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” (2392) All Christians also have “a vocation to holiness and to the mission of evangelizing the world,” and, ultimately, a “vocation to eternal life.” (1533, 1998)
Let’s focus on what is often called one’s primary vocation, or state in life. The church generally recognizes three: consecrated life, marriage and priesthood. (Whether or not single life is a vocation is a subject of some debate within the church.) We pursue all of our other vocations — to love, to holiness, etc. — in the context of this primary vocation, our “primary way of loving and serving,” as Father Bryan Dolejsi, the Archdiocese of Seattle’s director of vocations, puts it.
A vocations crisis?
It’s a cliché by now to opine, on the subject of vocations, that the Catholic Church in the U.S. has a vocations crisis. The shrinking number of priests is often what people have in mind, but the data compiled by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate make clear that the decline extends to the vocations of consecrated life and marriage as well — indeed, it’s even more stark.
In the last 50 years, while the total Catholic population in the U.S. has grown by more than 20 million (or even 30 million, depending on how you count), vocations to the priesthood, religious life and marriage have fallen off dramatically — not just relative to the population growth, but in absolute terms.
From 1965 to 2015, the number of priests in the U.S. declined by 36 percent (a net loss of more than 20,000), religious sisters by 73 percent (net loss: 130,000), and religious brothers by 66 percent (net loss: 8,000).
There were more than 350,000 Catholic weddings in the U.S. in 1964; in 2014, fewer than 150,000 — a decline of 58 percent. In the Archdiocese of Seattle, the number of Catholic weddings annually has dropped 47 percent since 2000.
Father Bryan Dolejsi
What does it mean that so many fewer Catholics are answering the call to these vocations?
For one thing, it means that a lot of people may be missing out on an ideal opportunity to grow in holiness and happiness. Discerning a vocation is about discovering God’s will and purpose for your life, and “God’s will for you is to be holy and happy,” said Father Dolejsi. “The more closely you come to doing God’s will … the more joyful you should be.”
What’s behind the drop-off in vocations?
Obviously there’s no single answer, but Father Dolejsi argued that society as a whole has a “crisis of commitment.”
“Because commitment involves sacrifice and limiting your options,” he said, “and that’s not what our American society, which is very pervasive — our Western culture —
Pope Francis suggested something similar when he told a gathering of young people that part of the difficulty is a “culture of the temporary,” exemplified by couples’ uneasiness about making permanent wedding vows.
“It seems as though nothing is definitive. Everything is provisional,” he said. Vocations, on the other hand, are for life. So the pope urged, “Let us not be afraid of life commitments, commitments that take up and concern our entire life! In this way our life will be fruitful!”
How to discern your vocation
So, assuming you’re brave enough, how do you figure out what state in life God is calling you to?
“Discerning one’s vocation takes a lot of effort,” Father Dolejsi said. The first, fundamental question you need to ask yourself is: “Do I want to do God’s will?”
“That involves inviting Jesus into the decisions that you need to make,” he said. “Oftentimes people will just make decisions, and then check with God later.”
Bring your questions and options to God in prayer up front, and ask what his will is for you.
“It all starts with our relationship with the risen Christ,” Father Dolejsi said. “I always encourage people to stay close to the sacraments, to deepen their own prayer life so they’re spending extra time with Jesus … and then also to involve yourself in the community of the church.”
Talk with people living different vocations to see where you could imagine yourself, Father Dolejsi recommended. Pray about what your life might look like 10 years from now in a given vocation — not the idealized recruiting video version, but on a typical Monday.
And don’t expect God’s answer to come quickly, in an unmistakable flash of inspiration.
“People could have a ‘burning bush’ kind of moment,” Father Dolejsi said, “but most of the time it’s kind of one step at a time.”
Practice your faith. Try different jobs. Volunteer. Date.
“In the midst of all that is where God’s grace is at work to help us to narrow the picture so it becomes more clear exactly how God wants me to love and serve,” he said.
Father Joseph Altenhofen prays before dinner with his brother John, father, mother and niece Bridget. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Fostering vocations in your family
Perhaps you’ve already found your vocation, and you’re wondering how you can nurture an openness to God’s call in your children or grandchildren. You could do worse than to emulate the simple model of Kirk and Gail Altenhofen, members of St. Alphonsus Parish in Seattle.
From an early age, Kirk said, they tried to instill in their five children — four sons and a daughter — the knowledge that “God has a plan, and it’s going to be revealed to them by what interests them, what talents they have and what opportunities come their way.”
“So by the time it gets to the point where they’re discerning a vocation,” he said, “they’ve got all that recording playing in their head, knowing God’s got a plan for them and God cares about them.”
That approach seems to have worked. Their two eldest sons have found fulfillment in two different vocations: Ben was married in 2008 and has four children with his wife, Mikki; and Joe was ordained to the priesthood in 2010.
And all the Altenhofen kids, now in their 20s and 30s, have stayed close to the church. (Very close, actually. The Altenhofens may hold the record for “Most Family Members Employed by the Church.” In addition to Father Joseph, who is the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Bellingham, three work at the chancery: Kirk as director of chancery operations, Ben as vice chancellor and third son Nick as an administrative assistant; and two at St. Alphonsus: Gail as the school’s hot lunch coordinator and fourth son John as facilities supervisor.)
The most important thing
How did the parents pull it off? “Prayer and fasting,” Gail said with a laugh, but she wasn’t kidding. The Altenhofens’ home was also unabashedly Catholic, and joyfully so.
“Sometimes people have an image of the religious household as real straight-laced and stone-faced, but there was none of that,” Kirk said. “Everybody was always laughing.”
“We were never really over-the-top” in practicing the faith, said Father Joseph.
“We didn’t say family rosaries or anything like that,” Gail said.
But one practice made a strong impression on the kids: As Kirk put it, “We never, ever missed Mass on Sunday.”
Even when the family was camping in British Columbia, far from civilization, and Gail asked if it wasn’t a little extreme to travel all the way to Kamloops for Mass. “If we can drive seven hours to fish,” Kirk replied, “we can drive an hour and a half to get to church on Sunday.”
Moments like that sent the message that “our faith is the most important thing we have,” Ben said.
The Altenhofen kids also got to see different vocations up close. In their parents and grandparents, they had examples of strong, loving marriages. And priests would often hang out at the house, friends of Kirk’s from his days as a seminarian in the ’70s.
As young men, Ben and Joe also adopted their parents’ practice of regular eucharistic adoration, which both said was key in their vocational discernment.
One more key: Kirk and Gail never pushed any of their kids toward one vocation or another.
As Kirk said, “We thought: God’s got a plan for each one of them, and we’ll be there to support them with whatever it is.”
Opportunities to discern and promote vocations
Viva!, a retreat for single women ages 20–40, will be held May 14–15 at The Priory Spirituality Center in Lacey. Learn about religious life from several participating communities. Contact Sister Lucy at 360-438-2595.
Quo Vadis Days, a free camp for young men ages 13–18, will be held June 26–29 at Camp Don Bosco near Carnation. Learn more about the priesthood, deepen your faith and better discern God’s call in your life.
Ignite Your Torch Northwest, a high school Catholic youth conference, will be held Aug. 4–7 at Saint
Martin’s University in Lacey. Meet young priests and religious and learn ways to build a culture of life.
Catholic Engaged Encounter weekends help couples prepare for marriage. Visit ceeseattle.org.
Serra Club promotes and supports vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Now a worldwide organization, Serra got its start in Seattle in 1935.
Five ways to nurture vocations
A 2015 study found five key things families can do to nurture vocations to the priesthood and religious life:
- Go to Sunday Mass.
- Pray together as a family.
- Share your faith. Tell stories of what your faith means to you, and display religious art.
- Talk about priestly and religious vocations as an option. Get to know men and women in religious life.
- Participate in parish life.
Source: “The Role of the Family in Nurturing Vocations to Religious Life and Priesthood” by the National Religious Vocations Conference and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate
If you see something, say something
Parents and grandparents can help keep the idea of vocations on young people’s radar, said Father Bryan Dolejsi, the Archdiocese of Seattle’s director of vocations.
“The question that most parents ask their kids is, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ — which is a good question,” he said. “The more complete question that almost no kids are ever asked is, ‘What do you think God wants you to do with your life, and have you ever prayed about that?’”
And, he added, if you could see your child or grandchild being happy and fruitful in a particular vocation, tell them, “I can see in you the qualities to be a good priest, to be a good sister, to be a good married person.”
Prayer for vocations
April 17 is the 53rd World Day of Prayer for Vocations, especially to holy orders and consecrated life. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers this prayer:
God our Father, we thank you for calling men and women to serve in your Son’s Kingdom as priests, deacons, religious, and consecrated persons. Send your Holy Spirit to help us respond generously and courageously to your call. May our community of faith support vocations of sacrificial love in our youth. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.
Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.