The Irish Catholic Vocations Supplement 2021
Dreams Lived Out Through Service
Religious orders continue to live out St Joseph’s dream of love and service in Ireland and around the world, writes Jason Osborne
All eyes are on St Joseph this year – Pope Francis dedicated the year to him, and the topic of his message for Vocations Sunday is ‘Saint Joseph: The Dream of Vocation’. And quite the dream it is; of ordinary men and women living quiet lives of service and self-giving love, just as Jesus’ adoptive father did during his time on Earth and continues to do in Heaven.
While remaining a dream, it is being instantiated every day by religious orders in Ireland and across the world, as they carry out God’s work in the hidden places of both the world and the human heart. The pandemic has done nothing to slow the pace of this salvific work, and in some instances, has sped it up.
“Everybody has a calling in life. To realise their potential. To realise themselves in relationship with God, with other people, significant people in their lives, even relationship with the Earth.
“Then within that, some people would consider – traditionally, we’ve been calling it a religious vocation, and it is. But everybody has it is my point,” Sr Fionnuala Quinn OP, vocations director of the Cabra Dominicans, tells The Irish Catholic.
This paper’s last vocations supplement was produced as the world adapted to pandemic conditions, everyone assuming they were in for a short ride. While it has been a difficult and entirely unexpected year of lockdown, the slower pace of life has given people opportunity to tune in to the deeper call Sr Quinn spoke of.
“Since the pandemic, inquiries have increased. I think it’s because people have had time to pause. Time to pause and allow the deeper questions to arise within themselves and are ready now to look at the possibility of a vocation, even though they are probably not the traditional age.
“Vocations are from older inquirers, maybe in their mid-40s, 50s,” Sr Quinn says.
“Maybe they have been in the way of productive lives and establishing their identity and their careers and they have done that successfully. Then they’re looking around the corner to see, well, does this really enrich my life and does this give meaning to my life?”
Pope Francis comments that “in times marked by fragility but also by the sufferings due to the pandemic, which has spawned uncertainties and fears about the future and the very meaning of life,” the example of St Joseph “comes to meet us in his gentle way” as one of the “saints next door”.
This accompaniment that St Joseph embodies is a virtue that Sr Quinn extols – the Dominican Sisters and female religious orders in general try to journey with women as they seek to discover the “three key words” of vocation that Pope Francis links to St Joseph: dream, service and fidelity.
“The approach that we have taken is that we are there to listen and to discern with this person inquiring as to what God might be calling them to,” Sr Quinn explains.
Technology has played a key role in facilitating this encounter throughout the past year, Sr Quinn explains, with phone, email and Zoom in particular allowing connection at a distance.
“Because we, since the Pandemic, have gone into the Zoom era, we have found it to be very effective. It is an opportunity to meet the person face-to-face and particularly when we are about six on a Zoom call, there is an energy in that. It’s not the same as having persons into your house, but I do think it’s a very, very good means of connection.
“This past year, with the inquirers that have come, and using technology and Zoom in particular, we have been able to establish relationships of trust with inquirers. We have been able to move along the spectrum of giving them hope about what it will be like and could be like after Covid,” she says.
Just as St Joseph had to adapt to changing circumstances throughout his life alongside Jesus and Mary, so too do those following in his footsteps of service. The religious sisters have taken up the task of answering those who are calling by whatever means they can, and as Sr Quinn says, more people seem to be asking the deeper questions than ever before.
“I would encourage anybody who has a sense that there is a calling for them, that they take time to pray about it, that they research the order that they are interested in. That they name what their gifts are and see how the order matches their gifts, and how they can be of service to the Gospel,” she advises, saying that a large part of the attraction of religious life for people these days is the “balance” it offers.
“I think for any of us, we are looking for a balance. The balance would be looking at our relationship with God. Looking at our relationships with our families and community. And looking at relationship with our planet Earth, at relationships with the Earth. It’s getting the balance of all of those, I think, is an attraction for people.”
Living the good life, striking the balance between human effort and God’s grace, and serving both God and man is something the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart understand well, Fr Con O’Connell, vocations director of their Irish operations tells me.
“Sometimes I think when people are thinking about vocation, they think they’re not good enough or they’re not big enough, or that the dream is too big. When in fact, everyone who lives a religious vocation is really just an ordinary person that God asked maybe to do some extraordinary things. But it’s God who does that, it’s not really us who do it,” he says.
With this understanding of religious life fixed firmly in mind, it’s no wonder St Joseph has always had an esteemed position in their spiritual lives.
“I know for our particular order, we’ve always prayed to St Joseph as the patron of all those who love the Sacred Heart. We tend to say that prayer at least once a day. We would see him very much as ‘the quiet man’,” Fr O’Connell says.
And their prayers are being answered, with people inquiring about vocations in Ireland, even in the midst of the pandemic. Not as many as they would like, admittedly, but Fr O’Connell takes heart from the nine men they’re discerning with, saying that their ages surprised him.
“What has surprised me, because in our own internal talking and thinking, we were saying, we’re probably going to be dealing with people who are older, who maybe are hitting middle life or who have lived a bit and are asking themselves deeper questions, but actually, I would say three of that nine would be 25 or under. And then maybe two of them would be over the 40 mark, and the others in between.
“I was surprised at the younger people because at that age, people would be more involved in living life and wouldn’t be thinking. Now having said that, we would have a policy of trying to engage with people over a decent amount of time, to give them a chance to ask themselves honestly, is this really what they’re looking for. There’s still people asking those questions,” Fr O’Connell says.
As with Sr Quinn, Fr O’Connell believes religious life, life in community, has the answers people are looking for.
“I think for ourselves, our basic answer is that the most important things in life are love and compassion and relationships,” Fr O’Connell says.
“That people are trying to fill their lives with, say, money, power, achievement, likes on Facebook and whatever else. They still feel that there’s something missing. Our response is basically a life of love, a life of service, a life of community, a life of real human relationships – that’s what really satisfies the human heart. In some ways, I think most Christian groups would be saying the same thing, maybe in slightly different ways, but the heart of Christianity is love and compassion.”
Model of vocation
Pope Francis chose St Joseph as the model of vocation, and so male and female religious are in the world today, taking after the great saint. The talk about love and service is not detached from reality, but rooted firmly in it, with Fr O’Connell telling of the concrete works the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart do abroad in both Venezuela and South Sudan.
“Well, even before Covid hit, I mean Venezuela was in an awful situation. The leader there is really not looking after the general populace. So even before Covid hit, you were already having massive inflation. The price of a loaf of bread was what an ordinary person would earn in a month. That was this time last year, and then Covid hits.
“In our supplement we had a few pictures, and one of them is one of our guys in Venezuela. He’s handing out food to some of the neighbours. This is a man of nearly 80, who’s been out there since he was 25. Some of us think, ‘You’re not well, you should come home’, but he’s just – they’re his neighbours and his friends and he’s been there so long he just can’t abandon them.
“We’re not inclined to go in for great big general things. Our founder called us the ‘Little Society’ and we’re much more about relating to people at a small, human level…we do our best to connect and just let them know that they’re not forgotten,” Fr O’Connell says, concluding, “that’s all we can offer at the minute”.
As in Venezuela, so in South Sudan – religious living out lives of love and service. As Fr O’Connell says, it’s not about big, lavish gestures of charity, but more so about putting down roots in a place and staying there, in an effort to assure people “they’re not forgotten”. It’s the embodiment of the “accompanying” model of ministry that Sr Quinn mentions.
“Our congregations were founded at a time when there were needs in society. And when the Dominicans were founded in 1221, the need was for good preaching. Because at that time, only bishops had the authority to preach. But if you take that down through to our time today, say Catherine McAuley, who founded the Mercy Sisters, the need in Ireland was because of extreme poverty. To take children who were orphans in and probably children who were on the street. So, congregations have grown up according to what was happening in society and to respond to a need,” Sr Quinn says, explaining the motivation that drives all religious life, including her religious brothers in the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
And motivate and drive them it does, compelling their action in South Sudan. The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart have a solitary man out there, but he works in communion with a Loreto sister and a wider network of religious congregations around Rumbek, educating their young people to a Leaving Certificate standard, and funding college for them, should they decide to continue their studies.
Even in our ultra-connected world, it requires a three-day journey to get out to this isolated area, but it is all done with the aim of “just supporting and encouraging and just letting people know they’re not forgotten”.
This is critically needed in parts of the world that have suffered and laboured beneath violence and tensions, such as South Sudan has, for so long. Such service requires sacrifice – and sometimes it means sacrificing everything. Fr O’Connell tells me that on April 23, a number of martyrs connected to their order are due to be beatified.
“We’ve got three men and seven laypeople from Quiché in Guatemala from 1980-91, and they’re going to be beatified on April the 23,” Fr O’Connell says, continuing, “they were guys who were just doing the ordinary things and unfortunately, it was a very right-wing government at the time. Anyone who was trying to help the poor, they labelled them as communists and socialists and they were in trouble, but they weren’t doing anything remarkable. They were just going about their ordinary priestly lives of the sacraments and just helping people.”
If such love and service seems too lofty an ideal, Fr O’Connell stands by Pope Francis’ encouragement to dream, as St Joseph did.
“I must say, I did like the Pope’s encouraging young people to dream,” he says. “I’d love to encourage young people to dream and to follow their dreams, no matter how big they are.”
The Pope goes on in his Vocations Sunday message to say that “Joseph’s dreams led him into experiences he would never have imagined”. The same is true of the modern religious vocation – if it’s dared to dream, it could lead to unimaginable places. Even to God himself, a Lord who “always surprises” and “never disappoints”.