by Joanna Bogle
How do you interest children in the idea of being a priest or a nun? They won’t pick up a positive message from mainstream television or from popular culture. The days of Bing Crosby are long, long gone.
But Christ is calling how do we help young people to hear? Blessed John Paul rallied them when he addressed a vast crowd of them: “Young people Christ calls you, the Church needs you, and the pope believes in you and expects great things of you!”
In the diocese of Southwark, which covers South London and the stretch of South East England going down to the Kent coast, the director of vocations is Father Stephen Langridge. He is dedicated and energetic, joyful in his priesthood, runs a big South London parish, and took a large group of young people to the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid.
This year I helped with a special vocations project for children in their last year of primary school (i.e., aged 10-11) in the diocese. This was run by the vocations office and involved contacting every Catholic primary school in Southwark.
We invited the schools to ask a priest or a sister to come in and talk to the children and answer their questions, and send the resulting essays to us. Prizes would be awarded for the best. Packets of essays poured into the office, and we had a hard time choosing the winners. There were a large number of runner-up prizes, and in addition every child taking part received a small religious medal and a Southwark Vocations wristband.
Many of the essays were illustrated, and virtually all showed enthusiasm and interest in the subject of being a priest or a nun. There was, of course, some remarkable spelling although on the whole standards of spelling and grammar were higher than I had honestly expected.
“He said he loves being a priest because this is what he feels God wants him to do. Just as some one falls in love and wants to devote their life to another person by marrying them, Father Gregory said he wanted to devote his life to God and to help others.” That was how prize-winner Halle Ralph of St. William of York School, Forest Hill, South London, described her parish priest talking about his vocation.
Halle’s essay, which gave a vivid and enthusiastic insight into the work of a dedicated parish priest, won her first prize in the project and Father Stephen went to the school to hand it over at morning prayers.
Second prize went jointly to Michael Donovan and Clare McKeown, of St. Fidelis in Erith, Kent. They wrote about Brother Jarek and Brother James, two Franciscans who work in the parish. The Franciscans are obviously popular in the school, where they come in to celebrate Mass, hear confession, and give instruction to the children.
Third prize went to Mary Fitzmaurice of St. Thomas School, Sevenoaks, who wrote about Sister Rosemary, a missionary sister. Along with her classmates, she was impressed by Sister’s obvious dedication, and the fact that she left her own country and did not return for twenty years, despite missing her family and friends. All the children evidently loved hearing about her adventures in Africa, about how she made a skirt and blouse for a girl who had won a scholarship but did not have the right clothes, about the timetable of a typical missionary day, which starts at 5:30 a.m. with prayer and meditation before Mass. They were also impressed by the fact that in modern Britain people are sometimes rude to nuns, but Sister was still kind and friendly to everyone: “Being a nun is all about praying for everyone, even the ones who are mean to her.”
By and large, the children picked up good messages about what it means to follow God’s call. One typical comment: “I think that to Brother James being a priest means that you love God and Jesus to the best of your ability and every day. I think that when Br. James got the special call from God he felt amazed that he had been chosen to be a priest at Our Lady of the Angels. To be a priest you have to follow in God’s footsteps and he will always make you laugh, and you always have to be ready to pray. You have to be faithful, kind, and caring and love your enemies.”
But there was also honesty in the children’s writing. One child wrote firmly that she would never, ever become a nun because it meant leaving her family “and my family is the most important thing to me and I would never want to leave my mum and dad for twenty years and not go home.” Several wrote about the things that had most impressed them about their local priest that he loved football, that he enjoyed ice cream and Coca-Cola, and that he sometimes ordered takeaway pizza!
What impressed me most was that there are clearly a great many schools where there is a good, strong, friendly bond with the local parish priest and where a sense of Catholic community and identity is evidently present. I had somehow assumed that in the last forty years this had all but disappeared, but this is clearly not the case. The children also had, in general, a strong understanding of the priesthood as a call from God, and of a priest’s role as essentially being to connect God and human beings. We didn’t get a social worker/community activist/general dispenser of goodwill message at all: the children wrote about priests hearing confessions, celebrating Mass, and praying.
It will require a great deal more than just a few essays to get children understanding the great reality of priesthood. And a great deal more is indeed planned. This summer will see the national InVocation event held at Oscott College, near Birmingham. Young Catholics in their 20s and 30s from around Britain gather to meet priests and members of religious orders, to hear talks, attend Mass together, make and meet friends, and pray. There will be, as last year, a candlelit Blessed Sacrament procession culminating in a great outdoor Benediction on the lawn in front of the college. There will be opportunities for confession as at World Youth Day, this has become a central part of the event and there will be talks and presentations on a range of topics connected with vocation and with seeking God’s will. There will be glorious liturgy and many opportunities for long and good conversations with priests and with religious brothers and sisters.
In September, we are organizing another schools’ project in Southwark, this time aimed at pupils at secondary schools (11-18). Along with the primary schools project, it is planned as an annual event.
There is no slick, easy way to foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life. We have to root everything in prayer, and know that this is all God’s work and not ours. We must trust Him, and ask Him to show us the way ahead. He does want to send laborers into the vineyard, and we all know how much the Church is in need of them. Pope Benedict told young people gathered at Westminster Cathedral in 2010: “Every day we have to choose to love and this requires help. The help that comes from Christ, from the wisdom found in His word. And from the Grace which He bestows us in the sacraments of His Church... I ask you to look into your hearts, each day, to find the source of all true love. Jesus is always there, quietly waiting for us to be still with Him and to hear His voice. Deep within your heart, He is calling you to spend time with Him in prayer, but this kind of prayer, real prayer, requires discipline.
“It requires time for moments of silence every day. Often it means waiting for the Lord to speak. Even amidst the business and stress of our daily lives we need to make space for silence, because it is in silence that we find God and in silence that we discover our true self. And in discovering our true self we discover the particular vocation which God has given us for the building up of His Church and the redemption of our world.”
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
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