For some students, a call to the religious life

UB students discuss vocational callings within the Catholic faith

By ANNE MULROONEY
On May 4, 2014

  • Christine Schaefer, a junior history and German major, has been considering the religious life within the Catholic faith -- which, for women, means becoming a nun. Joe Konze Jr., The Spectrum
  • Brendan McCarthy, a junior geology major, has always been fascinated with the idea of God. Less than a year ago, he considered the priesthood. Joe Konze Jr., The Spectrum

Regardless of his or her dream vocation, most every student is driven by passion and ambition.

But some students are different. They are fueled more by faith than anything else - in fact, some students dream of dedicating their lives to the Catholic Church. Their vocational calling - as a priest, a nun or a simple disciple of Christ - is their first priority.

Catholic priests, nuns and monks are required to take vows of celibacy - meaning they cannot be married or engage in any kind of sexual conduct. Christine Schaefer, a junior history and German major, has been considering the religious life - which, for women, means becoming a nun - for about a year. She finds these vows of celibacy appealing.

"I know sometimes people are like, 'Oh my gosh, to be celibate is one of the most intimidating things.' For me, I haven't found that intimidating," Schaefer said. "It was actually more of my wanting to run away from even the possibility of being impure, because I thought I couldn't be chaste in marriage - meaning that I wouldn't be able to use sex and my body in the correct way."

Diane Christian is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the English department and former nun. She believes these vows of celibacy are important to the religious life.

"I think the position of sexual abstinence is a valid one," Christian said in an email. "For the old witness to Christ and afterlife reasons, and for a redress to the oversexed culture about us."

Although Schaefer believes her draw to the religious life could partly be a reaction to her fear of marriage, she also finds the intense meditation of the lifestyle beautiful. She strongly believes in the power of prayer and how it can heal the world.

"It sometimes seems like people think if you're cloistered and cut off from the world, you're not really doing God's work," Schaefer said. "But if you're praying and that's your mission, it's so important. It's hard to see, because we can't see the spiritual realm, but the power is there. It's real."

Christian became a nun chiefly because of the "nobility and idealism" she saw in the vocation. At 21, she entered the religious life; at 24, she took her first vows; and at 29, she left.

Although the vocation was not her true calling, she said, she would not discourage or encourage anyone toward or away from a similar path - she believes you have to "find your way."

"It's really a calling which has to make sense to an individual," she said.

Schaefer has long made her prayer life a priority - even as a child and during her "unruly teenage years." But she only started considering a full-time religious career a couple of years ago, after fully embracing her Catholic faith following a journey of doubt and speculation.

Brendan McCarthy, a junior geology major, has always been fascinated with the idea of God, but his own journey of faith has also had its ups and downs.

His belief in an all-powerful, epic deity dwindled as he grew up. And by the time he was in eighth grade, McCarthy was a self-proclaimed atheist.

Now, after years of struggling with his beliefs, he considers himself a serious Catholic.

"I didn't have any magical, coming-to-God experience," McCarthy said. "But I developed friendships, and from conversations with [faith-filled people] and my own personal investigations, I slowly started coming deeper and deeper into my faith."

McCarthy said his biggest challenge wasn't the idea of believing in God in a philosophical sense, but taking God's teachings to heart.

"I had intellectually embraced the idea of God, but I don't think I took it to my heart and soul for a long time," McCarthy said. "There's a huge different between understanding God exists and really deciding you want to live your life with that in mind."

Less than a year ago, McCarthy was seriously considering becoming a priest in the Catholic Church. Today, this idea has faded into the background, as he aims to one day become a husband. When he told his girlfriend he was considering the priesthood, he was grateful for her understanding and support - but even as a fellow Catholic, she had mixed feelings, he said.

"If I was called to the priesthood, then I wouldn't be able to date her anymore, but there would also be a new vocation in the church, and she would be very excited about that," McCarthy said. "She prayed a lot for me."

Now, McCarthy feels called to do as much as a priest does in his ordinary, daily life. He believes he can do just as much good for the church as a layman.

"I realized I'm not as limited as a layperson as I thought I was," McCarthy said. "I can still bring people to God through the conversations that I have. I always try to discuss my faith with people - I've taken many of my friends to Mass to help them deeper understand God."

McCarthy believes all Catholics are called to the priesthood - though many are called in a different, less formal way.

Even though priests are technically the only members of the church who can administer sacraments - religious ceremonies regarded as an outward sign of divine grace - McCarthy believes that he can still introduce people to sacramental life.

"When we're baptized, we're all baptized as priests, prophets and kings," McCarthy said. "You can still do the priestly roles without necessarily having that vocation to the priesthood."

McCarthy believes all Catholics have a duty to not only know their faith and know the church, but to bring people into the religious life and help them understand their creator, he said. And he believes many people don't understand the faith - or even why it's there.

"I think the world misunderstands the church. A lot of people see the church as this big hierarchy that has a lot of abuses, scandal and bad things in its past and present," McCarthy said.

Some of the confusion could stem from the series of sex abuse scandals within the church against children as young as 5 years old, which was exposed in media outlets from primarily 2002-10. Children have testified to inappropriate behavior from religious figures in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Mexico, Belgium, France and all around the world.  

Many testimonies were not given until years after the abuse occurred. According to a study by the Pew Research Religious & Public Life Project, 34 percent of U.S. Catholics believe the Catholic Church's most important problem is sex abuse and pedophilia - no other problem garnered more than 10 percent of responses.

"The abuse issue has really rent the fabric of trust and respect," Christian said. "I think facing such issues and listening to the faithful is required. Sexual discipline is important, but it's been full of hypocrisy in application."

Likely partly because of these scandals, the Catholic Church has seen a dramatic decline in priestly ordinations over the past few decades. According to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), there were only 497 new ordinations into the priesthood in 2013 - nearly 500 fewer than 1965's peak of 994 new ordinations.

McCarthy isn't worried. He believes God is shepherding the church to a new place.

"I think God is just calling the church to a new stage, to focus on new things," McCarthy said. "God might be calling us to focus more on what the laity does and how the laity can take an active role within the priesthood."

Although the lack of ordinations is a discouraging topic for many Catholics, McCarthy feels the struggles will make for stronger faith.

"While many people think this is a crippling issue for the church, I think in the end, we'll really grow a lot from it," he said.

Despite the decline in priestly ordinations and the issues of scandal, the Catholic Church has experienced new popularity since the election of Pope Francis March 13, 2013. The 266th Pope of the Catholic Church has become a beloved figure within and outside of the faith and was named TIME magazine's 2013 Person of the Year.

According to a study by the Pew Research Religious & Public Life Project, eight in 10 Catholics give Francis excellent or good marks for spreading the Catholic faith and standing up for traditional moral values, while three quarters say he has done an excellent or good job addressing the needs and concerns of the poor. Among non-Catholics, 66 percent gave Francis a "favorable" rating while just over half (56 percent) responded "yes" when asked if Francis "represents a major change in the direction for the Catholic Church."

Father Jack Ledwon, a priest at St. Joseph University Catholic Parish near South Campus, isn't worried about the popularity of the church - he views the lack of ordinations as natural. He believes the high number of ordinations that took place in the 1960s was a result of the Catholic-immigrant subculture, which has for the most part "passed out of existence," along with new ordinations.

After 41 years of priesthood, Ledwon couldn't be happier with his decision to join the church.

"I am still energized by people's enthusiasm and commitment to the efforts of the church to change the world for the better," Ledwon said in an email. "I think it is a vocation in which one is limited only by one's own energy and imagination. I have no regrets about my vocational choice. On the contrary, I would happily do it all over again."

Christian also looks back on her "nun years" with fondness and gratitude. She said that in such Catholic times as the '60s, women were encouraged to be either mothers or virgins. The nuns who taught her had more intellectually exciting lives - they traveled, studied and were engaged.

"Sisterhood made sense: it organized the sexual role, answered ambitions to be good, gave me a community which served in ways I was attracted to - chiefly teaching," Christian said.

McCarthy believes the real issue within the church lies not in the lack of vocations, but in poor catechesis - the religious education given to prepare people for the sacraments, such as baptism or confirmation. He cites this as the reason for the previous cloudiness of his own beliefs and believes it contributes to the rarity of ordinations today.

"When I was younger, I was fascinated with the idea of God, but I didn't understand God well enough," McCarthy said. "So when I met stumbling blocks, I didn't know anything. And it was very easy for my faith to deteriorate."

Poor catechesis within the Catholic faith is not uncommon. According to a study by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, more than four in ten Catholics in the United States (45 percent) don't know the church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion are believed to not symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. This teaching is one of the core pillars of Catholic faith.

When he realized how little his peers understood about the church, McCarthy was moved to consider the priesthood seriously. To be in a position that would allow him to help people "come to God, understand God more deeply, help people discern God and to deepen their faith" struck McCarthy.

"I thought that giving my life to distributing God's love and grace through the sacraments and teaching his word would be something worth giving my life to," he said.

Schaefer's biggest challenge in embracing faith was the teaching that the Eucharist - the bread given to parishioners at each Mass - actually became the body of Jesus. For a long time, she couldn't believe it, and she felt isolated from the church.

But after reading her Bible and praying that God would help her in her unbelief, she overcame that barrier.

"God brought me back to the Eucharist," Schaefer said. "He said, 'Listen, I'm here.' I had doubted that, and when I wasn't receiving the Eucharist - I really needed that. I would go to Mass and weep because I couldn't receive the Eucharist. God called me back, and told me that if I was having trouble believing, I should ask him for help."

Now she attends Mass and receives the Eucharist every week.

As she has grown within the faith, the religious life has seemed more and more appealing to her. She's been trying to meet more people with such lifestyles, to get a better grasp on the vocation's reality.

"I grew up watching The Sound of Music, and that was probably one of my only experiences with convents and nuns and the religious life as a child," Schaefer said. She believes this perception was relatively inaccurate.

Schaefer recounts her first experience with real religious life and views it as a healing, positive experience. In 2013, she visited a monastery in Geneseo and decided to go to confession - the Catholic sacrament that involves privately disclosing one's sins to a priest in hope of absolution.

"I was really scared to go, but one of the brothers there heard my confession, and Jesus absolved me through him," Schaefer said. "He was great - very loving, very understanding."

Maria Desanto, a junior English major, believes many young people "shy away from" their religious lives because of the pressure to become financially successful. She said abandoning one's spiritual life is detrimental for all students. When people place excessive stake in the opinions and values of the world, she said, it inevitably leads to a withdrawal from the values of faith - such as making time for prayer no matter how hectic and busy life may be.

"I think the key in discerning one's vocation is knowing how to maintain a perspective different from the world's," DeSanto said. "I believe this can only be achieved through faith, a mental endurance to keep God on the forefront. It's important that both men and women do this in order to achieve a greater purpose - God's plan for them."

The Newman Center, UB's Catholic Campus Ministry, is located at 495 Skinnersville Road - right by the Ellicott Complex. The ministry offers students like DeSanto a place to keep God on the forefront of their lives "in the context of faith, through a spiritual center," according to its website. UB also has a Catholic Student Union club with temporary status from the Student Association.

DeSanto views her own religious life as a daily calling to keep the values of her God on the forefront of her words and actions. For her, the Catholic faith is less vocational and more habitual.

"The questions I typically ask myself to sustain a conscious awareness are: How am I impacting others? Am I a good influence on my peers? Are my intentions good? How can I be better, and more like Christ?" she said.

 

email: features@ubspectrum.com


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