WASHINGTON, D.C. — For someone who was not raised a Catholic and a decade ago did not understand the meaning behind the phrase “vocations crisis,” Rhonda Gruenewald is a quick study.
Since 2011, when her parish’s newly ordained parochial vicar sought her help to revive the parish’s moribund vocation committee, Gruenewald has gone great guns in instilling what she calls “a culture of vocations” in parishes throughout North America.
From her research on the subject — including the sobering number of 3,500 priestless parishes in the United States and another 1,700 in Canada — Gruenewald not only resuscitated the parish vocation committee, but has spread her knowledge and enthusiasm with a book, website, newsletters and workshops.
“I wrote ‘Hundredfold: A Guide to Parish Vocation Ministry’ and launched www.vocationministry.com (both in 2015) so that any group dedicated to vocations would not have to re-create the wheel,” Gruenewald told Catholic News Service in an email interview conducted in late October, ahead of National Vocation Awareness Week Nov. 3-9.
“Catholics who want to see a Catholic Church thriving for their children and grandchildren in the years to come are most eager to help,” Gruenewald said. “I think most Catholics in the pews have no idea there is anything they can do to spur vocations — but there is!”
The name of her organization spells it out pure and simple: Vocation Ministry.
She cited an unofficial study of seminarians in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, where Gruenewald lives, which showed 80 percent of them came from the 20 percent of parishes that intentionally promote vocations. “A real correlation exists between what is done at the parish and the outcome for vocations,” she said.
She also likes to point with pride to the Diocese of Grand Island, Nebraska, which had one seminarian when Vocation Ministry gave a workshop there in 2015 — but had jumped to nine when Vocation Ministry returned this year.
“The workshop triggered a seriousness about the need to cultivate vocations in both families and parishes, and many implemented what they learned from Vocation Ministry across the diocese,” Gruenewald said.
Since launching Vocation Ministry, Gruenewald said the program has worked with more than 6,000 vocation promoters nationwide in 45 dioceses.
At the beginning in 2011 with her dormant parish vocation committee, “I went home to research anything I could find about vocations,” Gruenewald told CNS. “Finding nothing detailed about how to start or revive a committee, we let the Holy Spirit guide the direction of the committee. We prayed and promoted vocations any way we could at our parish, from starting adoration for vocations to playing pin-the-miter-on-the-bishop at our parish festival.”
Writing “Hundredfold” started in 2013. With the book’s success came the need for a website. “Initially it took about a year to assemble and/or create the resources for the program, but our work is ongoing,” Gruenewald said. “We continue to offer new ideas, best practices and methods to vocation ministries all over the country.”
Parish-based vocation committees are not alone. “Serra Clubs exist in about half of the dioceses in the United States, and some of them are very active in their parishes,” she noted. “Where this is the case, many have sponsored Vocation Ministry’s signature Hundredfold workshops in their diocese to bring even more people into the work of vocations.” Knights of Columbus councils also have pitched in upon request, she added.
“One of the biggest obstacles is apathy. Most laity do not think promoting vocations is their responsibility, and, if they do feel called to promote vocations, they assume their efforts will not be successful,” Gruenewald said. In some instances, she added, “parishioners feel like the task is too big with few available resources. Furthermore, members of a vocation ministry need prayerful persistence when promoting vocations at a parish.”
Gruenewald said Vocation Ministry provides ongoing support to parishes through a monthly e-newsletter and personal follow-up by Vocation Ministry staff. As she characterized it, it is a formula for a parish vocation committee to “keep going and keep growing” over the years, although it may need just one or two committed members to get one started.
“I had no idea that God had placed such a passion for vocations in my heart,” Gruenewald said, “but it has been made abundantly clear that after being a wife and mother, promoting vocations is my mission.”
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