[Editor’s Note: Rhonda Gruenewald, a full-time wife and mother, converted to Catholicism in 1999. Prior to volunteering in the field of vocations, she graduated from the University of Texas in Austin and taught English, speech, and debate at a public high school for 6 years. She wrote Hundredfold: A Guide to Parish Vocation Ministry and its accompanying resource book and developed the website VocationMinistry.com to provide information, activities, and inspiration for anyone seeking to establish or revive a vocation ministry. She spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: So here we are in the midst of vocations week. What should Catholics be thinking and praying about during this time?

Gruenewald: We should be praying for men and women to generously answer God’s call. A recent study showed that 30 percent of children from Mass-going families have thought of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. The vocations are there! We must encourage young people through prayerful action to discern God’s will fully in their lives. I would challenge every Catholic to encourage one young person during Vocation Awareness Week to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life and/or invite a priest or religious to share their vocation story with another young person or youth group. We need to “normalize” vocation discernment as a natural part of the development of each person.

That does sound like a challenge. How is Vocation Ministry addressing it?

Vocation Ministry works with parishes and priests to help them implement parish-based activities in four primary areas—prayer, youth, awareness/education, and affirmation. Of the 2019 new ordained priests, 70 percent of them first heard the call to the priesthood between the ages of 2-18, when they were active in parish life. So, we need to encourage young men and women to think about how God is calling them while they are altar serving, singing in the choir, and participating in youth ministry or sacramental preparation.

When I began my work promoting vocations, I was stunned to discover that only 10 to 20 percent of parishes throughout the country do anything to promote vocations, and of that small percentage, their efforts tended to be minimal, uncoordinated and therefore lacked impact. However, the promotion of vocations should be at the heart of every family and every parish to foster an environment where each baptized person can joyfully explore the potential of God’s call on his or her life and be given the resources to pray, discern and ultimately answer God’s call with love and generosity.

Vocation Ministry continues to create and promote an abundance of effective, hands-on, easy-to-implement resources to foster vocations in parishes and in families. From our website to our Resource Book we have created a way for any parish to easily begin vocation promotion, grow the ministry over time, and infuse the beauty and joy of vocations into parish life.

In April 2017, Sembrando Semillas, a Spanish edition of the book Hundredfold, was published, providing additional materials specifically related to predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes. All of Vocation Ministry’s resources, including our website, workshops and presentations, are now available in Spanish.

At our signature Hundredfold workshops in English and Spanish, we have trained thousands of parishioners and priests, representing over 3,000 parishes in 45 dioceses on how to create a culture of vocations at their parish so that men and women can more easily answer God’s call.

The Amazon Synod has renewed discussion over expanding the kinds of circumstances in which a married man can become a Catholic priest. Often, the lack of priestly vocations is invoked as a reason to consider doing this. Based on your experience, do you think expanding these circumstances would have a substantial impact on priestly vocations in countries like the United States? 

Vocations are born in the heart and implanted there by God for each person to fulfill His plan. The only way to authentically spur more vocations and ease the priest shortage, both here in the United States and beyond, is to continually cultivate a climate that fosters vocations in the home, in the parish, in Catholic schools, in youth ministry, and in all aspects of Church/parish life. We need to help awaken the vocational call of each person throughout all stages of their personal development, so everyone is encouraged to discern and answer God’s call for their lives.

There is no lack of vocations in the Church today – just a lack of those who recognize and answer God’s call. As Catholics, we can be assured that God provides vocations in all ages and in all times, and our modern age is no exception. We are not in need of altering the current norms for priesthood or religious life; instead, we need to be more deliberate about fostering and awakening the vocations God has already provided for the Church.

At this moment, due to the Amazon Synod, there might be a small opening to men, who are already ordained deacons in the Church, to become priests or expand their ministry. I do not believe that this would have serious impact on vocations in the United States. In my experience, most deacons in the United States are already overextended with their careers, family and extensive service to their local Church. I believe this would overtax the diaconate in the United States.

Too often, at least in my experience, our near-exclusive focus on challenges with vocations is on priests, while not nearly as much attention is paid to nuns. I went to Catholic elementary school basically for free because I was taught by wonderful Catholic sisters. But in one of the more frustrating things I’ve seen over the years, Catholic education largely turned into a privilege for those with resources – due in no small part to the disappearance of sisters teaching our Catholic daughters and sons. Can you say something in particular about the challenges and opportunities when it comes to vocations for women religious?

Women who are seeking a consecrated vocation have many options available to them which can often seem overwhelming with little direction provided. For example, once a woman has discerned that God is calling her to religious life, she must now find just the right order or community, with hundreds of options spread across the United States. More resources and spiritual direction need to be available to help women navigate this process and assist them in discerning how God is calling them to live out their vocation.

To support this process, Vocation Ministry has developed a Facebook group for women discerning religious life called The Veil. In only a year-and-a-half, 300 women have joined this group, supporting each other and sharing information about various orders and communities. Surprisingly, a survey of these women revealed that 30 percent are discerning life as a cloistered nun. In this noisy, busy world, many women are seeking the road less traveled.

Thankfully, there are some orders booming with vocations! The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, from Ann Arbor, MI, are building a new convent north of Austin, Texas, that will hold 150 sisters. They will be teaching in schools all over the hill country region. As their Vocation Directress and one of their foundresses, Dominican Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz says, “If you want more priests, put sisters in the classrooms.” Joyful priests and sisters can inspire more vocations by their witness to loving their vocation.

Is there anything that you can recommend we can do, either as individuals or as families, to address the challenge of vocations in the Catholic Church?

I would encourage everyone to start praying for vocations daily. If you feel called to do more, please go to www.vocationministry.com and get a copy of Hundredfold: A Guide to Parish Vocation Ministry, which was written for the ordinary Catholic who wants to inspire an extraordinary new generation of holy priests, religious and married couples. It has 67 activities in it that parishes and families can choose from in order to foster a climate of vocations. The book provides specific direction on what activities to do, when to do them, and step-by-step directions on how to implement them effectively.

One parish that produces vocations can make a big difference in the health of a diocese. For example, the Diocese of Grand Island, Nebraska, may not seem like a hotbed of vocations, but think again! This middle American diocese covers 42,000 square miles with a Catholic population just over 56,000. In 2015, when Vocation Ministry presented its first workshop, the diocese had one seminarian in formation. When we returned in 2019 to offer a follow-up workshop, the diocese had nine seminarians in formation! What changed? A lot! Before the workshop in 2015, parishes in the diocese had very little vocation promotion happening in the diocese.

“Some of our parishioners attended the first workshop,” remembers Glenda Stittsworth, “and they returned with a new attitude and excitement about vocations.” 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.

“I attended the second workshop in 2019,” said Glenda. “I was thoroughly impressed with all of the information, both from the workshop and from reading Hundredfold. This experience has shown me not only the necessity of a parish vocation ministry, but that it can also be fun and community-building. I am happy to report that our parish has a young man entering seminary this fall!”

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