Vocation Awareness Program offers retreat, contemplation for those discerning religious life
IRVING —Nathan Mena, a parishioner of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Keller, remains dedicated but undecided.
“I want in some form or fashion to serve the Church, and I’m wanting to see if potentially that might be a religious vocation or lay life,” the 21-year-old said. “So I’m here this weekend hoping to get more insight.”
Jacqueline Celis, 28, a parishioner at St. Bartholomew in Fort Worth, said she’s always thought of religious life but has been drawn in prayer toward considering life in the sisterhood these past few months.
“This is a blessing,” Celis said. “I never thought we’d have something like this so readily available, and how unique it is.”
Both were first-time attendees who joined 33 additional discerners the weekend of June 16-18 at the University of Dallas in Irving for the Vocational Awareness Program (VAP) retreat.
The annual event is sponsored by the Fort Worth and Dallas Metroplex Serra Clubs and the Vocations Offices of the Fort Worth and Dallas dioceses. Serra International, founded by lay men in 1935, encourages vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
More than 1,100 men and women have attended local VAP annual weekends since the event began in 1990.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for young men and women to consider prayerfully whether they have a calling,” said Ron Thompson, vice president of the Fort Worth Serra Club committee. “There’s not many opportunities like this outside the vocations work of the diocese, and it’s something that we’ve heard comments from others, saying they wish they had something like this in other parts of the country.”
Attendees spent the weekend attending Mass, in prayer, and hearing talks from and opportunities to visit with priests, sisters, and consecrated lay women.
“It’s amazing,” Mena said of the event. “The priests have been very insightful, given honest feedback. They’re not trying to sway you one way or another, just trying to help you discern your options.”
Many attendees said they best enjoyed the opportunity to confer with priests and religious one-on-one.
“It’s great to discuss questions you have in your discernment journey and to hear their experiences of how they discerned their vocation for God’s will in their lives and how they all came to that in different ways,” Celis said.
Equally joyful, she said, was the chance to meet others discerning vocations.
“I never realized there were so many others contemplating religious life, so it’s cool to meet other people who are in the same thought process,” Celis said.
VAP Committee Chairman Greg Mechler said that while the annual retreats are but a step in the discernment process, it is nonetheless a vital component allowing attendees a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life to contemplate their life’s path, while also learning about the realities of vocational life.
“I’m always amazed by the different stories people have of how they came to decide to pursue vocations,” Mechler said. “This is extremely rewarding because you have direct contact with the fruit of your work, so to speak, and you’re able to see them change and grow just during the weekend.”
Given the shortage of priests and religious, such events are vital to the Church’s future, Father Boniface Copelin, OSB, of St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, Okla. said.
“Fewer and fewer young people are coming into contact with religious,” Fr. Copelin said. “When I went to school we had Carmelite sisters and later religious brothers in high school. That’s happening less and less now as religious congregations contract because of the vocation’s situation and the realities of contemporary living.
“So having something like this, specifically for those people who might have a vocation for religious life, both men and women, is very important so they might see this. Because otherwise, they might never know it.”
Sister Lola Ulupano of the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur said it’s important that young people take the time to truly discern.
“This generation, they want everything very fast, want it now,” Sr. Lola said. “I say, ‘No, no, no.’ We pray and then we need time to discern what God is answering us. We need time to reflect. Don’t think after this retreat is over you’re going to have all the answers.
“And that’s what’s good about VAP. They encounter a variety of religious orders and their options and how that might match up to their talents and gifts.”
Father Mathew Tatyrek of Nolan Catholic High School echoed Sr. Lola’s call for thoughtful deliberation.
“So many young adults have so many options of what they want to pursue in life that it can lead to a sense of paralysis in making a decision,” Fr. Tatyrek said. “One thing I’ve tried to encourage is to make these small steps toward something. You don’t have to figure it all out next week.”
Fr. Copelin agreed.
“The most important thing I try to tell young people at this stage of the game is, ‘Do not be afraid to make mistakes,’” Fr. Copelin said. “Discern, follow, take steps forward. There are lots of stages but you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t move forward.”
Recently ordained Father Jonathan Demma said his experience as a new priest no doubt helps those discerning.
“You get a young man who’s looking for the next step, and I can relate because I had taken those steps not too long ago,” Fr. Demma said. “A retreat provides a good environment for prayer and discernment and exposure to a lot of people who can pray with you and help you. Because first and foremost, it has to be rooted in prayer. It can’t just be an intellectual exercise where you figure something out.”
When asked why VAP and the Serra Club mean so much to him, Serra Vice President Thompson said helping the bishops of the Fort Worth and Dallas dioceses and providing guidance both practical and spiritual to those contemplating vocations.
“I grew up in a little town in Iowa in the 1950s and was so in awe of the priest at our parish who I thought was the next thing to God,” Thompson said. “And since then I’ve always wanted to give back to them and the Church for what they give us.”