When I was in seventh grade, about the age of 12, I decided to plan my life. I thought that I urgently needed to have an idea and start preparing for my future. I decided that I would be a missionary. I wanted to go to Africa and care for the children, especially those in most need. I always desired to adopt many children, including many with different disabilities. However, the missing piece of my life puzzle was that I didn’t even know what “being a missionary” really meant, and I had never thought about how my vocation would fit into my life either. As time went on, I realized that it was true that I loved to be around and work with children, and I had a great desire in my heart to go out to the whole world to help those in most need. However, I also discovered that God had a very special calling and plan for me, to use me as His instrument. As Mother Teresa said, “I am a little pencil in God’s hands. He does the thinking, He does the writing. He does everything and sometimes it’s hard because it is a broken pencil and He has to sharpen it a little more.”
My name is Sister Mary Altar of Sacrifice, and I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas and went to Catholic school my whole life, from kindergarten through college. Thanks be to God, I was given a Catholic upbringing not only at school but also at home. Although I have a truly bad memory, I distinctly remember the different moments of the sacraments in my life, and I believe that it was the grace of the sacraments that opened my heart and led me to discover my religious and missionary vocation. Preparing for First Communion, I remember arguing with my mom about not wanting to wear the fancy white dress. I really disliked dresses because I was a tomboy who grew up with 3 older brothers. However, I understood the importance of the sacrament and was so excited to receive Jesus that I knew that I had to look my very best!
It wasn’t until I was preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation that I began to take my Catholic faith seriously and hold it as my own. Our religion teacher told us “this is the moment (Confirmation) that you become an adult in the Church and have to take your faith as your own, so you must decide what you will do with it!” After that, I continually got more involved in the Church throughout high school by joining the youth group, aiding with junior high youth group, lectoring, being a Eucharistic Minister, leading retreats, frequenting the sacraments of confession and communion, etc. I also had the opportunity to do a 2-week mission trip to Peru, which confirmed my early desire to do mission work abroad. The experience of leaving all behind to go serve another was exciting and invigorating. I could concretely see that these people materially were poorer than I, but to see the richness of the treasure of their faith was enlightening.
Finally, the time came for me to decide which college I would go to. I decided instead that I would do a gap year of service in another country, but my parents had other plans for me, so my “missionary adventure” was put on hold. Thanks be to God, I decided to go to Benedictine College, where I fell even more in love with Jesus and my Catholic faith, discovered my religious vocation, and finished my degrees in Elementary and Special Education. A month after graduation, I entered the convent in Washington D.C. with the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, a missionary order founded in Argentina and currently in over 40 countries. When I visited them for the first time during college, there was a moment of actual grace that I understood this is where God was calling me to fulfill my vocation, and here, He would fulfill all the desires of my heart. I could see the puzzle pieces all fit perfectly together.
Now, I am currently a missionary in Papua New Guinea in Oceania and have been here for just over a year. My main apostolate (or missionary work) is in the Primary School of our parish, teaching and working to bring a higher level of integral education to our students. Since I have entered religious life, every day has been a “missionary adventure.” However, being a missionary doesn’t just mean going to another country. Through our Baptism, we have been called to follow Jesus and sent to be missionaries to the world. The first step is to evangelize ourselves. We must look at our life and ask, “am I truly living the Gospel in my daily life and following Jesus in everything I think, say, and do?” Then, we must complete Christ’s mandate to love our neighbors and bring the Gospel to those closest to us.
Sometimes, this is even more challenging than leaving our own family and country to serve someone. We must learn to be missionaries in our daily lives and pray and discern to see where and how God is calling us to fulfill that mission. Some have a special calling to give their whole lives as priests or religious to do this work! In addition, God calls some—priests, religious, and laity—to be missionaries abroad. However, we, as Catholics, are all called to be missionaries. As St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are who you were meant to be, you will set the world on fire!” So, I invite you to pray for the missions and all missionaries in the world in a special way during this month of missions, but also I invite you to take some time to listen and pray about how God is calling you to be a missionary in your life.
For more resources on Vocational Discernment, please click here.
Sister Mary Altar of Sacrifice serves as a religious missionary in the Diocese of Vanimo, Papua New Guinea
I’m blessed to be a part of a family which includes three different vocations: marriage, religious life, and the discernment of the priesthood. The annual March for Life, which occurred this year on January 24th, provided my wife and me an opportunity to host not only her sister who joined a religious order, but also several members of the religious community. As they are part of a semi-contemplative order, the sisters made the most of their time in DC touring the city, visiting historic and spiritual sites, and learning in museums—all while sharing a public witness to their vocation.
As their hosts, my wife and I had a unique vantage point which allowed us to see the reactions of passersby, both the bewildered and the curious, who are not accustomed to seeing women religious in public. The sisters are used to it, and more importantly, realize they have an opportunity to evangelize and share with others who they are and what their vocation is. Often a chat or introductions will be made, prayer cards will be given, and some pictures are taken (whether stealthily or outright). I noticed the sisters made the most of these moments, probably because they realize they can bring anyone they meet into an encounter with the Lord. The sisters and their joy witness to God’s fidelity in ways often unknown.
At the Vigil Mass for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the sisters were just a few of the many women religious present. Though each order’s habits are different, I noticed many pilgrims came up to the sisters after the Mass to inquire about their order and their distinct purple habits. The same happened at the March for Life the next day: many people simply took photos of or with the sisters, others exchanged pleasantries, memories, and prayer cards, and others ran up to the sisters and thanked them for their vocations or wanted to learn more about the order. Returning home with them across town that afternoon, however, we left the massive crowds who shared our values and encountered the daily commuters of DC. I was amused to watch them look up in surprise from their smartphone screens. The sisters would happily engage with their fellow passengers, chat about religious life, and in one case, ask a practicing Hindu about their bindi, or a vermilion mark.
Similar scenes occurred over the weekend. but it wasn’t all like a celebrity sighting: on more than one occasion, the sisters would go up to a homeless or mentally-ill person and, after chatting a bit about Jesus and Mary, share a miraculous medal and holy card to remind them about faith and invite them to trust in God. These were people used to being passed by on the sidewalk each day as they begged for food or for someone to listen to and be with them. Imagine the shock they experienced when “strangely dressed” women were suddenly engaging with them and treating them with respect and compassion!
There is no way of knowing just how God may have used the sisters as a means of planting the seeds of faith in various encounters. Certainly the unusualness of the situation might shake someone out of their complacency and eventually cause them to recall a positive memory of faith from youth or simply remember consecrated persons live and act in the world as a beautiful witness to… something. That something may lead to a renewed quest for truth or personal peace. In God’s good time, this yearning may be a motivation to reconnect with God and embrace a life of faith and holiness.
But all of us, especially laypeople, are similarly called to holiness by virtue of our baptism in Christ Jesus. We need not depend on wearing a religious habit to draw others into an encounter with the Lord, but can invite others in our schools, workplaces, social gatherings, and homes to participate in religious practices such as grace before meals, going on a pilgrimage to a holy site, reading books by the saints, or simply starting a meaningful conversation. The options for spiritual accompaniment are endless. Given time, prayer, and trust in the Lord’s will, each of us can instill the smallest seed of faith which can grow into a towering wonder.
For more resources on Vocational Discernment, please click here.
To learn more about spiritual accompaniment, please click here.
Thomas Wong is a young professional in Washington, D.C.
The lives of the Irish saints have been a wonderful inspiration in my life and faith journey. As I am a descendant of Irish immigrants to America, the hagiographies of saints like Patrick, Columba, and Brigid contain threads of Celtic culture and history that help me to understand Ireland better. These stories also help me as I seek God in daily life and in my relationships with others.
Just a few days ago, the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Brigid of Kildare. Along with St. Patrick and St. Columba, St. Brigid is considered a patron saint of Ireland. Born in the 5th century, much of her life is detailed only in myth and legend. However, in later biographies, it is agreed that Brigid was born around 450 A.D. to a Christian woman and slave named Broicsech, who herself was baptized by St. Patrick.
Brigid was a generous girl who performed deeds of charity at an early age. She was “veiled,” or accepted into religious life, and later became abbess. From this point on, the miracles attributed to Brigid are fantastic and too numerous to list here.
The most well-known story may be that of Brigid’s cloak. According to legend, Brigid once approached the King of Leinster requesting land on which to build her monastery. When the miserly king refused, Brigid asked, “Give me as much land as my cloak will cover.” Laughing at the small cloak in her arms, the king agreed. Yet Brigid asked four of her helpers to pull the cloak in opposite directions. As the helpers ran north, south, east and west, the cloak grew and grew until it covered many acres, and the king pleaded with her to stop. He agreed to donate adequate land, on which was built Brigid’s famous monastery at Kildare. The king later converted to Christianity.
For many years—pre-dating Christianity—a sacred fire that was kept by local priestesses had been burning in Kildare. Brigid continued this custom of keeping a fire alight (now representing the new light of Christianity) as she established what is considered the first monastery for women in Ireland. Incredibly, Brigid’s fire burned continuously into the 16th century! Brigid also founded a monastery for men around the same time. As a prototype for women of leadership in the faith, “Brigid held a unique position in the Irish Church and in the society of her day. As Abbess, she presided over the local Church of Kildare and was leader of a double monastery for men and women” (The Brigidine Sisters).
Brigid died on February 1st, 525 A.D., which we celebrate now as her feast day. Brigid’s Day is associated with many customs in Ireland and throughout the world, including candle-lit pilgrimages and the weaving of Brigid’s Crosses (instructions on how to make your own Brigid’s Cross here). Brigid’s feast day aligns with Imbolc, the ancient pagan festival marking the beginnings of the return of spring – another example of her legacy bridging the gap between the old world and the new.
Brigid is remembered today as a woman of contemplation and action, devoted to serving others and bringing an end to strife and conflict. She is also held as a model for creative co-operation with God, and is a favored saint of many artists, musicians, and writers.
Brigid lived and died nearly 1500 years ago, yet I am confident that the example of her life has never been more relevant. Just like Brigid’s time, this century we live in calls for dynamic conflict resolution skills and creative community-building efforts. Like Brigid, we too must protect and care for the vulnerable among us. And for a Church seeking better ways to engage and accompany young people regarding discernment and faith, the model of a young woman and entrepreneurial leader like Brigid offers clear insight for how to engage and empower the next generation.
Mike McCormick serves as the Outreach Coordinator at the Catholic Volunteer Network in Washington, DC.
It is fitting that as I write this blog in anticipation for National Vocation Awareness Week, the liturgical calendar has us moving through Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this letter, we find Paul emphasizing that we are now entering into a ‘new exodus.’ Just as Israel was liberated from Egyptian slavery, we are now liberated from the slavery of sin. The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are the means by which Catholic Christian believers are joined to the new Exodus. Baptism is prefigured by the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea, and the Eucharist is prefigured by the manna and the water from the rock in the desert.
As we know well, the story does not end at our baptism. Rather, it is there that the story begins. Israel, having escaped from Egyptian slavery, quickly discovered that serving the Lord was even more demanding on the will than serving Pharaoh. In order to reach the Promised Land, the people of Israel had to take a path through a wilderness of trials and temptations. This path required a valiant conquest of all the obstacles of sin that stood in their way. In fact, the difficulty of the journey had some yearning for the days when they were slaves in Egypt.
As children of the ‘new exodus’, our vocation in life is to travel through the wilderness of human life. Our exodus differs from the old in some ways, though. Our proclamation of the freedom found in Christ occurs while we travel. Our baptismal vocation calls us to ongoing sanctification, but it also calls us to witness this great exodus from sin and the new freedom in and won by Jesus Christ.
We often desire the commitment to this ‘new exodus’ after seeing the commitment of others. This is a point that Fr. Luigi Giussani makes in his book titled, Is it Possible to Live this Way?. Fr. Giussani stresses the necessity of faith by which one encounters Christ indirectly through the witness of another. This witness tugs at our hearts to the point where we have no choice but to respond. Witnesses are therefore crucial to our discovery of this vocation - a vocation to partake in the new exodus.
In my own life, my first example of such witnesses began with my parents. They not only gave me life, but they witnessed the faith by making the home a domestic church. Their marriage provided a template for me in my own vocation. They helped me see that the expression of freedom from the tyranny of selfishness comes through a spousal love. This spousal love is not exclusively expressed through the sacrament of matrimony, but it is also expressed through the sacrament of holy orders. As a diocesan priest, my local church in Harrisburg, particularly St. Francis Xavier in Gettysburg, is in a sense my spouse. I could not have such an understanding were it not for the witness of my parents.
In addition, every seminarian and newly ordained priest can think of at least one other priest who first witnessed the presence of Christ to them through their own ministerial priesthood. In my case, I watched and learned first from my childhood pastor in New Hampshire, Fr. Marc Montminy. He was, and continues to be, a witness of Jesus Christ and a faithful spouse of the Church. Other priests who have taken on a similar role in my life are Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C. (the Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center), priests of the Diocese of Harrisburg, faculty priests at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, and priests elsewhere.
As a priest, I seek (despite shortcomings and failures) to always be attentive to this desire - a desire to reach the promised land of eternal life through this new exodus. This is only possible because I have encountered people who not only accompanied me in discovering this desire, but who also witnessed it. This is, in essence, what it means to be a ‘humana viator’ (a wayfaring pilgrim). This is what it means to be an apostle. This is what it means to imitate Jesus Christ, the apostle of the Father. This is what it means to fulfill our baptismal vocation.
During this National Vocation Awareness Week, may we be more attentive to this desire. May we recommit ourselves to this new exodus, which we have already begun through our baptism. May we also maintain and express our gratitude for those who have (and continue to) accompany us as witnesses.
For more resources on Accompaniment, please click here.
For more resources on Vocational Discernment, please click here.
Fr. Andrew St. Hilaire is a newly ordained priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg and collaborator for the Catholic Apostolate Center.
This week is National Vocations Awareness Week. When I tell my vocation story, I usually describe my vocation as a response to the great love that God has shown me throughout my life. I talk about what a joy it has been to fall in love with Christ and to give my whole life to him in a specific way in religious life. And that is absolutely true and beautiful. But if I’m being honest, it’s only part of the story.
I am a novice with the Daughters of St. Paul, a congregation of women religious dedicated to evangelization through the media. Shortly before I entered the convent, I was plagued with a series of doubts regarding my vocation. I had discerned that God was calling me to enter religious life, but suddenly the vocation seemed too big for me.
One time in particular, I went to my spiritual director deeply concerned that I had misrepresented myself to the sisters. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a normal 21-year-old. I’d watched The Office more times than I’d care to admit, had a newly acquired taste for craft beer, and had only kicked my swearing habit a few months before. As I prepared to move to the convent and begin my formation, I was worried that the sisters might be shocked to find out that I was still pretty far from being holy.
“What makes you think that you haven’t been honest with the sisters?” my spiritual director asked me.
“Whenever I visit the convent, I find myself acting like a much better person than I actually am. They’re going to find out the truth once they start living with me,” I explained.
“Well,” he began chuckling, “Your vocation is the very thing that is going to make you into the best person you can be. That means you’re not there yet. But look, it’s already making you holier!”
It can be tempting to think that we need to get our life in order before we respond to God’s call. We want to be perfect before we think that God can work through us. But friends, that day will never come on this side of heaven. And besides, that just isn’t God’s modus operandi.
When we look at who God decides to call, it is never the person whom we would choose. Peter denied Jesus three times. Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out from her. Paul, whom my congregation is named after, literally persecuted Christians. God is not afraid of our weaknesses or our wounds. In fact, it is often the very things that we view as obstacles to his grace that make us into powerful witnesses to his grace!
The truth is, I’m not worthy of being called to be a religious sister. But no one is really worthy of this calling. That’s the beauty of a religious vocation and of the Christian life as a whole: it’s not about us and what we can do for God. It’s about God and what he wants to do in us.
Every sacrifice that I’ve made in these past three years, every mistake, every time I have had to ask forgiveness or forgiven someone has served to make me into the person God wants me to be. So has every hour of Adoration, every Spirit-filled conversation, and every birthday that we’ve celebrated in community. There are these kinds of moments in every vocation where God uses something that seems strangely normal to bring us ever closer to himself.
Vocation is a totally free gift that God has given to us. We could never earn or deserve it. It requires a response, but it begins with the fact that he has first loved us and desires to give us abundant life. That’s the truth about religious vocation— praise God for that.
Sister Cecilia Cicone is a novice with the Daughters of St. Paul living in Boston, Massachusetts.
Today, August 8th, is the feast day of St. Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Order of Preachers—the Dominicans.
St. Dominic was born around the year 1170, and he came from a noble and devout family. After studying at the University of Palencia for ten years and becoming a priest, Dominic eventually went to southern France to fight the Albigensian heresy. While there, he determined that a return to the preaching style of the Apostles in the time of Christ—to engage with individuals, to go where the Spirit led them, and to live simply—would most effectively preach the Gospel message and bring heretics and converts back to the faith.
After spending several years evangelizing and preaching, Dominic had acquired a small band of followers. With them, he founded a religious order, basing it on the Rule of St. Augustine and giving it the mission of “preaching and the salvation of souls,” with an emphasis on the importance of spiritual and intellectual formation. The Order of Preachers was officially recognized by Pope Honorius III in late 1216.
In a time when opposing sides often resorted to violence, St. Dominic chose to combat the Albigensian heresy through open dialogue rather than bloodshed. By having a deep understanding of Scripture, tradition, and philosophy, and by engaging with individuals on an intellectual and moral level, he was able to bring back into the faith many of those who had fallen into error. The Order of Preachers that he founded continues to embrace these principles by preparing preachers who are “intellectually informed and pastorally competent.”
St. Dominic chose to settle the first members of his order in university cities so that they could gain the intellectual training they would need to become engaging and morally compelling preachers of God’s word. The Order of Preachers, to this day, still heavily emphasizes the importance of spiritual and intellectual formation in preparation for their pastoral work. The Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. continues in the Dominican tradition of establishing communities of Dominicans near universities. Dominicans residing at the House of Studies teach at nearby at The Catholic University of America, assist with Masses at parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington, and produce a journal.
Reading about the origins of the Dominicans and their continued success reminds me of the important place that religious study ought to hold in even the layman’s spiritual life. While we cannot all get degrees in theology, feeding the intellectual curiosity about our faith can lead us deeper into our relationship with God and to a better understanding of his truth.
Reading more about our faith, or about the lives of the saints we wish to emulate, can also better equip us to evangelize when the opportunity arises. While we may not be reading the Summa Theologica or the Catechism cover to cover, there is a plethora of material—from papal encyclicals and the core documents of Vatican II, to letters and diaries of the saints—available for us to deepen our own understanding of the faith and to be able to share it with others.
I myself have been inspired by reading about the life of St. Dominic de Guzman and the work of the Order of Preachers. As a result, I have decided to further engage my faith through more rigorous spiritual reading. I think a good place to start is with a course of study on one’s vocation—for me, that means marriage and parenthood, and thus my “to read” list includes Three to Get Married by Fulton Sheen and the papal encyclicals Castii Conubii and Humanae Vitae.
What will you read to engage more deeply with your faith?
Question for Reflection: How can the life of St. Dominic and his emphasis on intellectual formation help you deepen your spiritual life?
Helena Romano is an editing associate at the Catholic Apostolate Center.
“In the world there is often a lack of joy. We are not called to accomplish epic feats or to proclaim high-sounding words, but to give witness to the joy that arises from the certainty of knowing we are loved, from the confidence that we are saved”
(Rejoice! (Letter in Preparation for the Year of Consecrated Life), n. 3)
Last month, on the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Pope Francis went for lunch at the Generalate of the Jesuits. As I reviewed the pictures from his visit, joy and happiness are very evident. He appears very comfortable and relaxed with them, even though he may not know them well individually. Why is he comfortable? As a member of a religious community, I think that I can venture an answer. He is among those who shared a similar formation as he did as a member of the Society of Jesus. Technically, he formally ended his time as a Jesuit when he became a bishop. Bishops cannot be under the authority of the superior of a religious community. They can, though, ask to continue to use the religious initials of their community as well as wear the habit. Cardinal O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, continues to use the initials of the religious community that he came from, the Capuchin Franciscans, as well as wear the habit. Many religious communities even officially continue to count bishops among their membership. Some might think this strange, but the reality is that once a person is part of a religious community, it is part of who that person is and how the person approaches God, life, ministry.
When you share a common formation and lifestyle from a relatively young age, that formation does not simply go away. It is a lifestyle that one freely chooses and it forms and informs the person. Once committed to, consecrated life (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 913-933) is not something that can easily be cast aside. Even those who have left religious communities often continue to live the spirituality of that community as a single or married person or diocesan priest. I have seen it time and time again.
Twenty-eight years ago today, I made my First Consecration of Promises as a member of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers). Our six promises of poverty, chastity, obedience, sharing of resources, spirit of service, and perseverance have provided me with a way, within the context of our community life, to live the charity of Christ. I make no claim to live it perfectly, but I try to live it as authentically as possible. The way that I live more authentically is through the assistance of the members of my community who “urge me on” to live more fully in Christ’s love.
This summer, more than most, I have had to even more deeply reflect on the quality of my life as a member of the Society. Am I living as an apostle, as St. Vincent Pallotti called all to do, reviving faith and rekindling charity? Have I fully surrendered, given, and offered myself to God, as the form of consecration of my religious community challenges me to do? If not, then why not? These questions have been very much on my mind as I form, with the help of God, a new member of the Society who began Postulancy only a few days ago. Thirty years ago last month, I did the same and have grown and developed spiritually and otherwise in ways that I would have never thought or imagined. As I work in formation with our Postulant, Brandon, I try to teach, but once again God causes me to learn and for that I am full of gratitude and joy.
Pray for those in consecrated life, especially as the Church prepares for the Year of Consecrated Life that will begin this coming Advent!
Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C., is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center and teaches for Saint Joseph’s College Online.
This blog post was first published on August 17th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online