Parish-based ministry can foster vocations

“The vocation landscape is hurting in our church.”

Rhonda Gruenewald, founder of Vocation Ministry and author of “Hundredfold: A Guide to Parish Vocation Ministry,” identifies in her video, “What is Vocation Ministry?” the decline of vocations to marriage, the priesthood and the religious life as a major obstacle to growth in the church. 

There are 3,500 parishes in the United States without a resident priest, Gruenewald said. “The number of sisters we have in the United States is down to what it was 100 years ago and the idea of marriage, especially in a church, is in decline for our young people.” 

Gruenewald established Vocation Ministry, a nonprofit organization, to promote vocations, especially at the parish level. Her work began in 2011 in her parish of St. Cecilia in Houston with an invitation from her associate pastor, Father Victor Perez, to revive their vocations committee.

“We’re so caught up in, ‘What is my will? What do I want to do?’” Father Perez said in the video. “I think what’s important is that people start thinking about God’s will in their life.” 

After a year and a half of vocations work in her parish, the leadership of the Serra clubs in Houston asked Gruenewald how her vocation ministry program could be replicated in every parish in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. The result was the publication of “Hundredfold,” a guide to starting and sustaining strong, parish-based vocation ministry.     

The aim of Vocation Ministry is to make young people aware of different opportunities to say “yes” to God’s call, whether it is to the priesthood, religious life or sacramental marriage. “Hundredfold” and provide information and suggestions for activities to help youth discern God’s will in their lives.  

Gruenewald visited the Archdiocese of Omaha April 6 to lead an all-day Vocation Summit at St. Patrick Church in Fremont. About 130 people attended, representing 23 urban and 16 rural parishes. 

The Catholic Voice spoke with Gruenewald about Vocation Ministry, her role in it and how parishes can start and sustain successful vocation ministry programs. 

Q: How did you, as a convert to Catholicism, first become involved in supporting vocations to marriage, the priesthood and religious life?

I came into the church in 1999. Then in 2011, we had a brand new priest, Father Victor Perez, at our parish. And he called out of the blue one day and said, “Could you come to a meeting about priests?” And I thought, “OK, I love our priests.” And I went.  He said, “One of the most important things we can do is to support and promote vocations.” I didn’t even understand what we were talking about in the Catholic context. But it didn’t matter, because Father Victor said, “This is so important. We have to do it.” And I said, “OK. I’m all in.”

So I went home and I’m Googling, “What is a vocation?” and found out there was just so much information out there, but nothing to tell me how to promote vocations at my parish. How do you have a ministry or committee, and what do you do? What activities do you do? And in what order do you do them? So we just said, “OK, there’s nothing to tell us how to do it. We’re just going to start on our own, start from scratch and let the Holy Spirit guide us.”

And we did. We just started praying and promoting vocations any way we could at our church, St. Cecilia’s. Then after about 18 months of doing that, the leadership of the Serra Club in Houston, said “How can we do what’s happening at St. Cecilia’s all over Houston?” At that point, I said, “Maybe I could write a pamphlet.” The pamphlet turned into “Hundredfold, the Guide to Parish Vocation Ministry,” within 17 months. So that’s the short story of how it all started.

Q: How did vocation ministry come to be?

The book came out in June of 2015. Then I went to a vocation director’s conference. Every diocese has vocation directors. Yours is Father Roza. So they all converge at this conference and they started asking me, “Can you come speak to our priests? Can you come speak to our parishioners?” That is not what I had planned. I had no plan of doing any of that or spreading this message beyond having the book and hoping that parishes would use it to start a vocation ministry at their parish. But I didn’t know that I was going to effect change any more than what I’d already done.

So I said, “Sure. If the Holy Spirit’s putting that opportunity in front of me, I’m not going to say no.” Before I was even Catholic, I taught English and coached speech and debate at a public high school. So I had the English background to write, and I had the speaking background through my time with coaching. I just think it’s interesting how God prepares you for what you’re going to be needed to do. So October of 2015 was my first talk. Since that time, I’ve given 70 workshops in 40 different dioceses in three and a half years.

Q: What is the role of the parish in the vocation discernment process?

The parish is where the families are, and we’ve got to reach the families. If we want to change the tide and have more young men and women discerning, then we need to reach the families. The families are the seedbed of vocations, which is what St. John Paul II said. So if it’s the seedbed of vocations, then we have to get there. We have to get into the families and get the message across to families, and the families are at the parish. Father Roza can’t just travel around to every family and have dinner with them. It would take him many years.

So it’s just natural that the parish is that place to nurture vocations. We need to get the idea across to families. Then we also need to have an environment at the parish that is fostering vocations, so that when a young man or woman hears the call they are encouraged and supported and not just told, “Oh, make something better of your life.” We need our priests asking young men and women if they’ve ever thought of this, being a priest, being a sister.

We also need to promote marriage because the idea of marrying in the church is in decline for our young people. So we need to put it in front of them while they’re active at church. They’re coming to church on Sundays. We need to put marriage up there to say, “This is holy, this is good. This is something you should strive for in a variety of different ways.” 

Most people don’t even realize that marriage is a vocation. If you say the word “vocation,” maybe 80 percent would say, “priests.” And then 50 percent would say, “Oh, don’t forget the sisters.” But maybe 5 percent would know that marriage is an actual vocation. So we need all three of those, and we need (to present this) at the parish level, because that’s where the families are.

Recent studies show that 25 percent of the newly ordained first heard the call to the priesthood between 13 and 18 years of age. Thirty percent heard it in preteen years. So 55 percent are hearing it when they’re at the church, when they’re in the choir, when they’re altar serving, when they’re at the parish school or religious formation. That is the stat that says to me, “We absolutely need to be reaching them at this time of life, and not waiting until they get to college, when 80 percent of them stop practicing their faith.”

Q: What are the key components for starting and sustaining a vocation ministry program?

First, it starts with prayer. You get three, four, five parishioners in a room – hopefully their priest or deacon is on board with this. They decide the activities they’re going to do at their parish. But first, they’ve got to start praying for vocations themselves, and then get all parishioners to pray for vocations – in general, and then from their parish, and from their families. Then you start doing simple things. We need bulletin inserts. We need prayers of the faithful for vocations. We need to make sure that the seminarian poster is displayed prominently at church. 

But the most important thing for our youth is to see joyful witnesses. That can be joyful seminarians, sisters, priests, joyful married couples. That’s going to bring about more vocations than anything is, facilitating interactions between those that love their vocation and those who are seeking. 

Lastly is affirmation. We need to affirm our priests, sisters, married couples. Our priests are not feeling the love right now. They’re under attack on a daily basis. They’re under suspicion.

Even if you took that away, they are hearing after Mass that, “Oh Father, the toilet’s not working. Oh Father, that homily was good, but just a little too long.” People are not particularly showing their gratitude regularly. We need that to happen more often.

Q: In your experience, what causes parish vocation committees to either thrive or go dormant?

Most of it depends on leadership. It could be the pastor, it could be a parochial vicar (associate pastor), it could be the deacon. They’re not in charge of the ministry. They’re not supposed to be in charge of the ministry, first of all; they’re supposed to be the spiritual guide. 

But if they are supportive of the ministry efforts, that is huge. But it doesn’t have to happen. Father Victor was coming to our meetings and going to everything, and really on fire for this. Then when he left to go to another parish, our pastor was not. So I’ve had both. It’s a lot easier when you have somebody in the parish office that’s rooting for you.

It also depends on the leadership of the ministry, finding the right person to lead the ministry. Normally, that falls most of the time to women, 45 to 65 years of age, who have children or grandchildren. All they want to do is see their church thrive for those children and grandchildren; it’s their motivating factor. They see the church is hurting and they want to do something.

So the biggest factor of all is leadership, whether by the clergy or by the layperson who’s supposed to be directing the ministry. It’s finding the right person.

Q: What advice would you give to young people trying to discern their vocation?

Be patient. I think so many times, discerners receive some internal stirring or call. Most of the time, the Blessed Virgin Mary is not coming down to them and saying, “You should be a priest of mine.” It’s not that huge encounter. It’s normally a stirring. It’s in their hearts. The Holy Spirit starts speaking with them. They could have had an experience at a Steubenville Conference, or in adoration, and they’re thinking, “Let’s go. Let’s do this right now.” And they need time to pray through this and to discern prayerfully what it takes.

But discernment is prayerful action. So we want to make sure that they’re praying. We also want to make sure that they’re acting in this. Are they going to the discernment groups? Are they getting together for Bible study? Are they serving at their parish in roles of leadership? Are they working with the youth? Are they a lector, an EMHC (extraordinary minister of holy Communion)? These are things that a discerner can do to deepen their faith. Prayerful action. Prayerful, meaning they’ve got to keep God in the mix.

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