They didn’t know where they were going because they couldn’t see.
They had to stop, ask the right questions and listen to the answers.
Blindfolded middle-schoolers gained such insight in an obstacle course at this year’s Sixth Grade Vocation Day, held May 1 at the Cathedral of St. Joseph.
This annual springtime event, sponsored by the diocesan Vocation Office, draws sixth-graders from the diocese’s 37 Catholic schools and from parishes near and far.
In an upbeat, field-trip-style atmosphere, they learn about the importance and specific ways of putting God in charge of their future.
“It is Jesus, in fact, that you seek when you dream of happiness,” keynote presenter Sister M. Karolyn Nunes of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, told the young people.
“He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you,” she continued. “He is the beauty to which you are so attracted. It is He Who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise.”
She used words originally spoken by Pope St. John Paul II during World Youth Day 2000 in Rome.
“... It is Jesus,” she said, “Who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives — the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”
The theme for this year’s event was “Quo Vadis?” (“Where Are You Going?”) — a reference to a centuries-old tale about St. Peter.
It tells of the senior Apostle heading out of Rome to escape persecution and death.
He has a vision of Jesus, gloriously risen but carrying His cross the other way.
“Where are you going?” Peter asks Jesus.
“I’m going to be crucified in your place,” the Savior responds.
Peter comes to his senses, turns around and heads back toward the city, embracing God’s plan for him.
Father Paul Clark, associate pastor of the Rolla and Cuba parishes, gave the keynote presentation with Sr. Karolyn, who is the vocation director for her congregation of religious sisters.
“We need to be asking questions — the right questions — and then preparing ourselves to listen for responses,” said Fr. Clark. “When we ask Christ, ‘Where are You going?’ it’s because we want to follow Him to our happiness!”
Created for a purpose
All people receive a calling from God to pursue holiness throughout their lives.
God bestows each person with unique gifts to be shared with the whole Church in specific ways, according to each one’s vocation.
A vocation is God’s unique plan for each person, which He presents to him or her at baptism.
That vocation must be discerned and acted upon, with the help of each one’s family and the whole Church, in order for that person to reach his or her potential and find the fullness of joy and fulfillment.
In that way, God provides priests, deacons, consecrated religious sisters and brothers, husbands, wives and single laypeople for the spreading of His Good News and the building up of His Church.
The activities at Sixth Grade Vocation Day reinforced all of this for young people and their adult chaperones.
They started the day together with Mass, with more than 20 priests concelebrating.
They took part in high-energy games and sat in on their choice of sessions about prayer, dating and marriage, consecrated religious life for men and women, the Priesthood, the missions, military chaplaincies, and life in the seminary.
To a panel of adults behind a screen, girls asked questions to determine which of the women is a religious sister, and boys pursued lines of query in search of the real priest.
They had lunch in the Cathedral Undercroft and had time to visit one-on-one with priests, sisters, moms and dads.
They finished by taking part in guided prayer and meditation while adoring Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament.
“Don’t run away”
In their keynote, Sr. Karolyn and Fr. Clark emphasized what happens when people ask the right questions: they learn and grow in their relationships and friendships.
God plants a desire in each person’s heart to know His will for him or her. He answers their questions through the sacramental life of the Church, through Sacred Scripture, through patterns of His love and grace in their lives, and through other people.
Learning to listen and seeking silent opportunities to do so are vital.
So is an appropriate response.
“Don’t run away when you’re afraid of the answer,” said Sr. Karolyn. “God will never lead you astray.”
To tell the truth
Derek Hooper, a member of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City, was one of the men answering questions behind the screen.
“I had a blast, and the kids seemed pretty inquisitive,” he said. “I hope the day planted some seeds.”
Sister Julie Brandt of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, diocesan associate superintendent of Catholic schools, was one of the sisters behind the screen.
“I was with some wonderful women from Hannibal — the imposters — who had a great time trying to convince the girls that they were the real sister,” she said. “I thought they were great ‘sister wannabes!’”
She was only able to fool the girls in one of the three sessions, but a handful of girls came up to her afterward to ask more about religious life.
“I was impressed by their sincerity and sense of feeling called to explore this possibility,” said Sr. Julie. “Their questions about ‘How did you know you were being called?’ and ‘How do you choose the right community?’ were very perceptive for girls this age.”
Deacon Richard Vise, who assists the chaplain of St. Robert Bellarmine parish in St. Robert, near Fort Leonard Wood, led a session on military chaplaincy.
“Since the War for Independence, chaplains have served in every American war,” he noted.
He talked about the heroic courage some of the better known chaplains demonstrated, administering last rites to fallen soldiers or dashing out into the open to rescue the wounded.
The six graders were amazed to hear that three of the five chaplains who have received the Medal of Honor for their bravery were Catholic.
In a session on religious life, Sr. Karolyn shared her vocation story; talked about prayer, community, apostolate, charism and discernment; and fielded all kinds of questions.
Some of the questions went deeper than why she wears a habit or how early in the morning her day begins: “What did your family think?” “How did you know for sure?”
Benedictine Brothers Luke Kral and Placid Dale of Conception Abbey in northwestern Missouri shared their call stories and talked about life as religious brothers.
They noted that a religious brother is someone who dedicates his life to following Christ in religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
As Benedictine monks, they profess vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life.
They live in community, support one another and pursue a balanced life of prayer and work.
Almost all of the boys and girls in the audience had never met a monk before or had heard of Conception Abbey.
“We hope we planted a few seeds in their hearts for consecrated life,” said Bro. Luke.
Fr. Clark and seminarian Connor McCarty led an adult session called “Pointers For Parents.”
They emphasized two points:
Sr. Karolyn said she hopes parents remember to pray for their children, ask them questions, help them learn to listen, and accompany them without fear.
“Challenge them to respond to their faith rather than ‘making them’ do it ‘just because,’” she said.
“Even if they are not called to the same vocation you are, you don’t have to be afraid,” she added. “It’s okay for YOU to explore and ask questions and learn more about Priesthood and consecrated life.”
Show and tell
Sr. Julie said that if she could speak to the parents of the girls who talked to her about being a religious sister, she would encourage them to support but not push their daughters in their interest.
“Let them know that they want their children to be happy in the vocation that God calls them to and that they will pray with and for their child that they will grow in clarity about the vocation to which God is calling them,” she suggested.
“Help them develop habits of service to others, cultivate generosity and compassion toward others,” she added.
Parents must also be good witnesses of faith to their children.
“Young people need to experience their parents making their faith and religious practice a priority in their lives,” said Sr. Julie. “Do they pray together as a couple, as a family and as individuals? Do they participate in the life of their parish community?
“All of these witnesses to faith, help young people see the value and importance of our faith,” she said.
Mr. Hooper said he hopes the sixth-graders went home with a deeper understanding of the nature of vocations and of priests, religious and those who are discerning their vocation leading joyful and fulfilled lives.
“I also hope that this is a starting point for them in discerning because no matter what their vocation is, they all require discernment,” he said.