"Come, Follow Me."
Jesus Could be Calling You to a Second-Career Vocation
"Who? Me? You've got to be kidding."
"That's what Jeremiah said. But he complained that he was too young to be in God's service."
"I don't have the right kind of skills."
"Oh, I could tell you all about using skills I never knew I had."
"So you're saying a community could possibly use someone my age in religious life?"
"Of course. God will choose whom and when He will."
"I never thought of it like that before."
"A lot of other people haven't either."
I never thought of it like that before. The vocation question needs to be posed more than just to the young. Up until a few years ago, one spoke of a "delayed vocation." The term used now is second-career vocation. However, don't let the word "career" fool you. If it sounds a little cold, think again. People with careers are care-ers. Could there be a better word to describe someone in religious life even if he or she entered after 40 or 50? Thus, what was considered rare in the past is now is more likely becoming a norm in many communities.
"Why not?" Yes, why not? The world is dark and hungry—not merely in the ghettoes or the Third World. American society at large has always hungered for God. Some have also dared to nourish that hunger as older men and women religious. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a wife and mother who became a saint as a second-career vocation- sister and founder. One of the founding sisters of my order (Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament) was also a widow. We know very little about her other than she was widowed and a teacher. But her career change was dramatic as the community she entered was contemplative/apostolic. Her entrance as a teacher gave the apostolic dimension the thrust it has even to the present—the educational thrust. Since that time we have had more than the rare "delayed" vocation with a number of sisters entering well into their forties and fifties. I would like to think it was Sister Claude Bernard's intercession which drew these women of experience to choose second time care-ers.
That may be all well and good, you reply, but how do I know if religious life is for me? This is a question everyone needs to ponder. Perhaps there is no answer—just other questions. Does your heart still hunger for something more? If this restlessness could speak, what would it say? These questions need to be dealt with as well as the thought, "I must be crazy." Finding someone who will listen deeply can be tricky at best. Many people have little or no information about religious life. Often the little information they do have borders on the mythical. Should you feel your friends and/or family might fall into that category, a good place for you to start, of course is your parish. If you don't feel comfortable with your pastor, go to the official job description. Your diocese should have a diocesan vocation office and an appointment is just a phone call away. If distance makes an appointment out of the question, vocation directors do travel. Perhaps the vocation office can suggest someone closer to home who can walk with you during the discernment process.
While you may be bursting with questions, this discernment process is two-sided. A director's routine inquiry will center on more than just employment skills and education. Prayer, hobbies, any serious health problems, and relationships are a few of the areas which will be part of the interview. Relationships? I'm divorced—what community would want me? You won't be automatically turned down just because of divorce. If the marriage has not been annulled, this is another aspect which needs to be added to the discernment process. However, while some religious communities do take someone with an annulment, this is not true for all. Those communities who do welcome such candidates may request counseling, which again, is another part of the discernment process.
What are some of the other characteristics vocation directors will be looking for? Besides the practical questions concerning finances, one director commented she also looked for many of the same qualities of those who would be seriously considering marriage. While marriage is definitely a serious consideration, these mature people do not take themselves too seriously. They are flexible and have a sense of humor. They are also willing to work problems through. Religious life likewise needs the same qualities as it has never meant to be an escape. This reality is still valid. However, some people continue to have very odd ideas about a religious vocation. If you could eavesdrop on a few vocation directors you will hear a similar pattern of horror stories—age does not necessarily maturity make. In other words, even the middle aged can lack a sense of direction, little commitment and a healthy, balanced personality.
As mentioned before, typical information about religious life borders on the mythical. Most, if not all, vocation directors will suggest at least visiting a convent, rectory, or seminary. Better yet, they would admonish, make time to get to know some of the priests, sisters, or brothers. If possible attend a diocesan vocation retreat. Communities, likewise, host a weekend retreat once or twice a year that could help you in your decision. Also make time for the all-important aspect of prayer. Prayer is part and partial of this discernment process. But it also serves another important function. Prayer also makes the transition to the vowed life easier should you decide to enter. Lastly it is prayer that keeps religious going. While I, and others like me don't have the same stresses as those who are married or single, commitment demands prayer in order to keep it thriving. Also I often hear, "Sister, please pray for…" People hunger for support; to know they are not alone in their struggles. While their information about the religious lifestyle may be borderline, people are on target about what is essential.
What questions can you bring to prayer? It can be as basic as What am I looking for? or the wordless, mysterious sense of being led. One second-career sister I spoke with said she was looking for a simpler life. And this simpler life can take on various forms. The vow of poverty is expressed differently in different types of communities. It can range from the austere to what could be labeled as middle-class. Don't forget the life style of a diocesan priest will be definitely different from a religious order priest. Whatever the form of life style or type of ministry, both the young and the second career say the same, "I felt I had come home." Such is the message more people seeking a second-career vocation need to hear. Finally, in your search to discern God's will for you, don't get discouraged. Whatever your decision, your life will be so much richer as a result of your search.
For the last two thousand years, older people have responded to Jesus' call, "Come, follow me." Perhaps Sister Jose Hobday summed up this adventure when she wrote in her last column for PRAYING magazine,
Come into the vision of Christ. The harvest is great but we are short of workers. The talents we have are many, but a lot of them seem to be buried… Pray for an enlarged heart and then walk it, with lilting steps, into the world that needs you.