By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 24, 2005
A large crowd made up mostly of young people gathered at the Cathedral of Christ the King March 12 for the opportunity to further explore the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
The second annual Vocations Fair, sponsored by the archdiocesan vocations office and vocations director Father Brian Higgins, drew over 300 people, even more attendees than last year, and participants seemed eager to learn more about their own vocations.
Josh Allen, the youth minister at St. Theresa Church in Douglasville, said that an event like the Vocations Fair made perfect sense, and he encouraged his teens to attend.
“There are job fairs if someone is interested in becoming something like, say, an engineer. Why not do that with vocations?” Allen asked. “Our society makes it very easy to say no. We need to get these teens the second they even think of saying yes. We need to talk to them about their options.”
In addition to his ministry at St. Theresa’s, Allen, 27, was recently accepted as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Atlanta and will begin seminary soon. He first felt called to the priesthood when he was just 7 years old, he said.
“But I needed someone to tell me what to do,” he said, drawing an example of recruiting offices for the armed services near their parish. “If one of the teens came up to me and said that they wanted to join the armed forces, but weren’t sure which branch, I’d send them (there) to explore all their options. Why should this be different? That’s why I think something like (the Vocations Fair), which is structured and lays out all the options, is perfect.”
The fair began with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, with over 20 priests concelebrating.
In his homily, the archbishop spoke of the importance of background checks and that even Jesus was questioned on his pedigree; in ancient times the status of a person was often determined by his place of origin.
But heritage only “checks the past,” he said. “It cannot unlock the future. Only Christ can do that for any of us.”
Just as Jesus called those from different backgrounds to be disciples, so He calls people today to be priests and Religious, Archbishop Gregory said.
“Vocations come from a wide spectrum of people. Priests come from Ireland, France, Poland and even Fulton County,” he said. “Religious are short and tall, athletic and artistic, women and men. We would never consider limiting God’s call to any one background or pedigree.”
When calling forth disciples, all Jesus asked was that those He chose “heard His words, His invitation to them and responded with love and courage.”
“His requirements have not changed,” the archbishop said. “The Church must invite those same types of disciples to follow Christ in the priesthood. We must invite men who, like those first disciples, may not be perfect but who are intrigued by what they hear from and about Him.”
“We must ask and challenge young people to listen intently to the prophetic voice of Christ calling them to greatness of heart,” he continued. “It is that responsibility and obligation that we celebrate at the Eucharist this morning. The Church in Atlanta is reminding young people this week that the Lord Jesus still calls disciples to follow Him in an intimate and life-giving pattern of service.”
He encouraged young people to listen to Christ’s voice and listen to whether He is calling them to the priesthood or religious life. And the church “does have some background checks that we need to fulfill,” he said.
“We want only joyful and wholesome folks to respond. We ask only the openhearted to reply,” he said. “But we are willing to take the short, the tall, the rich, the poor, those that speak Ibo and Gaelic, French and Polish, those that come from Latin America and Cobb County; your hometown and heritage are less important than your eagerness to let Christ determine your future.”
At the end of the Mass, Father Higgins invited the congregation to visit the exhibitions in the parish hall, set up by various religious orders and the archdiocesan vocations office. He also announced the winners of the poster and essay contests sponsored by the Serra Club of Northwest Atlanta.
“I always say that the vocations are out there; they are here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and all over the world. We just have to go get them,” Father Higgins said.
Among the highlights of the Vocations Fair were the panels of priests and Religious women, in which various priests and sisters answered questions from those attending the event.
Father Jack Durkin, chaplain at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta, answered a question about the day-to-day life of a priest, saying that he starts with a schedule each morning that is “completely broken” as the day progresses.
Father Ricardo Bailey, parochial vicar at St. Joseph Church in Marietta, had a quick response when asked about his favorite thing about being a priest.
“It’s being a priest. I find so much extraordinary joy in being a priest. Every day is full of joy,” he said. “I wake up every morning knowing that God chose me to be used.”
Father Clyde LeBlanc, SJ, who serves at Ignatius House, said he never thought he’d be doing retreat work, but calls it an “incredible privilege.”
“It’s such a gift, just seeing God’s grace work through people in their lives,” he said.
The sisters’ panel brought together seven Religious from different orders, some wearing habits and some in simple street clothing.
Sister Eileen Spanier, GNSH, is the vocations director for the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. When asked about the prayer life of a sister, her response was immediate.
“Prayer is the foundation of what we do,” she said. “All our work, it all flows out of our prayer.”
Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM, director of pastoral care at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, told the young women in attendance that she was still happy with her vocation.
“This has been, to me, just a complete life. I’ve been in 56 years and never regretted one minute,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful life.”
Sister Margarita Martin, a member of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, said she was also content with her vocation.
“It’s such a privilege to have been called and to be consecrated to the Lord,” she said.
Nikki Smith and Maggie Callahan, both high school freshmen, came to the Vocations Fair with their youth group from St. Mark’s Church in Clarkesville. They both said that they learned a lot from the experience, especially about Religious women.
“I didn’t know about all the things that they could do,” Callahan said. “I always thought it wouldn’t be fun to be a nun, but I was wrong.”
Smith said she tries to be open about a possible vocation and said she was glad she came to the fair.
“I didn’t know that there were so many different kinds of nuns. I always thought of the stereotype—that all they do is pray. It’s really good to come to things like this to learn.”