By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published October 18, 2007
A fireman. A doctor. A teacher. A rock star.
These are common responses to the perpetual question posed to children—“what do you want to be when you grow up?” But the archdiocesan Vocations Office and Office of Catholic Schools hope that the responses from fifth-graders in the archdiocese will also include occupations like priest, sister, deacon or brother.
The first fifth-grade Vocations Day was held Oct. 4 at St. Joseph Church and School in Marietta.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated Mass for the congregation, which was made up of fifth-graders from all the schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
On this feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, Archbishop Gregory told the students that they, too, had the potential to do something unique, much like Francis did in giving his life to God.
“Occasionally 11- and 12-year-olds choose to do things that are quite unique, unlike what their parents might have thought they would do, and unlike what ordinarily might be the thing people think they should do,” he said. “There’s a wonderful freedom that young people have that occasionally we lose as we grow older.”
Francis, the archbishop told them, was like many of them. He “never wanted for anything,” always having enough food to eat and clothes to wear.
“Yet maybe when (Francis) was your age he already began thinking about doing something special, something unique, something out of the ordinary. He thought about giving his life to God,” Archbishop Gregory said. “In a sense, that’s why we’re here today at Mass because we would like you to think about doing something special with your life.”
“We know that God will give all of you wonderful futures, but maybe some of you might have an extraordinary future—something different, something out of the ordinary, something unusual,” he continued. “We would like you all to think about the very possibility of a church vocation, to maybe think of giving your life in a special way, as did Francis, to the service of God’s church.”
The children might already hear God whispering to them, the archbishop said.
“You might wonder, ‘what would I look like as a sister.’…Or you young men might wonder what you’d look like in that vestment. That may very well be God speaking to you about your future.”
Archbishop Gregory himself began thinking of becoming a priest when he was their age, he told them.
“So I think that 11- and 12-year-olds have some wonderful visions about their futures,” he said. “And so I hope today at Mass that you allow some of these visions to enter your heart and mind.”
Later in the day, Father Luke Ballman, archdiocesan vocations director, spoke to the students.
“If you are baptized, each one of you has a vocation,” he told them.
Using seminarian Desmond Drummer as an example, he asked students what they thought Drummer’s vocation might be.
“Desmond has been baptized. Does Desmond have a vocation?” Father Ballman asked the students, who responded with a resounding affirmative.
Hands straining in the air, students guessed that Drummer’s vocation was to be married or to be a deacon, until one student guessed that he was a seminarian.
“Fifth grade is a great time,” Father Ballman told them. “You have all these possibilities in front of you. You all have a vocation. Your job in life is to figure out what it is. Our vocations are meant to make us happy.”
After lunch, the students divided into groups. Some of the boys heard Drummer speak to them about his calling to the priesthood, while others heard Deacon Dennis Dorner, chancellor of the archdiocese, talk about his call to be a deacon. In the church, the girls listened to Dominican Sister Mary Jacinta, principal of St. Catherine of Siena School, Kennesaw, talk about her calling to be a sister.
“I’m so happy to see all you young men here today,” Drummer told the boys gathered in the parish hall.
“Ooh!” the boys responded, patting their chests and showing their delight in being called “men.”
“We as followers of Christ and friends of Jesus are called to live in the light,” Drummer told them. “When you were born, you were given a mission, and that mission is to share love and peace wherever you go.”
In the gymnasium, Deacon Dorner told the boys that when he was younger, he thought he was called to be a priest.
“I was a little bit embarrassed to talk to my friends about it. I thought they would think I was weird. But when I was in eighth grade I got up the courage to tell my best friend and that turned out to be the coolest thing. I found out that he didn’t think I was weird and that my friends were happy for me,” he said.
But he was persuaded by priests in his life to go to college rather than join the seminary.
“Then I went to my first dance of my freshman year, and I ended up meeting this really cute girl. I ended up marrying her 35 years ago and we have four kids,” he said.
However, 12 or 13 years ago, Deacon Dorner felt his heart once again tugged toward ministry.
While on a retreat, “I felt God talking to me and saying ‘maybe now it’s time for you to do something else. Now it’s time for you to serve me in another way,’” he recalled, and soon after he joined the diaconate formation program.
Deacon Dorner reminded the students that God is always speaking to them.
“Whether you’re in fifth grade, or eighth grade, in high school, college or in your 40s, God is always calling you. Your job is to listen,” he said. “Don’t be afraid when God tells you he needs you.”
In St. Joseph Church sanctuary, Sister Mary Jacinta told the girls that she didn’t always think she would be a sister.
“When I was your age, I thought I might be a police officer or an actress on Broadway. But I never thought of being a sister,” she said.
During the question and answer session, many of the students’ questions for Sister Mary Jacinta focused on the sister’s wardrobe.
“Is that the only thing you get to wear?” asked one girl.
“I wear this during the day, and at night I wear pajamas. But I can do a lot in this habit,” Sister Mary Jacinta said. “I have gone horseback riding, rock climbing and whitewater rafting in this.”
“You mean you can’t wear jeans?” asked another student.
“No, I don’t wear jeans. When you love somebody, you’re willing to sacrifice, and I love God, so I’m willing to give up wearing jeans and other things.”
Sister Mary Jacinta also pointed out that some other congregations of sisters do not wear habits.
“Did any of your friends think you were crazy?” asked another fifth-grade girl.
“Yes, some of them thought I was crazy, but most of them accepted me and wanted me to be happy,” she said.
The day ended as Father Ballman and Drummer handed out framed photos of the seminarians to student representatives of the schools to hang in the fifth-grade classrooms.
Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese, whose office co-sponsored the event along with the Office of Vocations, said that they hope to make this an annual event for fifth-graders.
“When children are 10 and 11, some are starting to think about what they want to do when they get older,” she said. “We had the idea to bring them together when they are old enough to understand that they each have a call, and young enough to still be open and courageous about doing something different.”
“We hope that they go back to their schools and talk about this and that the fourth-graders get excited and can’t wait to come next year.”