As one of my friends from college was packing up her apartment for a move, she stumbled upon an item that recalled our friendship’s beginnings. When people ask me how we met, I usually tell them that we lived in the same dorm my freshmen year, but in truth, most people, Catholic or not, could never really understand what built our friendship.
Sure, it is true that we lived in the same dorm, along with 400 other women, but we grew close because we were the odd young women who seemed to have a “special” interest in faith and spirituality. We enjoyed not only going to Mass, but actually wanted to help plan it and volunteer for events put on by our college’s campus ministry. What really brought us together, though, was that we were designated as “vocation discerners.” Many in the Catholic world constantly urged us to “seriously discern religious life.” From high school on for both us, one in the urban Midwest and the other in rural California, had little old church ladies, priests and nuns envisioning the day we would take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience long before we knew the difference between an apostolic sister and a contemplative nun. My friend was even given the worst CD-Rom ever created: “God’s Design.” This was the found item that spurred my friend’s 2,000 mile call and left us belly laughing as we relived its horrid format of a Santa Claus looking God leading the vocations discerner through an amusement park of prayers, religious life, and tips for the soon to be priest or religious. The most memorable advice included something to the effect of “After selling all of your belongings, be sure to have a farewell party with all of your family and friends because you will never see them again!”
Though well intentioned, these folks (the creators of the CD-Rom included) pushing us into religious life never gave us an alternative to being faithful and spiritual women other than becoming vowed religious. Certainly, I am not chastising anyone of those people who felt the need to tell me that I “would look great in a habit” or “make a better school teacher than the mean sister” they had in grade school, but I never once had someone say to me, “Becky, you would make a great lay ecclesial leader. We need strong and faithful women like you!” No one ever even told me that the laity have a mission of their own within the Catholic Church. It is a mission that I now realize, after years of “vocations discernment,” that I am truly called to live. I actually stumbled upon Vatican II’s beautifully written role of the laity while writing a paper in college: “The laity…are given this special vocation: to make the church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that it can become the salt of the earth…All lay people…are at once the witness and the living instruments of the mission of the church itself… [and] have the exalted duty of working for the ever greater extension of the divine plan of salvation to all people of every time and every place (Lumen Gentium, 30).”
I am certain that there are faithful women called to vowed religious life within a community, and we must support those who are discerning God’s call, especially those who are young and find it increasingly difficult as religious communities continue to age. I have been guided, mentored and loved by many of these fantastic sisters, but as a Church, we must not continue to perpetuate the notion that the only way for a woman to be a truly faithful Catholic is to become a vowed religious. We must encourage and constantly remind all people that each of us has a vocation vital to the mission and life of the Church, and when asked to “pray for vocations” also pray for passionate, devoted and faithful laity as well.
Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.