“I’m going to be a Doctor,” Molly told me with the blind confidence only a 16 year old could convey. She had a pre-determined path and she was going to take it. She would be successful, she would be financially comfortable, and she would be helping people. Her vocation was decided.
Then, a year later, having spent two weeks in the summer studying theology—a new adventure for this public school kid— the mission was the same …but with a slight adjustment. “I’m going to do Doctors without Borders,” she declared.
By the time she graduated high school and was making plans to attend a Catholic university (rather than a distinguished pre-medical school), she was considering theology—but only as a minor.
When she graduated with her Bachelors of Theology degree in-hand, she headed off to a service year with Maryknoll Missionaries in Bolivia. She discovered that her call would not be medicine and that God would use her gifts for tremendous work.
Every young person I’ve ever had been able to accompany in my years as a youth minister, youth program director and now Diocesan Director for Youth and Young Adult Ministry has been right on the cusp of answering the same question: What are you going to do next?
Whether it was from their well-meaning grandparent, the school guidance counselor, or the parent trying to help them plan the future, the question is as inevitable as it is universal.
That’s because throughout most of a young person’s life, the parameters within which they operated were predetermined and had very little to do with what they resolved. They started in Elementary School, which led directly to Middle School and finally to High School. Their aptitude for one subject or another might have directed what level they were at—College Prep, Honors, AP—but it never dramatically altered the pedagogy. They were going to sit in a room, learn from a teacher and get graded a variety of ways until the instructor issued a letter meant to convey their level of mastery.
But almost nowhere in all of those years did anyone sit down with them to listen to their story and ask what God might be calling them to, rather than how high they scored on their SATs.
Public schools can in part be forgiven for not asking such questions, since the law requires that they don’t. The Church has no such excuse.
We in youth ministry have no such excuse. We’ve spent years, decades even, developing curriculum to attempt to help young people to care about the truths and passions of a life of faith. More and more every day, I find myself asking, “What if we started with their passions and then worked faith in the middle of those desires?”
These are vocational questions. They are questions of “personal vocation” in the language of St Pope John Paul II.
I’ve spent enough years doing youth ministry and ignoring the question that every young person sitting in front of me is asking—namely, what they’ll be doing with their life—that I’m ready to engage them on that level.
As I have for twenty years, I’m going to teach them to pray, but with the heartfelt earnestness of someone discerning the will of God and how they are called to build the Kingdom of God. I’ll teach them to read Scripture, but as someone who is listening for how others heard the varying calls of God, how they responded and what they might learn about their own journey. I’ll teach them to learn about the great Saints who came before us so that they might be challenged in how those radical calls to service, justice and holiness speak to God’s call in their own life.
This is my personal vocation: To call forward the Universal Call to Holiness that young people were created for, each in their own way. To build a Church committed to accompanying them on the way.