Speaker: Sister Lisa Mary McCartney, RSM
Topic: Seeds of Vocation in Story and Presence
Shortly after Angela spoke to me about your discussions on vocations and spirituality, I happened upon Fr. John Malthaner’s parish bulletin. This late summer season occasioned his reflection on the fruits of planting seeds of faith and the spiritual life. That Biblical image -- “sowing the seeds of faith” – struck me as an apt metaphor for understanding your (our) role in encouraging vocations.
As Jesus has made abundantly clear through his parables, stories are a powerful means of sowing the Word of God in people’s lives. My years of teaching literature have shown me the power of stories, and I believe each of us has stories, personal and inherited ones, well worth sharing. They come in Karios moments, often of love and crisis within our own lives and personal histories, and they can inspire vocations, plant the seeds of vocations—if we are alert and sensitive to a young man or woman calling them forth from us—and if we can invoke them. The stories are in us; the response is in them. We need to recollect our stories and have them ready in our hearts. That might require us to step away from our busyness and reflecting on our life and experiences in the presence of God, as Catholics, and for the sake of Catholicism in our 21st century.
Many of us Catholics tend to be reserved in talking about our faith and personal encounters with God, but I think it’s time to get over our reservations, for more than ever before, we need to tell our stories of faith.
Our last three popes have called for a New Evangelization. I doubt they meant for us to become street-corner evangelists, so, how, in everyday life, might we do that? As the Body of Christ, we have a collective Catholic story that roots and animates all our stories of faith. It is the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, which literary scholars call an archetypal story. We are so fortunate to have that story unfold for us every year, every liturgical year, through our Sunday Masses. With Christ at the center, our part in salvation history continues to unfold in a multitude of discreet stories of faith, hope and love. Do we realize that?
I know I am not alone in being extraordinarily weary of the news media telling our stories. It seems they can’t get beyond their own biases. They give us stories about Catholic happenings which, by and large, only sow seeds of discontent and division, not seeds of love and faith and hope. Today, we need to tell stories that build up our Church and society and strengthen our Catholic identity. I believe they are in us in our present reality, awaiting opportunities to be revealed. These are not stories of the golden age of Catholicism that never was, nor are they stories of a Catholic utopia that never will be. The Incarnation lives in us now in our present moment.
The seeds of my vocation were sown through story and presence. Telling a timely story and being present to another person is something anyone of us can do during the ordinary ways of daily life (I think it was St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the 11th Century who described the Blessed Virgin Mary’s holiness as so extraordinary that it could only be described in the ordinary way of daily life.)
St. Paul played a huge role in early Christian evangelization and he learned and passed on some hard lessons. In Corinth, he uses the metaphor of the seed to give wise fatherly advice to the young, overly zealous, community: I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but it is God who makes it grow. (1 Cor 3:6). Today, in what is very distressing times, we can find peace and joy in this understanding of St. Paul. Whether in faith, in spirituality, or in vocation discernment, it is comforting to know that we—Serrans, any of us—can plant the seeds of faith and vocation, and let others, (maybe pastors, sisters, vocation ministers) do the watering. In all circumstances, we must place all our trust in God who gives the growth. Then, we can serve the faith and vocations without worry, but with a light heart.
We can, in fact, help God out simply by becoming a Johnny Appleseed. When I was 14, I met my Johnny Appleseed, and her name was Sr. Denise Carroll. She was a nurse in the DuBois Hospital, which was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, and I was an overnight guest awaiting a tonsillectomy the next morning. I met Sr. Denise at about 9 o’clock in the evening. (I learned only later that every evening after a day’s work, the Sisters visited individual patients. That is presence.) Sr. Denise charmed me with her Irish brogue and story of a boy who got a fishbone stuck in his throat at dinner on the eve of his confirmation. Providentially, his faithful grandmother was at hand and put a St. Benedict medal in a glass of water (to bless it, I guess). As he drank the water, the bone miraculously dislodged. Then, Sr. Denise took a Heinz pickle pin with a Sr. Benedict medal attached to it and pinned it on my hospital gown. At 14, I may have been somewhat skeptical, but I was certainly charmed.
Then Sister (as they use to say) explained, I was lucky to be just old enough to have Pentothal. I would receive it in the morning before surgery and fall sleep. Soon after, I would wake up with just a sore throat and be able to go home. That’s a true story. I still have the pickle pin to prove it.
Around that time, I remember, my grandmother asking me if I wanted to be a Sister and being puzzled by the question and shaking my head, no. I suspect I must have been talking about Sr. Denise, and Gram saw that something when vocation the seed was planted. She read the sign and she was not a Serran; in fact, at the time, she wasn’t even a Catholic.
By the end of my years in public school, I had a growing desire to know more about my Catholic faith and insisted on going to a Catholic college. (I’ll admit after Book 1 and 2 of the Baltimore Catechism, I became a CCD drop out of sorts. The question-answer method and rote memorization to faith was just insufficient for me.) However, my Dad had one non-negotiable, the family never missed Sunday Mass and hardly ever did we skip parish devotions. (Actually, that is another story.)
After high school, I worked for a year and started attending daily Mass, then I found my way to Mercyhurst which provided good soil for the seed in me. Six years after I met Sr. Denise, I sat in the Mercyhurst College chapel, and with unambiguous clarity thought, “Jesus, I want to know you more and help others to know you.” That moment of decision has held steady for over 50 year.
My story has a million, a trillion, variations in the history of the Church, but vocations to the priesthood, sisterhood, brotherhood, and sacramental marriage center in Christ. I know you have such stories and experiences that the Holy Spirit will use to influence, call forth, and encourage others. I invite you to share your stories of faith, not only for the sake of religious vocations but for the sake of our Catholic identity in the 21st century.
In the 1980s when I was finishing grad school, Alasdair MacIntyre, who was then a Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, wrote a book entitled, After Virtue, which has been recognized as one of the great work of philosophy and moral life in the 20th C. He argues that our world (the world we in this room know) has lost a sense of its narrative history and he contends that in our actions and practice, we are essentially story-telling creatures and that it is through narratives that we begin to learn who we are and how we are called on to behave. In an awesome statement, he says, “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.
If we want to nurture vocations, we need to secure the Catholic Christian identity of our children and young people and provide them with an abundance of formative stories. Reading and telling bible stories, stories of the saints, and stories from our hearts—and getting the kids to Mass—I believe, are essential for a new evangelization.