Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Ask and ye shall receive an answer.
Even if it’s the answer to a question as simple as: “What’s your favorite movie?”
Middle school students at St. Gregory the Great Catholic School, Virginia Beach, were invited to attend one of two question-and-answer sessions Thursday, Nov. 15 — one, called “Priest in the House,” held for the boys, and the other, “Nun in the Know,” for the girls — where they had the chance to ask questions of priests and sisters.
And they had a brimful.
“What’s the most amazing that ever happened to you as a priest?”
“What’s the scariest thing that happened to you?
“What did your family and friends say when you told them you wanted to be a sister?”
“Being able to ask questions — it’s a great way to learn more about your Catholic faith,” seventh-grader Ryan Campbell said. “And a great way to learn about vocations.”
‘Priest in the House’
The program began during the 2017-2018 school year when counselor Kyra Krueger noticed during her meetings with students that many of them expressed an interest in talking with a priest.
“They seemed to want to get that different perspective,” she said. “Again and again, I would just hear that need.”
Krueger consulted school principal Gina Coss who, in turn, spoke to Father Eric Vogt, pastor at St. Gregory the Great. Together, they developed “Priest in the House.”
It started with a simple sign-up sheet, giving students the chance to meet with one of the parish priests in the school office.
“The kids absolutely loved it,” said seventh-grade teacher Michelle Sukraw. “They loved to be able to ask them questions, whether it was ‘What’s your favorite hamburger?’ to the deeper meaning-of-life type questions.”
The program proved to be so popular, she said, that students clamored for empty time slots as they became available.
This year, the school adopted the two-panel format allowing as many students as possible the chance to ask questions.
Thomas Gallagher, eighth-grade religion teacher, and Daniel Mehr, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade religion, gave students time during class to think about questions they would like to pose to the priests and sisters. Students had the option of submitting questions privately if they did not want to share them with the class.
“I asked them, ‘What questions do you have about the Catholic Church? I mean, we call the Church “Mother Church.” Do you have any questions about your mom?’” Mehr said.
‘How do you know God talks to you?’
Sister Rita Keller and Sister Brenda Query, Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, led the “Nuns in the Know” session for the girls.
The first question, “How do you know God talks to you?” seemed the perfect opening to a presentation that centered around finding one’s calling in life.
“God is heard in the quiet,” Sister Rita said, “not in the noise that surrounds us. If you take anything away from the session today: treat yourself every day to quiet. Turn your iPhones off, computers off, iPads off. … Then close your eyes and say, ‘God, thank you for everything you’ve given me. I’m listening.’”
She told the girls that God is also heard in the voices of friends and family … and even in the voices of classmates who you don’t know well but who might ask you for your help.
Many paths, one goal
Many questions touched on how the sisters came to find their vocations: Who influenced them? Did they ever feel uncertain about what path to follow? What did their friends and family say when they told them of their decision to enter the convent?
Sister Brenda, adult formation director at St. Gregory the Great Parish, told the girls how she found a model of inspiration in Sister Peter Marion, her first-grade teacher at St. Pius Catholic School, Norfolk.
“I thought she was like the Blessed Mother. She was young, she would go out and jump rope with us . . . She was a wonderful teacher,” she said. “My grandmother would say, ‘Brenda, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ And I would say, ‘I want to be just like Sister Peter Marion.’”
“Did you always want to be a sister, growing up?” one of the girls had asked.
All through elementary school and middle school, she said, her resolve to one day enter religious life remained firm. Then, Sister Brenda began Norfolk Catholic High School.
“. . . and there were plays and rehearsals and dates and proms and then . . . I didn’t know if I really wanted to be like Sister Peter,” she said with a laugh.
Sister Brenda said she thought of a simple way to help her to discern which path to take. Whenever she passed the St. Pius convent on her drive between home and school, she would pray: “Dear Jesus, tell me what you want me to do with my life and I will do it.” She recommended this prayer to the girls as they begin to branch off and find their own vocations in life.
She added that following one’s call might mean going against others’ expectations. When she told one of her best friends of her decision to enter the convent, Sister Brenda said, her friend laughed.
“She thought it was a joke,” Sister Brenda said. “I had to tell her, ‘No, I’m serious.’”
Passing on the faith
One student tentatively raised her hand to ask, “Why are there more options for boys than for girls? For girls, there are only the sisters, but boys can be priests or monks. Why is that?”
“Priesthood in our faith is for men only,” said Sister Rita, development director at St. Pius Catholic School, Norfolk.
She reviewed some of the opportunities for girls, explaining the difference between nuns and sisters: whereas nuns are cloistered, Sister Rita said, sisters go out and work in the community.
Some cloistered nuns may work within the convent, she explained, and a woman who is a religious sister might follow a career path, e.g., lawyer, doctor, nurse or social worker.
The sisters emphasized that, whatever path the girls might take, the call to vocation need not be as dramatic as a voice from a burning bush, but rather might be something as quiet as a voice one hears inside when she isn’t thumbing through Instagram. The best way to live out one’s faith, Sister Rita said, is by listening and keeping an open heart.
Passing on the faith, she said, is not just the job of a privileged few.
“Passing on the faith belongs to all of us,” Sister Brenda said.
Power of the sacraments
When asked what was the “most amazing part” of his life as a priest, Benedictine Father Christiano Brito, parochial vicar at St. Gregory, spoke of the priest’s role in administering the sacraments. He explained to the boys how the Church uses candles, water, bread and wine to make visible and tangible the invisible grace of God.
“These physical signs help to bring people closer to Christ. That, for us, can be very fulfilling,” he said. “We assist people when they are dying — sometimes, we are the ones who hear the last words of a person and are able to reconcile them with God. That is priceless, priceless.”
Father Vogt told the students of an experience he had giving a dying man the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. He drove out to the man’s home during a heavy rain, and, at the very moment his head was anointed with oil, the man passed away.
“As soon as I went out and got into my car, the sun burst out from behind the clouds,” the priest said. “I felt like it was God saying, ‘Eric, you did your job. Harry’s in heaven now.’ It’s moments like those that really make you feel as if you are truly working with God.”
It’s anyone’s call
Father Vogt said he had participated in programs similar to “Priest in the Know.” While times change, the core questions remain the same.
“They have a thirst for faith. They want that thirst to be quenched. They are looking for ways to strengthen their faith,” he said.
Much like the sisters, the priests said they tried to encourage the students to realize that God calls everyone to holiness — that everyone is called to live their vocations, that vocations are not reserved for supernaturally holy people who are somehow set apart from the mass of humanity.
Father Vogt said “Priest in the House” and “Nun in the Know” sessions provide students with the chance to meet a variety of people who have chosen religious vocations and realize they aren’t so very different from them, that they were even teens once themselves.
“It’s important for them to know we aren’t just clones. We are different people with different backgrounds and interests, just like anyone else,” he said.
“The most important question is how are you going to save your soul? You can be married, you can be a priest or a monk — it doesn’t matter. That’s the question we all have to answer,” Father Vogt said.