National Vocations Awareness Week is always held around the Feast of Australia’s first Saint Mary MacKillop on 8 August. This Sunday, we focus on the call to Priesthood and Religious Life. Mary’s journey to religious life has become familiar to us along with the people and places where she established Catholic schools – Penola SA, South Brisbane Qld, and close to us here at St Marys and Penrith.
A pivotal figure in Mary’s life was the former Parish Priest of Penola, Fr Julian Tenison Woods, testimony that God is at work even in the outback! Fr Julian enjoyed his ‘10 years in the Bush’! and travelled on horseback around his extensive parish which included the Coonawarra Region - ‘suitable for viticulture’ he noted in his journals - and Portland where he met the youthful Mary MacKillop who would later establish the Sisters of St Joseph.
Mary eventually came to her uncle’s property at Penola and she and Tenison Woods became firm friends. They shared a dream of setting up a school in Penola to cater for all Catholic children, including the poor. The school eventually became a reality and Julian and Mary hoped to form a simple community. Mary began wearing a plain black dress and bonnet. When Bishop Lawrence Sheil OFM visited Penola, he addressed her as ‘Sister Mary’ and her great story continued from there.
Each of us has our dreams but how often does it occur to us that our dream and God’s dream might be the same? While some vocations demand a radical change in our lives, invariably our vocation is about the convergence of these dreams. As Christians, every one of us is called and commissioned to be bearers of God’s grace to others. Surely this is what every parent does, what spouses do for each other, what family, friends and loyal companions do as well. When the dream ‘fits’, we are responding to God’s call.
Vocations do not come out of thin air but are usually the fruit of Christian family life where parents engage with their children and form them in the Christian way. You and I have faith because at some stage in our lives, significant people were bearers of God’s grace to us – parents perhaps, a significant family member or friend, an ordained minister or religious brother or sister. A vocation is rarely discerned in isolation but is often nurtured and called forth by others. A religious calling, though deeply personal, is never private. God’s love is always for sharing, exemplified in the generous way Jesus offered himself for us.
Even where religious live an enclosed life, their prayers are for those in need. For example, over the years I have contacted the Benedictine Sisters at Jamberoo requesting prayers for children in desperate situations, like suffering from leukaemia. A memory I treasure is the fax from one Sister with the message, ‘Fr Dave, our community will pray for this child. As a mother and grandmother myself, my heart goes out to her parents.’ I met this sister last year and I realised how God may surprise us with a second calling!
Religious vocations are invariably lived out in selfless service of the community and we need to pray for the grace to love the Church in troubled times and support those called in these ways. As Mary would say, ‘Do not let your troubles disturb your trust in God!’ (1874).