Fall Conference: Building relationships and answering the call

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Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff
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The importance of answering God’s call was at the core of the 2017 Fall Conference theme, “Here I am, Lord.” During afternoon breakout sessions, two presenters discussed vocational calls, both how to answer them and how to inspire the same in others.

Vocations and relationships

Dan Blank, director of Administrative Services for the Diocese of Superior, led a post-lunch session on how regular parishioners can plant and grow the seeds of vocations to the priesthood, diaconate, religious, single and married life.

The session was focused on showing as well as telling. Rather than watching listeners’ eyes glaze over in a post-lunch funk, Blank decided to lead them a couple of blocks to a coffee shop; en route, attendees discussed a list of questions related to vocations.

At the coffee shop, Blank talked about some of the less obvious ways to support vocations because, as he observed, all the more obvious ways had been covered earlier in the day.

For catechists, finding new ways to build relationships with youths, in spite of the limitations imposed by safety training, can be as simple as taking a walk rather than just reviewing chapters in a workbook.

“How crazy and brave can we be with our kids?” he asked. “Can we take a walk and talk, or do we have to sit in class?”

Contributing to the Catholic Services Appeal — which supports all diocesan Catholic schools — is another way, Blank said. Parishes without schools may question why they are asked to give money to other parishes, but as Blank pointed out, Catholic schools are successful at fostering vocations. Statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate indicates half of seminarians attended Catholic schools.

On the whole, “We’re very concerned about the shortage of priests,” he said of the diocese.

Cultural forces are also working against the vocational life, and one of Blank’s questions was, “How can we inspire … counterculturalism?”
He offered diocesan seminarian Dan Tracy’s suggestion — by praying for holy marriages. Blank quoted Tracy’s comment on prayer: “’I’m a seminarian. I’ll take all the prayers you have to offer … (but) don’t forget to prayer for holy marriages.’”

Holy marriages lead to strong families, which in turn grow vocations of all kinds — religious vocations, but also commitment to holy marriages and holy single life, which greatly benefit parishes, Blank added.

In his former career as a district attorney, a job he describes as “very stimulating, very demoralizing, and everything in between,” Blank said he learned the value of treating everyone with respect, a simple way Catholics can build relationships with others. “A little bit of compassion can plant a seed,” he added.

Blank asked attendees for their suggestions for familiarizing children — many of whom are not taken to Mass regularly by their parents — with churches, Catholics and Catholic culture.

Sr. Phyllis Wilhelm, OSF, holds religious education classes in the church, so children will feel comfortable in that setting.

Sr. Kathy Salewski, OSF, said although there are no children in Cornucopia, there’s a program a couple of towns away where Catholics and Lutherans collaborate to feed children between school dismissal and afterschool activities. The Lutheran church hosts the program.

In closing, Blank also emphasized the importance of presence, both when working with children and while socializing with fellow parishioners.

“Check the stress at the door,” he said. “Enjoy their presence.”

Answering the call

In his second afternoon session, Dr. Steve Ostovich, a professor and chair of the philosophy department at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, reviewed Biblical figures who answered God’s call — Abraham, Mary, Samuel and others — and discussed some of the challenges they faced.

Mary, for example, finds herself in unfamiliar territory during the Annunciation. Being approached by an angel to have God’s son is a singular event; Ostovich echoed philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s observation: There’s no way to explain how a virgin is pregnant. “It’s not something that’s happened before.”

“Sometimes answering His call is a lonely business, because it puts you in a place where you can’t always explain why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Ostovich added.

Kierkegaard called Abraham a “knight of faith” because of his intimate relationship with God and his complete faith in God’s commands. Even when he is asked to sacrifice his own son, Abraham does not lose faith. He also bargains with God — a unique position for a human — to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and calls on Him to exercise mercy and forgiveness. Keeping promises is challenging, but Abraham always does so.

“Who can understand Abraham?” Kierkegaard pondered. The philosopher grouped Abraham with Mary for the singularity of their relationship with God, Ostovich added.

Like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, Samuel’s mother Hannah was post-menopausal when she conceived him. She dedicated her son to God, and in the first chapter of the Book of Samuel, the boy Samuel keeps hearing the call of God and attributing the voice to Eli.

Eli instructs Samuel to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” and Samuel obeys. In time, he is recognized as a prophet.
Asking and listening, Ostovich said, are the first steps in answering the call.

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