Our Lord ‘called’ and they got the message

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, July 3, 2011

Kevin Cody and Doreen Dabney took different routes on their way to serving the church as full-time lay ministers.

However, the two staff members at St. Alphonsus Parish in Lemont both felt a definite call to their roles in the church, a call that took them away from earlier careers and changed their lives. That call was recognized at a Lay Ecclesial Ministry Calling Rite over which Cardinal George presided on June 26.

Eight directors of religious education and three pastoral associates were recognized.

For Cody, the director of religious education at St. Alphonsus for 13 years, the formal recognition of his calling was a long time coming, but the call itself was clear.

“To make big changes, sometimes you need a bit of a push,” is what he said about the circumstances that led him to walk away from a career as an auditor and cost management director.

He had already been involved in the parish as a volunteer — enjoying most his role in the RCIA program — when changes started happening at his company that he didn’t like, including an expectation that the father of two thenyoung children make himself available 24/7 for work.

At the same time, his twin brother was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and giving hope and spiritual sustenance to others as he did so.

“It came down to his faith,” Cody said. “He aligned his life with the life of Jesus. He identified with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Like Jesus, he came to accept that there was a purpose for his suffering. That helped him accept it and cope with it. I saw how he inspired people.”

Spiritual intervention

To help people find the faith that his brother had became Cody’s goal, Father Richard Fragomeni suggested he start studying at Catholic Theological Union for a master’s degree in theology, and Cody thought about looking for a job as a high school theology teacher. Then his pastor, Father Kevin Spiess, offered him the position of director of religious education at St. Alphonsus after he had been going to school full time for a year.

He came on board, part time at first, making a quarter of what he had earned in the private sector. But he could do some of the work at home, and his then 2- and 3- year-old daughters often came to work with him.

Now a full-time parish minister, he runs a religious education program for about 440 children, in addition to special programs for children who are deaf and for children just entering the church, as well as youth ministry.

Called from within

Dabney, a pastoral associate, said her call came more from within. Born and raised Catholic, she married a Southern Baptist minister’s son and raised her children in various evangelical churches while working as a corporate executive. She had always been involved in some kind of Christian church, always emphasized the need for service to her children and was always a spiritual seeker, she said.

In 2001, she came to Illinois from California and settled in Lemont, where “everyone was Catholic,” she said.

So Dabney decided to look into the local Catholic parish, and, as is her wont, started studying the teachings from an intellectual perspective.

“I found it was a very generous ecclesiology,” she said. “I was attracted to that, to the faith of my youth, with more openness and generosity.”

She soon decided to enter the archdiocese’s Called and Gifted lay ministry formation program, which is primarily aimed at people involved in volunteer ministry at their parishes.

“When I walked into that first session, I knew I was home,” she said. “I knew this was what I was called to be.”

So she went through the Called and Gifted program and went on to Together in God’s Service, a formation and education program for people who feel called to fulltime lay ministry. She eventually finished with master’s degrees in pastoral studies and divinity.

The pastor of St. Alphonsus at the time, Father Francis Jenks, offered her a part-time job as a pastoral associate, and she worked out a plan with her company so that she could do both. That lasted for a year, before she made the switch to full-time ministry.

“This was where I was called to be, and wherever it led from there, it was my job to trust it,” she said.

And it has required a great deal of trust. She made the move after the breakup of her marriage left her with almost no savings, and her lifestyle changed overnight. Her grown children were concerned about her newly precarious financial position, she said.

“It was hilarious,” she said. “For a while, I had to work at Starbucks to make ends meet.”

But it wasn’t the dinners at high-end restaurants or the European vacations that was hardest to give up, she said.

“It was the pride, even more than the money,” she said. “It was the intellectual and professional legacy I left behind.”

To say she heard a call from God, she said, is too simple and makes it sound too easy and clear cut. It was more that she heard a call from her best self, the person that God wanted her to be.

When others ask her how they’ll know if they’re being called to something, she tells them to use a little patience.

“If it’s a calling, not just a want or a hobby, you won’t be able to stray from it,” she said. “It’s going to keep haunting you.”

Continued affirmation

Cody, for his part, said he has continued to receive affirmations that God called him to the ministry of religious education. Two years after taking the position, he received an award from the National Association of Parish Catechetical Directors; now he is finishing a term as the association’s president.

“That’s been affirming,” he said. “And I’m working on a daily basis with families who sometimes share what they have learned or how we have impacted their lives.”