Those who volunteer more likely to consider vocations

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, July 27, 2014

If women’s religious congregations want to find young women with religious vocations, the Catholic Volunteer Network has a simple suggestion: look among our volunteers.

The network’s “From Service to Sisterhood” initiative, funded by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, aims to help women’s religious congregations reach out to volunteers, who are far more likely to report that they have considered a religious vocation than members of the general Catholic population.

That message was shared at a July 17-18 symposium hosted by the network at the Chicago Cenacle, 513 W. Fullerton Parkway. Participants included leaders of women’s religious congregations, religious sisters who once were volunteers and people who work with young adult Catholics.

The network, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, serves as a kind of clearinghouse for full-time volunteer opportunities. Its 203 member programs placed more then 20,000 full-time volunteers in positions in 48 states and 112 other countries last year. Nearly a quarter of the programs are sponsored by women’s religious congregations.

Last year, the network commissioned Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to survey its alumni; what they found was that 37 percent of them had considered religious life before, during and after their period of service, said Jim Linsday, the network’s executive director. Of that 37 percent, nearly half were considering a religious vocation while they were serving.

“We feel it’s part of our mission to help people discern their mission, whatever that might be,” Lindsay said. “We’re not just about the service and the work that they do.”

The way many of the service programs are set up — with, for example, the volunteers living in community, with opportunities for reflection and an active prayer life — are often a good fit for people who are considering religious life. Most of the programs cater to young adults, perhaps just out of college, taking time before starting a first full-time job or graduate school.

“It’s kind of a natural transition point,” Lindsay said.

While many of the volunteers might have been considering religious life, some of the religious congregations seem almost reluctant to ask those in their volunteer programs if they wanted to know more about them, he said.

While congregations should not see volunteer programs as a pipeline for future vocations, Lindsay said, that doesn’t mean that they should avoid the topic entirely with volunteers.

“We know how important an invitation is to vocations,” he said.

Jesuit Father Thomas Gaunt, executive director of CARA, said about 2 percent of the women who served as full-time volunteers in Catholic programs ended up becoming professed religious sisters. That might seem like a small number, but it’s far greater than the number in the general Catholic population.

“That’s happening without our paying attention to it,” Gaunt said. “We can’t figure out that there is any more dense population of young women considering a religious vocation out there.”

Participants in the symposium suggested that the responsibility for fostering vocations does not fall solely to the religious congregations that sponsor volunteer programs.

Parishes who have young adults participating in full-time volunteer opportunities can support them throughout the term of their service by praying for them and keeping in contact with them.

Members of other religious congregations near their service sites can welcome them for meals and social activities, participants suggested.

Cabrini Sister Joan McGlinchey, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Religious, said that her office has been working with the archdiocese’s Young Adult Ministry office and with Catholics on Call, a young-adult program offered by Catholic Theological Union, to reach out more effectively to young people who might have a vocation to the religious life.

Catholic volunteers, especially those in programs affiliated with religious congregations, are an important group to consider. For many of them, volunteer programs might be the first opportunity they have to get to know religious sisters, McGlinchey said.

“They can see that these are real people and this is a real life,” McGlinchey said. “It also offers them a new experience of church.”


  • vocations
  • volunteers

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