success stories

Service seen as key to creating culture of vocations for all

By Julie Mickles
Catholic News Service

When Sister Ileana Fernandez says the word "vocation," she isn't just talking about priesthood and religious life.

She is talking about the plans God has for every individual. And she has a lot to say on the subject.

"Our purpose in life is to collaborate with God in building a better world," she told The Catholic Commentator, newspaper of the Baton Rouge Diocese. "We must share the understanding that everything we do in life must promote peace, love and justice."

As the director of vocation development for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, Sister Ileana is frequently called upon to give workshops, speeches and presentations.

Whether she is addressing 5,000 adults or speaking one-on-one with a teenager, her message is always the same. Catholics must build a culture of vocations by embracing service to others as a way of life.

That does not mean, however, that everyone must run to the nearest convent or seminary.

Service to God and each other can be accomplished in many different ways. She said she believes it's just as important to have lawyers and doctors working for mercy and justice as it is to have priests who dedicate their entire lives to God.

But a life of service is contrary to current American culture, Sister Ileana said. She called on parents, educators and anyone who comes in contact with young people to help build a culture of vocations.

Sister Ileana suggested that parents can do this by having family prayer time and by ensuring that the family attends Mass together. Exposing children to service, whether by donating old toys to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop, or taking them to visit with the elderly, allows them to experience the joy of helping others.

Sister Ileana said it is not difficult to find people in need. She suggests families look in their own neighborhood. There is always someone who needs help.

"Let the center of the family be love of God and love of neighbor," Sister Ileana said. "Develop a sense of service."

Once this foundation has been set, a child will be more inclined to be open to God's dream for him or her. Sister Ileana prefers the word "dream" over the word "will." She said God's dream for everyone is that they use their gifts and talents to build a better world.

"We need to look at decision making in light of what is Christ's desire for me," she added.

Sister Ileana said she has noticed more desire for service in young people today than a few years ago. However, such youths are often discouraged by parents and other adult role models. In a culture where so many people feel pushed to make lifestyle choices according to money and prestige, those young people who want to follow God's dream for them must receive encouragement.

Last year Sister Ileana had the opportunity to work with a young woman who was taking a year off between college and medical school to be a Jesuit volunteer.

Jesuit volunteers work with the poor and disadvantaged throughout the country. They receive a small stipend for their work and adopt a simple lifestyle. This woman knew that one day she would be a successful doctor, but she wanted to give "the prime time of her life" to Jesus in service of others, the nun said.

Young people like this woman will help build a better world for everyone and it is in everyone's interest to ensure that continuing generations feel the same desire for service, Sister Ileana said.

Young adults who have been immersed in the spirit of service since childhood are better equipped to make the appropriate decisions when it comes time for them to decide what they will do with their lives, she added.

"That is what creating a culture of vocations is about," Sister Ileana said.