I discovered my vocation to be a priest in Catholic schools. Surely, the seed was planted by the diocesan priests and IHM sisters who taught me at St. Pius X Grade School in Broomall, PA, and the Augustinians who taught me at Malvern Prep. But it was while I stood on the other side of the desk, as a teacher, that these seeds took root and blossomed into a religious vocation. Though the details differ, many could tell a similar story….
Weeks into my first semester of law school, I was slowly but certainly realizing that I was in the wrong place. Finally, I quit. I returned home, completely depressed at my life’s “failure.” Then one day, out of the blue, the phone rang: one of my friends who taught at the nearby Catholic high school called. He knew I had been moping around the house. A teacher was going on maternity leave, and the school was looking for a temporary replacement. Talk about casting your net into unexpected waters. My friend persisted: “The school could use you, and the kids would love you.” So, a bit intrigued, I took the job.
By the end of the first week, I was infatuated with teaching—the rush of being in front of the classroom, the challenge of creating engaging and effective lessons. Composing tests instead of taking them! Engaging students after class as a young teacher who could relate to them. By the end of the school year, even amidst all the crazy tribulations of first-year teaching, I realized I had fallen in love with teaching. They couldn’t get me out of the school—I coached, founded a Philosophy Club, planned school masses, led service trips, organized retreats.
But the call to religious life, like all things at Catholic schools—being, as they are, infused with Christ and people who truly care about one another—also became quite personal. I kept a baseball and two gloves in my bottom desk drawer, and when students approached me after class about their problems, we would have a catch in the school yard while we talked. One day, throwing the ball, a student who had been deeply troubled in class, suddenly began crying. We put down our gloves and started to walk, and he told me that his parents had decided to divorce. I would walk with him many times over the next three years. On those walks, and many encounters like them, I began hearing an even deeper call. “Here is the life I wish for you. There are many students like this. There are many walks like this I need you to take. There are many words I need you to speak. Come and see….”
Catholic schools teach us how to truly give ourselves to one another—as students and as teachers. In doing so, they plant the seeds for vocation in all of us. And at a time when the call to religious life can be difficult to discern, Catholic schools continue to provide an environment where this call can be heard, nurtured, and followed.
Today, over 70% of all priests and religious in the United States have attended Catholic school for at least part of their education. Granted, I am an easy grader—but by any metric, that is an A+ for Catholic schools for nurturing religious vocations!