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Monday, March 10, 2008

11-year-olds, 11th-graders focus on vocations for a day

Looking to his classmates for guidance, Stephen Sturtevant of Sacred Heart Interparochial School in Pinellas Park tries to match religious men and women with their previous professions during an activity. JANET SHELTON FC

More than 1,000 youths and teens attended this year’s Focus 11 the week of Feb. 11 at St. Lawrence Parish, Tampa.


TAMPA Church vocation directors say a crucial element of encouraging vocations is inviting young people to consider entering the priesthood or religious life. Focus 11, an annual diocesan vocations rally, ensures at least two groups of Catholic youths get at least one high-energy invitation.

Focus 11 is aimed at students in grades six (or about age 11), and grade 11. Studies show these are the times when adolescents and teens most think about their future life and work. The church believes it is the perfect time to ask them to consider their vocation: what God wants them to do in their lives.

More than 1,000 youths and teens attended this year’s Focus 11 the week of Feb. 11 at St. Lawrence Parish, Tampa. One day was dedicated to high school juniors; the other two were divided between sixth-grade students.

Feb. 12 belonged to about 550 sixth-graders, most from Pinellas County. Over the course of the day they competed for the loudest, most-spirited cheer; sang songs; watched Spiderman clips and humorous skits; and played scavenger hunts that allowed them to meet sisters, brothers and priests from about a dozen religious communities.

Keynote presenter Sister Tracey Dugas, a Daughter of St. Paul stationed in Miami, told the students her big goal as a teen was to get a job at the mall so she could “get a really good discount at The Gap.” A spiritual retreat took her in a different direction. She went from caring about clothes to caring about serving Jesus.

“I realized religion was more about having a relationship with Jesus,” she said. “Focus 11 is about your looking into the future and saying, ‘what kind of person do I want to be?’”

Diocesan schools dedicate an entire school day to the rally. The chairwoman, Poor Clare Sister Phyllis Shaughnessy, who also chairs the diocese’s Clergy and Religious Promotion Commission, said students from public schools, home-schooled children and students of Catholic schools not overseen by the diocese also attended this year.

In addition to inviting teens and preteens to consider a church vocation, Focus 11 encourages those who do not feel the call to support those who do. It isn’t easy for those contemplating the priesthood or religious life, organizers said, because society in general touts self-indulgence, affluence and prestige.

“To go to the seminary today is a lot harder than 20 years ago,” said diocesan Vocations Director Father Len Plazewski. “There’s society, peer pressure. … Guys who go to the seminary today, they really are making a heroic decision.”

Another barrier is parents who harbor negative views of a church vocation, he said. Without thinking, moms and dads say things about the priesthood they would never say about other professions, or make comments that lead children to believe they aren’t “good enough” to hand their life over to God. Some parents feel the religious life is less joyful than what one could have as a married person or parent. Others are downright hostile.

“I can say without a doubt that the No. 1 challenge in vocations is parents,” the priest said. “Even parents who might not object may say subtle things like, ‘that’s a hard life,’ as opposed to saying something (similar) about a doctor. … There’s this (image) of a priest as having a sad and lonely life.”

St. Raphael Catholic School student Cody Hesson said he’s not interested in becoming a priest, but figures his mom would probably be OK with it. His classmate Jason Wacker said his parents would likely say something along the lines of, “Yeah. Right.”

Days before Focus 11, Jennifer Crumley of St. Paul Catholic School in St. Petersburg came home and talked to her mom about the possibility of becoming a religious sister. Amy Crumbley admitted to a less-than-supportive response.

“I told her I wanted grandchildren,” she said.

Father Plazewski said it’s natural for parents to want for their children what has made the parents happy or would have made the parents happy. But moms and dads should be aware that an underlying selfishness could be at play, he said.

“(It could be) ‘I want grandchildren,’ or ‘I want them to make a certain amount of money so they can take care of me when I’m older,’” the priest said.

When young men and women do pursue a church vocation, disapproval usually dissolves when parents see their sons and daughters find happiness. However, getting to that point takes perseverance by the young man or woman. Society and family often work against a call from God, and there are no easy solutions.

“That’s why it’s important to pray for vocations,” Father Plazewski said. “Because it does take courage to say, ‘I’m going to seek this out.’”

Shelton is interim St. Petersburg diocesan editor for the Florida Catholic.

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