By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Ask a fifth grader what they want to be when they grow up and the answers will, most likely, run the gamut from pro-football player to rock star to doctor to teacher to nurse to president of the United States. Many girls expect to marry and be a mom. A few fifth graders have thoughts of the priesthood or religious life. Since 1996, the Vocations Office of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has hosted Fifth Grade Vocation Day to urge kids to begin thinking about their future, whatever it may hold.
This year, 727 fifth graders attended Vocation Day, held Feb. 6 – 7 at Archbishop O’Hara High School. In order to accommodate all the students, about half the diocesan schools attended the first session and the rest the second session.
As the students arrived, by school bus or carpools, they were entertained in the gym by Diane Pickert, St. Gabriel Archangel Parish’s Youth Director, and guitarist Joe Peterson, playing, singing and getting the kids to participate in music about God and holiness. Foot stomping and hand clapping accompanied a song about A Big, Big House: “It’s a big, big house, where there’s lot’s of room. There’s a big, big table, where there’s lot of food. There’s a big, big yard, where we can play football. It’s a big, big house; it’s my Father’s house!”
Father Richard Rocha, Director of the Vocations Office and pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish, welcomed the fifth graders and convened Vocations Day. He encouraged the kids to “think about what God has in store for you.” He recalled that when he was in grade school he wanted to be a football coach, which he grew up to be. For 13 years, he served as a football coach at several high schools and colleges, finally landing a “dream job” as head coach at Mt. Vernon High School in the Ozarks. “Then God called me to coach on His team, he said. The call to the priesthood grew stronger, so strong he had trouble sleeping at night. In 2002, he was ordained a priest at St. Elizabeth Church in Kansas City.
The students were to attend four 20-minute sessions. “Men in Black” featured Fathers Greg Lockwood (administrator, Christ the King and administrative director, Vocations Office), Justin Hoye (St. Patrick-KC), Stephen Hansen (Coronation of Our Lady), Adam Haake (St. John Francis Regis), Adam Johnson (St. John LaLande), Ben Kneib (St. Andrew the Apostle), Charles Rowe (Holy Trinity), Tom Holder (Our Lady of the Presentation) Sean McCaffrey (St. Peter) and Benedictine Brother Etienne Huard of Conception Abbey, for the boys. “Sister, Sister,” featured Sisters Agnes Halisky and Misericordia Radel, Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles in Gower; Mary Clare Eichman, Sister of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist; Sisters in Jesus the Lord, Julia Kubista and Maria Damiana Lee; Little Sisters of the Poor Amy Kristine Kaiser and Mary; School Sisters of Christ the King Mary Fidelis Dunavan and Marie Jacqueline Tasler, and Sister Servant of Mary Lucero for the girls.All the students participated in “P-Dub” (Praise and Worship), with Pickert and Peterson, and “Join the Bishop’s Vocation Team,” with Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn. “Men in Black” gave the boys a brief overview of the priesthood from both recently ordained priests, long-serving priests and a monk, while “Sister, Sister” introduced the girls to life as a religious sister. P-Dub — music and some down-to-earth talking to the fifth graders about vocations, again featured interactive music. Pickert asked the students, “What is a vocation?” Some knew, some didn’t, but when she explained that “a vocation is what God is calling you to do, to bring you closer to Him and to happiness,” they all understood. She added that in the fifth grade, “your vocation is to be a child, to have fun, to be a daughter, a son, a sister or brother, a grandson or granddaughter, to study and grow.”
There are two kinds of vocations in life, she continued. The primary vocations are states of life: a priest, a religious sister or brother, or marriage. “About 80 percent of you will be called to marriage,” Pickert said. “About 20 percent are called to religious vocations. What we do to make money to pay the bills is our secondary vocation. What are you interested in being when you grow up?”
The answers: zoo keeper, architect, lawyer, veterinarian, singer, turtle breeder, teacher and the Pope.
Pickert reminded the students that, “We find out what God is asking or telling us to do through prayer. Whatever God calls you to do, you’ll be happy if you do it well.”
Bishop Finn spoke to the girls and boys separately, telling all the students the story of his vocation.
He said he was in the fifth or sixth grade when he first really thought about being a priest. “I thought maybe God was calling. We had a young priest, newly ordained, at our parish in St. Louis, and I liked serving Mass with him. My sixth grade teacher, Sister Mary Joachim, used to walk around the playground at recess and some of us, including me, liked to walk around with her and talk. I thought, ‘she is giving her life to God and she really enjoys it!’”
When he was in middle school, he recalled, a missionary priest visited the parish school and during his talk told the students he would foretell who would be a priest and who would be a sister. Bishop Finn remembered thinking, “I hope he calls on me.” The missionary did not call on him, but it got him to thinking more about the priesthood.
He began considering the seminary for high school, but was nervous about telling his parents. He recalled his surprise when his father accepted that he wanted to enter the seminary, and then continued with what he was doing. After the seminary high school, he continued with seminary college, Theology and ordination, but never considered that one day he’d be tapped to be bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph. God however had a different idea.
“If you think you might be called,” Bishop Finn said, “check out online, following your parents’ or school’s rules about the Internet, about seminaries or visit a monastery or convent. Look for people who might inspire you about your vocation and talk to them, even if the conversation isn’t about vocations. If you’re thinking about your vocation, even at this age, it’s probably that God is calling you. Pray about it and be sure to tell your mom and dad.”
In order to enhance the Vocations Day experience, Father Rocha, Father Lockwood and Sister of St. Francis Connie Boulch, director of the diocesan Office of Consecrated Life, announced the beginning of Vocations Clubs through the parish schools. “There will be a club for boys and one for girls. We want you to be able to continue to be around sisters and priests,” Sister Connie said. “We need pioneers. You will be the pioneers to start these clubs and everybody that signs up will get a chance to name the clubs. We hope to have camps, visit different convents and seminaries, do activities. We want to really be open to what God wants us to do.”
Father Rocha said, “We hope to develop a group of servers who will serve Mass for the Bishop on special occasions. We will attend Mass and pray together, visit seminaries and convents and we’ll get an opportunity to learn more about vocations.”
Mass at nearby St. John Francis Regis Church, celebrated by Bishop Finn, was the closing of the day. Before the students trooped over to the church, Father Adam Haake talked to the students as a whole. “All of you have a vocation, at the end of the day, to be a saint. Men are called to lay down their lives as a priest or a father, women as a mother or a religious sister. Men and women may also be called by God to remain single all their lives. God is calling all of you, but for you to hear him you need to spend less time playing video games, less time watching TV and more time listening to God. Pray to hear his voice. Be a little quieter to hear him.”