Friday 07.22.2016

Deciding on Consecrated Life Through Speed Dating

As the seconds ticked away, the timekeeper cast her eyes across a student lounge on the Notre Dame campus and announced it was time for the speed daters to change partners. So April Adalim, 24, got up and moved to a tall chair at a round table across from her newest suitor: a graying, bespectacled woman in a religious habit, Sister Theresa Sullivan of the Daughters of Charity.

In this version of courtship, Ms. Adalim was seeking not an affair of the heart but of the soul. After two years of volunteer teaching in a parochial school in Tulsa, Okla., as part of the Alliance for Catholic Education program, Ms. Adalim was attending its Vocation Day.

Along with 31 other young men and women from ACE, as the program is known, Ms. Adalim was agonizing over whether to answer the call to what Catholics refer to as “the consecrated life,” one spent in the priesthood or a religious order. In that process of discernment, the participants were all wrestling with whether to set aside marriage, family and a conventional career.

ACE Sisters, Sister Theresa Sullivan, Notre DameThe speed-dating session — yes, it was called exactly that — put 17 women into rotating conversations with sisters from a dozen religious orders. The sisters had brought along swag in the form of nail files, bookmarks, bottles of hand sanitizer and knitted pouches for rosary beads, all branded with the names of their orders. A large poster from the Sisters of St. Benedict offered a slogan intended for idealistic youth: “The world is zigging. I zagged.”

Ms. Adalim looked at Sister Theresa and said: “With me, I feel like I’ve been discerning on and off for three years. Then I freak out and think I’m discerning about discerning. How do I know which voice to listen to?”

Sister Theresa embodied the commitment and purpose that Ms. Adalim was seeking. She had spent 35 years in the Daughters of Charity, much of it providing medical care to the uninsured and remedial education to the unlettered. Having entered the order at 19, she also embodied the decision to willingly forsake romantic and familial life.

“Pray, be in relationship with God,” Sister Theresa replied. “If you feel the nudge, go and visit some religious communities. And do think of it as dating. If you feel called to go on a first date, you’re not being called to marry.”

Since its founding 23 years ago at Notre Dame, ACE has trained 1,753 college graduates to teach for two years in Catholic schools with low-income, largely nonwhite student bodies. Not unlike priests, brothers or sisters, ACE volunteers live in intentional households, being paid a stipend so modest that they are compelled by finances as well as faith to cook, clean, plan and pray communally.

The numbers, though modest, help to ease the steep decline in incoming priests, sisters and brothers. Perhaps even more vividly, the ACE participants stand at a radical remove from the careerist track of their generation of students at elite colleges.

Jacqueline Salas started college with “my 10-year plan,” which would culminate in a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and a professor’s position.

Instead, as she got to know several religious sisters at her Catholic college, she followed a passion for social justice into a volunteer program with the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul. ACE came next, placing her in a middle school outside Atlanta. Vocation Day merely heightened her curiosity about the possibility of a consecrated life, both what is gained and what is sacrificed in it.

“This is the million-dollar question,” Ms. Salas said. “Why would you want to do this? Why do you feel propelled to become a women-religious worker when you can do all that they do and still have a family and have kids?

“But there’s this state of pure joy when you’re immersed and in the presence of these powerful women figures,” she said. “You wonder how is it possible when the work you’re doing involves so much pain that these women have a presence of the spirit you just can’t fathom.”

Content originally published by the New York Times.