Fifth graders urged to listen to ‘whispers’ in heart

When the two disciples fleeing Jerusalem after Jesus’ death realized the risen Christ had been with them all along on the road to Emmaus, they couldn’t wait to tell others the amazing news, said Dominican Father Thomas Schaefgen, speaking to 1,200 fifth graders assembled at Mount Carmel Academy April 29.

“In the middle of the night, they ran back to Jerusalem in the dark, on an unknown road, to share that experience,” Father Schaefgen said of the disciples, who were scared, despondent and ignorant of their companion’s identity until their risen savior broke bread during the evening meal. “(Those disciples) realized, ‘This experience wasn’t just for me; it wasn’t meant just for me. We have to share it.’ This is what vocations in the church are all about.”

Father Schaefgen, 30, parochial vicar of St. Anthony of Padua in New Orleans, was the keynote speaker at “Calling All Fifth Graders,” the annual archdiocesan gathering that gives 10- and 11-year-olds a peek at the vocational callings of priests, sisters, brothers and deacons.

Defining vocation as “the way that God is asking you and me to share our lives,” Father Schaefgen noted that saying yes to one’s vocation flips the negative definition of “sharing” on its head. God’s call, by its very definition, is something one is enthusiastic about sharing with others, he said.

“Maybe when Mom or Dad asks us to share, it doesn’t sound fun; but when God asks us to share, it’s the most amazing thing in the world,” said the priest, who was ordained last June. “When we share ourselves – when we share our time and our gifts and our talents with other people – it’s life-giving. When God asks you to share, it doesn’t sound like something negative, sad or frustrating.”

“So all the people here – especially the religious and the priests, all those who are consecrated, all those who are giving their lives to the church – God has asked them to share their lives with others,” Father Schaefgen added. “The same thing happens in marriage. The man and the woman hear the call of God to share their lives with their spouse.”

God, the loving gardener

But how does one find the right vocational fit? Father Schaefgen said that God rarely speaks to his children “in rain, thunder or an opening of the clouds.” Rather, God “speaks to us in the heart,” he said.

“It’s like a little seed that he planted in you 10 or 11 years ago,” Father Schaefgen explained. “That seed that he planted will continue to grow as you get older, and eventually (God) is going to come to you and say, ‘See that little seed? It’s grown into a plant. That’s your vocation. It’s been inside of you all along,” Father Schaefgen said, encouraging the youngsters to seek out supportive friends, family and mentors “that you can walk the journey with.”

Chance to love as Jesus did

The fifth graders, who hailed from 30 Catholic elementary schools, heard from priests, deacons, sisters, brothers and other consecrated individuals throughout the day via panel discussions and interactive games and learned that the adults before them were simply ordinary people who had accepted extraordinary callings.

Servants of Mary Sister Miriam Rivera discerned her vocation at unusually early age – as a child growing up in the town of Ocotlán, Mexico, near Guadalajara. Sick as a newborn, her parents consecrated her to Our Lady of Guadalupe and she entered the sisters’ convent in Querétaro, Mexico, as an aspirant at age 14. Her community of sisters, based in Gentilly, minister to the sick and dying during the overnight hours, so their caregivers can rest.

“What makes me very happy in my vocation is I really believe that Jesus is present in each one of us, so when I serve the sick, I know that that’s Jesus. That’s the way that I show my love for Jesus and how I care for him,” said Sister Miriam, describing herself as a typical kid who loved to ride her bike, help out at home, play drums and dance.

Sister Miriam also used to “play being a nun” as a child, drawn to the always-happy sisters who surrounded her at school and in her neighborhood.

“Every time that I saw the sisters, it was a joy that I experienced,” she said. “God kept reminding me that this was how I (also) was going to be happy.”

Vocations among us

At the concluding Mass, Archbishop Gregory Aymond compared God’s call to a “whisper in the heart” that can come at any age and that can go mute and then suddenly resurface as one grows older.

“Most often, God calls us very, very quietly,” Archbishop Aymond said. “He calls us by name and then he says, ‘Come follow me; I need you. I need your gifts in order to lead my people and to serve them. I call you to do that as disciples, but also as a religious sister, or a brother or a priest.’”

The experience of Jeremiah, who felt he was too young and unqualified when God called him to be a prophet, reminds us to not be afraid, because God helps all his children, even at their weakest moments.

“Obviously you’re not going to make any decisions about your life in fifth grade, but it is never too early to open your ears, your hearts and ask God to show you your gifts.

“I can assure you that in this very gym, God is whispering into some of your hearts today, at this very moment as I speak and you listen,” he said.

Attendee Timmy Trimble, a fifth grader at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette, said his concept of the priesthood and religious life grew by leaps and bounds during the daylong immersion.

“It surprised me all the people’s jobs and what they do,” said Timmy, noting his surprise that one of the adults he had met – Dominican Brother Herman Johnson – taught Spanish at Xavier.

“I thought a priest only had one job; I thought all you did was go to the Mass and give people Communion,” Timmy said. “I learned it’s way more fun.”

The annual event is sponsored by the archdiocesan Vocation Office, the Office of Catholic Schools and the vocation directors of local religious communities.

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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