Fifth graders ask God: What do you want me to be?
A freak playground mishap would transform a powerful craving inside Daughter of St. Paul Tracey Dugas to be the most popular kid in school.
When Sister Tracey was in third grade, a group of classmates accidentally knocked her to the ground, causing the youngster to suffer a life-threatening subdural hematoma.
“I realized that this desire that I had – to be loved, to be wanted, to be applauded, to be held up on a pedestal – was not just a desire for people to love me; I wanted to know that God loved me and knew me!” recalled Sister Tracey, who made a full recovery from her injuries.
“I realized very powerfully (through my recovery) that God was taking care of me,” Sister Tracey explained. “As religious sisters, priests and brothers in the church, our lives point every single day to that truth: that no matter who you are, where you are or what you want for yourself, God wants you more; God loves you more; God wants what’s best for each of us.”
Sister Tracey shared her childhood epiphany with more than 1,200 Catholic elementary school students assembled at Mount Carmel Academy for “Calling All Fifth Graders,” an April 29 program giving 10- and 11-year-olds a peek at the vocational callings of priests, sisters, brothers and deacons.
As the call to the consecrated began entering her mind, Sister Tracey continued to resist the idea, assuming that God “had to make you really different from the rest of the people” to be a priest, sister or brother.
But the reality she discovered was this: God calls all temperaments to serve in the church, even the passionate, quirky and loud ones people might tag as “the troublemakers.”
“God’s not afraid of us in our troublemaking,” Sister Tracey said, smiling. “He wants to use your energy, your talents, your beauty, your gifts to share with other people to show (others) that God loves them, too! The question is, are you willing to ask God to show you what it is that he wants you to do to serve him?”
We used to be kids like you
The fifth graders, who hailed from 25 elementary schools, heard about the vocational journeys of priests, sisters and brothers through panel discussions and interactive games, discovering that those before them simply were “ordinary people” who had accepted extraordinary callings.
For example, they learned that Legionnaire of Christ Father Jacob DuMont had a paper route and played ice hockey before joining the seminary at age 15. His priestly studies enabled him to teach Greek, become fluent Italian and Spanish and even wash the hands of St. John Paul at a Mass in Vatican City.
Brother Ronald Hingle, a math major who attended college on a music scholarship, was revealed to be a lover of country music, water skiing and a former ballroom and disco dancing teacher whose childhood pets included nine ducks.
Being a priest is ‘far out’
Father Matthew Johnston, ordained last year as St. Clement of Rome’s parochial vicar, surprised the fifth graders when he told them he was eagerly anticipating the release of the new “Avengers” movie.
“What is it about (superheroes) that makes them appealing to us?” Father Johnston asked, alluding to the film franchise. “In (superheroes) we see somebody who is great, who is super awesome. There’s a natural attraction to be great, to thrive in your life,” the priest said, telling the youngsters that he once believed his own path to greatness meant becoming an astronaut.
“But then I slowly started to realize that in order to be great, everybody didn’t have to know my name. To be great means one thing, and that’s serving God,” said Father Johnston, noting that the idea of looking at the earth from outer space as an astronaut now pales in comparison with what he does today as a diocesan priest responsible for the spiritual nurturing of his flock through the sacraments and a ministry of presence.
“You know the coolest thing I get to do every day now?” he asked the fifth graders. “Christ gets to work through me and turn ordinary bread and wine into his very Body and Blood in the Eucharist! If you leave with one thing, let it be openness to letting God lead you, because he’s going to take care of you and he is not going to let you down. He’s going to offer you that which is not only going make you happy, but that which is going to make you great.”
Shine your light!
To kick off his homily at the day’s concluding Mass, Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri led congregants in a sing-along of “This Little Light of Mine.”
“Do you know what you just sang?” Bishop Cheri asked the fifth graders. “You sang that you understand that God has given you a light to shine for others to see!”
Bishop Cheri said the church had been built by people – most famously, canonized saints – who “let their light shine” for others to see.
“(The saints) were able to overlook all their struggles and see the power of Jesus Christ before them,” Bishop Cheri said. “We are called to do the same thing, because you never know what the light of Christ in you might do for another person.”
Radiating God’s love has the power to convert the most hardened sinners, Bishop Cheri said, offering the example of John Newton, the slave ship captain who wrote “Amazing Grace.”
“After he wrote that prayer he never, ever captained another slave ship – because he knew what he was doing was not of God,” Bishop Cheri said. “He was changed by the light of Christ.”
Calling All Fifth Graders is sponsored by the archdiocesan Vocation Office, the Office of Catholic Schools and the vocation directors of local religious communities.