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The peace found in discerning...when God calls you in another direction
This Months Issue
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Interested in learning more about discernment and vocations? Here is how in the Diocese of Sioux Falls in college, and I just wanted to see if the Lord was calling me to be a priest,” said Anthony Christenson who grew up in Watertown.
Anthony Christenson with his wife, Rosabel; son, James and daughter, Gemma.
Virgil Klein (third from right) with his wife, JoEllen (third from the left); daughters Sister Marie Estelle, Theresa (Kory), Erin (Lionel) and granddaughter Marie.
Other photo in the full on line version.
“After much prayerful struggling I realized that if Christ laid down His life for me, then the only sufficient response on my part would be to offer my life to Him,” said Cheryl Shaeffer.
“I always thought about it, from St. Joseph’s school on,” said Pierre native Jamison Rounds.
“When in the 8th grade, I asked my parents if I could attend an informational weekend at the Minor Seminary in Sioux Falls. I attended the weekend and felt drawn to consider a call to the priesthood,” said Virgil Klein, who grew on a farm near Dell Rapids and lives there now.
“I attended Mount Marty College and in getting to know the Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery I realized that I needed to see if it was right for me,” said Mary Bitterman, now a member of St. Paul, Armour.
Each of those highlighted in this story spent time in the seminary or in a religious community considering their vocation. Each ultimately, and for reasons unique to them, discerned that God was calling them in a different direction.
That they made the decision to take time in their life to deeply discern God’s call has meant life-long impact not only on them, but on the life of the Church. Having the time and space is essential, along with quiet, said Sister Penny Bingham, OSB, prioress at Sacred Heart Monastery, Yankton.
“In our monastery in general and in our Peace Center (retreat center) specifically, we try to provide an environment of peace that allows us to more easily hear God’s word. Sometimes people want individual guidance with their discernment, and so we try to provide that, as well as discernment retreats, with some focused on discerning one’s vocation to any state in life, and some designed specifically for those discerning a call to religious life,” she said.
“Discernment is the way to know God’s call to each of us concerning our vocation and yes, this takes time, solitude and guides assist one in listening,” adds Sister Janice Klein, president of the Presentation Sisters, Aberdeen. “The discerner needs information and facts about religious life, actual experiences with sisters and the inner freedom in order to respond to the call they are hearing.”
In this story, each participant speaks with joy about the time spent they spent and the value of the experience.
“Most of the time when I say or hear the word ‘listen’, I think of ‘listen . . . with the ear of your heart’ which is part of the prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict,” Bitterman said. “This was part of my training then and I apply it to being a mother who listens with the ear of her heart to one of the many stories that my kids want to share.”
She spent seven years affiliated with Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton. She was known as Sister Mary Frances but struggled with feeling genuine about the title. Ultimately, despite feeling that leaving might be considered failure, Bitterman knew God was taking her another direction.
“Once I did make the decision to live the single life I felt a peace within,” she said. She was seven years single, but now has been married seven years and is mother to son Andrew and daughter Catherine.
“The four years that I spent in Winona, Minnesota are among some of the best years of my life,” Klein said. “The seminary life was really great and we as a community did a lot of things together. Daily prayers and meals together bound us as a family. We taught CCD in parishes surrounding Winona and led several TEC retreats. I have fond memories of climbing the many trails in the bluffs that surrounded the college campus. We had great spiritual leaders at the seminary who led by example,” he said.
He said the first thought that priesthood might not be his call came about the time he transitioned from college to theology. Several of his brothers already had families. “When I would be home for the holidays or breaks, I recall seeing how happy they were and thinking that maybe I am being called to the married life.”
But his discernment was not over.
“After my first year of major seminary, I was beginning to know that I was not being called to the priesthood. However, I returned to the seminary a second year so that I could prayerfully consider the vocation that I was being called to. My spiritual director was very helpful in guiding me through the discernment process,” Klein said.
Despite the fact that national statistics show only about one third of those who attend seminary eventually become priests, it is still a common misperception that going to seminary means you are in for life. Thus those discerning away from priesthood or religious life are often concerned about disappointing family or the community or diocese which has been supporting them.
Klein said he knew the sacrifice made by his parents to send him to the minor seminary.
“Discernment of one’s vocation is not something that is always easy and can be a real struggle and must be considered prayerfully,” he said.
“I recall the feeling of ‘peace’ that I felt after I made my decision despite the fact that I would have to communicate my decision to my parents and family. In the end they were supportive of my decision.”
Despite Shaeffer’s thought that offering her life to God was the proper response for her, the reality was that she was already in love with her high school sweetheart.
“I informed him early on that there was no future for us because I would be entering the convent as soon as I graduated from high school. However, I soon realized how deeply I loved John and I wanted nothing more deeply than to marry him and raise a family with him. But I had vowed to God that I would give my life to Christ,” Shaeffer said.
“I tried desperately to be a good and obedient religious; yet in my heart of hearts I yearned to be a wife and mother... I was not at peace,” she said. “After five years I slowly came to realize that it wasn’t just MY will that I leave and marry John---it was also God’s will.”
“At last I was blessed with that peace that surpasses all understanding,” she said and has never regretted the choice she made. She quickly adds “But with equal sincerity I must say that I never regretted entering religious life. It was a chapter in my life that was full of blessings and it was the best preparation for marriage that I could have asked for.” She and John, Parker natives, have lived their entire married life in Flandreau and are long time active members at Ss. Simon and Jude.
The search for peace is a constant in nearly every vocation story.
“I met with Father Mason (James, diocesan vocation director then), and while I didn’t feel an intense call to the priesthood, I didn’t have a good reason not to go to the seminary. I wanted to figure out this priesthood thing once and for all. I attended Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo, ND,” said Christenson.
“I was there for one year. I never truly felt at peace about being a priest. I wanted to feel at peace, and I was open to it, but I just never felt at peace,” he said.
The time needed to listen to God’s call and direction is essential. Sometimes it is difficult just getting the space and prayer needed to make the decision to try the seminary or convent. Retreats are often where that time is found and for Rounds it was at Blue Cloud Abbey.
“Finally, I went to Bishop Carlson (Robert, now Archbishop of St. Louis), and he said 'Give me two years. Just to listen,'” said Rounds. Rounds spent the first year at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, and the next two years in Rome. Between the first and second Rome years he did a 30-day silent retreat.
“My peace seemed to come back to family and marriage,” Rounds said. “I went back to Rome and I believe that was when my spiritual director, now Archbishop Hebda, gave me an article on discernment. I devoured it. I was still unsettled and uneasy, but I was thinking it was time to leave, and time to follow a calling to marriage. I came home over Christmas and talked with Bishop (Carlson), and returned to Rome to finish the semester. But by the end, it was clear it was time to go.”
Discerning that a person does not have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life does not mean leaving behind what was learned and discovered, nor the relationships formed.
“I still have a love for silence and solitude,” Shaeffer said. “I avail myself to annual retreats and spiritual workshops. After being gone from the Heights in Aberdeen for 47 years, I still look forward to reconnecting with the sisters when I travel to Aberdeen. They welcome me back with open arms and loving hearts.”
Klein said, “In my discernment process I learned to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. I learned to trust in God and seek His intercession. To this day, I pray often for guidance from the Holy Spirit in my faith and daily work.”
“My parents stressed living their faith, praying and helping others and I learned from their example. My desire to help/serve others is something that was also a part of my seminary years and I tried to pass that on to my daughters and hope that they learn from my example,” he said.
He and wife JoEllen have three daughters; one is Sister Marie Estelle, a professed member of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart, Los Angeles. Daughters Erin Fernandez and Theresa Kutz are married.
Rounds said he draws on his seminary experience every day. “I have a morning prayer and accountability partner still. We try to face time for morning or other prayer whenever possible. I am one semester short of my full theology degree (STB), and am working to find a way to finish it. I would like to devote more and more of my time to theology and ministry as I get older.”
After seminary and college, Christenson worked for a year and then became a college missionary with FOCUS. He mow serves as Advancement Director for Newman Catholic Ministry in the Diocese of Sioux Falls. Now married and the father of two he said “I still reflect back to my silent retreat on a regular basis, as well as my prayer, and discernment during my year there. They really stressed the love of God the Father during my time there, and I still draw from times of prayer that brought me closer to Him.”
Another highlight often found among those who spent time in a religious community or seminary is extremely active and faithful parishioners. Among those in this article you will find lectors, religious education teachers, Altar Society presidents, Knights of Columbus and Catholic Order of Forester members, organists and choir members, parish and finance council members and much more. And beyond parish activities they are also active and leaders in their civic communities.
And based on their experiences, here is the advice they give:
Shaeffer: “Go to God in prayer. Be open to where God might be leading you. Don’t be afraid that you might make a mistake or make a wrong decision. As long as you are sincere in your desire to love and serve God----all will be well.”
Christenson: “My biggest piece of advice to anyone thinking about entering the seminary is just do it! You have nothing to lose, and so much to gain.”
Rounds: “I wish every man could experience two years of seminary. If you are considering it, GO. You will never be punished for listening. If you are not called to priesthood, you can still use what you gain to serve. If you are open and humble, the experience will completely transform you. Oh, and you don’t have to be perfect to go to seminary.”
Bitterman: “I know that Sacred Heart Monastery has ‘Come and See’ weekends which allow young women a chance to experience a religious community. It would be a good opportunity to unplug and take time to listen to God. It doesn’t matter which vocation you choose as long as God’s a part of the decision.”
Klein: “If one feels that they might be called to the priesthood or the religious life, they need to check it out and prayerfully consider what God may be calling them to. Understand that entering a seminary/convent does not mean that you will be ordained a priest or be a professed religious. Rather, it must be looked at as a process to learn more about one’s self, the call from God, and the direction that their life will take them. There is no shame in checking out the seminary/convent and discovering that God is calling them to another vocation. In fact, I admire those who have the courage to overcome any obstacles to discovering God’s call for their life.”
Diocese of Sioux Falls Vocations Director, Father Shaun Haggerty, understands the discernment process well, and supports those who have worked to understand where God might be leading them. His personal experience, which includes his twin brother, Shane, contributes to this understanding.
“God worked through him to help me go to the seminary. He was the holy one; I was not. Everyone in my family thought he would be the priest and I ended up being the priest,” Haggerty said.
“When I was in the seminary, some of the seminarians who inspired me the most, or I learned from the most, were men who later left the seminary. Though they left the seminary, they left a mark on my vocation and the entire ministry I do today. When we are generous with God, he does not waste our time. Our actions not only impact ourselves but others. Certainly my brother would say the seminary was the best time spent of his young adult life, but it not only benefited him, it also benefited me and those I minister to.”
Interested in learning more about discernment and vocations? Here is how in the Diocese of Sioux Falls
DAUGHTERS OF ST. MARY OF PROVIDENCE CONVENT
100 S 9th Street, Milbank, SD 57252
Sr. Barbara Moerman, DSMP, Superior
Sr. Mary Walker, DSMP, Administrator
432-3171-tel * 432-3187-fax * firstname.lastname@example.org
MONASTERY OF OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE AND ST. JOSEPH
506 N Summit Ave, Sioux Falls, SD 57104
Mother Caridad Morales, Mother Superior
(Perpetual Adoration Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament)
336-2374-tel * 336-2374-fax * email@example.com
MONASTERY OF OUR MOTHER OF MERCY AND ST. JOSEPH
221 5th Street West, PO Box 67, Alexandria SD 57311
Mother Marie Therese of the Child Jesus, OCD, Mother Prioress
(Discalced Carmelite Nuns)
239-4382-tel * 239-4676-fax
MOTHER OF GOD MONASTERY
10 28th Ave SE, Watertown SD 57201
Sr. Marlene Minnaert, OSB, Prioress (Benedictine Sisters)
882-6633-tel * 882-6600-main tel * 882-6658-fax * firstname.lastname@example.org
OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE CONVENT
417 W Ash Ave, Mitchell SD 57301
Sr. Loretta Von Rueden, OSF, Sister Leader (Franciscan Sisters)
996-1410-tel * email@example.com
1500 N 2nd St, Aberdeen SD 57401
Sr. Janice Klein, PBVM, President
(Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
229-8419-tel * 229-8412-fax
SACRED HEART MONASTERY
1005 W 8th St, Yankton SD 57078
Sr. Penny Bingham, OSB, Prioress
668-6000-main# * 668-6001 * 668-6153-fax * firstname.lastname@example.org
ST. SYLVESTER CONVENT
103 Church Lane, PO Box 204, Marty SD 57361
Sr. Miriam Shindelar, OSBS, Community Leader
(Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament)
384-3305-tel * email@example.com
Office of Vocations
523 N Duluth Ave, Sioux Falls
Rev. Shaun Haggerty, Director
605-988-3726 firstname.lastname@example.org `