My senior prom from La Salle Academy was held in the spring of 1958 at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet. My date was Mary Kelly, a classmate from my parish grammar school.
(John Kiley/Mary Kelly — not much imagination there!) Since we were both seniors, we discussed what we would be doing in the years ahead and what our careers might be.
I mentioned to Mary that my teachers thought I should become a priest. Mary’s response was, “I do, too!” I guess she wasn’t having a very exhilarating time!
This tender encounter occurred to me when a local talk- show host e-mailed a number of priests asking for information on how women had influenced their vocation to the priesthood.
Certainly the example of a priest’s mother comes quickly to mind. Obviously the female influence there is both incontestable and incalculable. A priest’s mother, in my day, was typically a good Catholic — neither the president of the Rosary and Altar society nor the infrequent visitor to church — simply a good Catholic. She might have harbored hidden aspirations about her son’s religious life but his destiny was in God’s hands, not her’s.
Fidelity, loyalty and commitment toward God, her husband and her Church were the foundation stones these moms quietly donated to their son’s vocation.
Much more visible and vocal were the contributions that women religious made to priestly vocations in the old days. The good sisters who staffed our grammar school were living sacramentals who had no reason for existing other than God and their students.
The nuns, as we commonly if incorrectly called them, appeared in the morning and disappeared in the afternoon. They did not drive cars or eat in restaurants.
It was a cause for astonishment to encounter a nun in a store or on the street. They had no families of which we might be aware.
Convent life was strictly private as far as parishioners and students were concerned.
And of course their dress was radically different from anything met in daily life. No doubt these women were capable of some great career possibilities and of raising splendid families for themselves.
Instead they channeled all their efforts and aspirations toward us students, probably sometimes fighting their own ambitions for the greater good of Catholic education.
Confronting these mysterious women every day for nine years was a daily encounter with God. They taught us about God. They reminded us about God.
They were unfailingly committed to God. Prayers were imperative for them. The lives of the saints were important for them.
The fabric of the Church was respected by them. They happily blended spirituality with religiosity and did not apologize for it. As was noted above, women religious were living, breathing sacramentals, never letting us students forget the holy presence of God.
For us kids, these sisters were the embodiment of Roman Catholicism.
Some sisters were very vocal, even pushy, about priestly vocations.
My ninth-grade teacher used to tell us stories about men who went crazy or murdered their wives or, worse, became Protestants because they neglected a call to the seminary and the priesthood. On the other hand, great priestly heroes were celebrated in the classroom.
Father Damien of Molokai, soon to be canonized, and the founders of Maryknoll and, of course, the cardinals and bishops persecuted behind the Iron Curtain were all extolled as models of priestly zeal and commitment.
It is instructive that when I finally did decide to sign up for Our Lady of Providence Seminary College after graduating from La Salle, the major persons I visited to reveal my decision were the religious sisters who knowingly or unknowingly guided me to that choice.
One sister was teaching at St. Joseph School in Pawtucket. As I visited with her, I inquired about the nature of the parish. Her unashamed response was, “Oh, all Irish here, no foreigners.” Obviously these old nuns were not politically correct but they were religiously correct.
They were Catholic to the core, making religion so real that some of us decided to dedicate our lives to the same ideals, the same Church, the same God.