Growing up Catholic, one of the scariest words I knew was “vocation.” One day, I was told from a young age, God might call me to be a nun, just as He might call the bleached-blonde kid who joked around with me in religious ed to the priesthood. I wondered anxiously what that call would sound or feel like, and the idea haunted me from an early age: When a young priest-in-training spoke to our religious ed class, I submitted the anonymous question “How do you get the call to become a priest or a nun?” (He didn’t really answer.)
A few years later, my high school youth group took a trip to a national conference for Catholic teens, and at one point the speaker called anyone considering a religious vocation to come to the stage. Dozens of kids hurried forward while the rest of the audience clapped and cheered respectfully. I worried that the uncertainty I was feeling was secretly “the Call” I’d been told to listen for. The problem was that I didn’t want to be a nun. I wanted to have sex — not before marriage, but definitely eventually. But if the Call came, there could be no resisting.
(I wasn’t the only youth group member feeling that conflict. The cutest boy in our diocese had already announced his intentions to enter the seminary, and when one girl tried to start whispering about him after lights-out at an overnight retreat, another girl raised her head from her sleeping bag to shush her: “He’s going to be a priest.”)
I confided my worry in my youth group leader — not the sex part, just the uncertainty — and she gave me a Sorting Hat-ish reassurance: What you want is important too; if you truly don’t feel it’s right for you, it’s probably not your calling.
The fact that this was a genuine consideration for me might seem far-fetched to someone who grew up without a looming potential Call. What girl of my generation would become a nun, anyway? But then a funny thing happened: My friend did. During college, a girl I’d known since first grade, who had been a champion runner and valedictorian of our high school class, decided that she had received a clear calling, and it was to be a Catholic sister. I interviewed her about it for a journalism school assignment, and she described her Call as “a very deep feeling of peace,” saying, “It was definitely a call from God because I would not have decided to do this by myself.” Her Call wasn’t something she embraced right away — she told me when we spoke that she’d tried to ignore it for a while and had applied to grad school instead — but ultimately, she decided it was real and that she wanted to follow it.
By that time, I had stopped attending church myself. Almost five years later, my friend’s conviction still surprises me, the idea of the Call as weighty as it was in high school, but scarier now for its rarity than for its likelihood. It’s still startling to know someone who has the kind of certainty I was afraid of when I was fifteen.