by Jessica Langdon
OLATHE — Fifth-graders ask a lot of questions when it comes to religious life, and they’re not always the ones you might expect.
What’s your favorite color?
Who’s your favorite superhero?
Do you have a favorite flavor of pie? George Rhodes, a senior at St. James Academy in Lenexa, easily fielded those questions (orange, Batman and pump- kin) and many others during a voca- tions day event on Feb. 26 at Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe.
Rhodes, who is discerning his own possible call to the priesthood, also explained the prayers he has put in, how long it would take to become a priest, that he’s not sure yet what seminary he would attend, and that his favorite saint is Peter.
He was invited to share his story with some 900 fifth-graders from schools from Johnson and Wyandotte counties and Paola during their annual vocations day.
The day also introduced the students to current seminarians, archdiocesan priests and representatives of a variety of male and female religious orders.
Many speakers also posed a question they hope the fifth-graders will start asking about their own lives.
“Everybody asks us that question, right? What do you want to be when you grow up?” said Sister M. Teresa Pandl who talked to girls about her journey and the joy she has found with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.
“But the more important question,” she continued, “is for us to ask God what his plan is for our life. So my challenge for you today is to ask that ques- tion.”
For some, the answer could be a religious vocation, she said. For others, their calling might be to married life.
Although usually his role focuses heavily on helping men answer their calls to the priesthood, on this day archdiocesan vocations director Father Scott Wallisch simply encouraged all of the students to pay attention to exactly what God might truly be calling them to.
“If every Catholic lived their vocation, the world would be transformed in a day,” he said.
He wasn’t born wearing a black shirt and white collar, he said, and once was also a fifth-grader with plenty to figure out about his own future.
For a long time, he planned to become an architect, get married, and raise lots of talented children, said Father Wallisch.
He felt God trying to talk with him sometimes over the years, and occasionally tried to strike compromises. He would still become an engineer, for example, but he told God he would build churches.
But even after launching his career and working on fun projects, said the young vocations director, he realized that he was being called to consider the priesthood and entered the seminary.
There, he discovered how fulfilled he felt waking up every day and serving the people of God.
And he also understood that his plan for his life hadn’t been wrong — just different from the way he’d originally envisioned it.
Instead of designing physical structures, “I get to design the temples of God,” said Father Wallisch, explaining how he adds blocks to the foundation every time he helps someone get to know Jesus.
And when it comes to marriage, he is married, Father Wallisch explained — to the church. And the people are his family.
The students heard from longtime priests, others who are new to the priesthood, and some current seminarians.
Justin Hamilton, a seminarian who grew up in Topeka, shared a funny story with fifth-grade boys about his family’s tradition of praying the rosary together every evening — no matter how tired everyone was.
Those experiences emphasized to him the importance of prayer, and he stressed that, in order to hear God, it’s important to pray.
“Open your ear,” he said, noting that he didn’t mean their physical ears, but rather “the ear of your heart.”
Father Quentin Schmitz, associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee, explained how priests see many of the highs and lows of life.
“You’re invited into that,” he said. And every day is different.
Sister Judith Sutera, OSB, explained to a group of girls what it means to live in the Benedictine monastic community, where prayer is a primary part of their lives.
“We serve the church by praying for the needs of the church,” she said, adding that the Sisters are also involved in other ministries and professions.
They live together and pray together, just as the Benedictine Sisters have for the past 150 years in Atchison, explained Sister Judith.
Demystifying religious life
Students also prayed a rosary for vocations, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann visited with the fifth-graders before celebrating a Mass.
He explained his attire and what the crosier he carries represents.
When one of the students asked whether he had always wanted to be a bishop, he said he had not, but had always wanted to be a priest, especially as he grew up admiring those who served in his parish.
The day introduced students to the holy aspects of religious life, but also made people who have answered calls to religious vocations very relatable to them.
“They find that seminarians, guys who are thinking about going into the seminary, and the Sisters — when they meet them — are just normal,” said Father Wallisch. “They have desires to have fun and do cool things, so I think it does demystify a lot of it for them.”