by Kelly Kelley
TOPEKA — It was a bit of a paparazzi moment for Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, as fifth-graders from all over the city lined up to get his autograph after his presentation at the Fifth-Grade Vocation Day here.
But organizers hope that the real winner of this annual event will be the church of the future. The day provided the hundreds of youngsters gathered at Christ the King Parish in Topeka the chance to hear the vocation stories of area priests, as well as those of men and women religious from a variety of orders.
In his presentation, archdiocesan vocation director Father Mitchel Zimmerman asked the gathered students what they’d consider to be the best compliment in the world.
“You’re awesome!” one student suggested.
“You’re the best!” proposed another.
“When you think of ‘awesome’ and ‘the best,’” responded Father Zimmerman, “what do you think of?” “God!” chimed in several voices.
“If they said you’re like God,” one fifth-grader clarified, “that would be the best.”
“That compliment usually comes out as, ‘You’d be a great priest or Sister,’” Father Mitchel explained. “And what they’re really saying is, ‘I trust you to help me get to heaven.’”
But before any priest or Sister helps anyone get to heaven, a young man or woman has to decide to let God guide his or her decisions. And that’s a scary thing.
At one time or another, said Father Zimmerman, “all of us were afraid.
“All of the religious who are here to talk to you today will tell you that they were afraid.
“But by letting God choose my path, I [now] have the best job! Every day I get to introduce people to my best friend, Jesus.”
This was the first time that many of the students had ever considered what it would be like to hear Jesus in their hearts.
“The Sister talked about how she is always busy,” said Genesia Paolo, from Sacred Heart in Emporia, “but they still play games and have time to learn about Jesus. It made me think that I might be a Sister someday.”
When asked what impressed them most, students found it hard to settle on one presentation. But it was clear that Vocation Jeopardy and the archbishop’s presentation were among the most entertaining.
In fact, many of the students said they learned a lot of interesting facts from Archbishop Naumann’s presentation. Mary Claire Peterson, from Xavier Elementary in Leavenworth, said she didn’t know that there was a saint who had lived in Kansas. And Seung Jae Lee,also of Xavier, was interested to learn all of the symbolism behind the archbishop’s staff and miter.
When the archbishop brought out the crosier and explained how it was symbolic of a shepherd’s staff, the students were surprised when he illustrated on a nearby fifth-grader how his staff could be used to rescue a sheep from danger.
But they were gleeful when he demonstrated how the other end could be used to ward off a wild beast by poking in the direction of nearby students.
But Archbishop Naumann’s message didn’t get lost amid the symbolism and humor.
“I hadn’t really thought of God’s call,” said Brice Koch from St. Michael School in Axtell, “before I listened to the archbishop.”
Father Zimmerman was impressed by the quality of the questions the students asked and how readily they involved themselves in the experiences of the religious.
“It’s a great sign of hope for vocations,” he said. “These kids’ faith is on the surface and ready to be expressed. We don’t have to dig for it.”
Sister Yesenia Perea, of the Sisters, Servants of Mary, summarized the message of the day well in her keynote address.
Some of them, she told the students, would answer God’s call by entering into Christian marriage; others will live a single life and devote their professional lives to serving others.
Still others will be called to take vows and become priests or Sisters. The challenge we all face, she concluded, was in letting it be God’s will, rather than our own, that is done.