During the 25th annual Archdiocesan Vocations Mass on April 30, eighth grade students from across the Archdiocese of Washington gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., to learn from priests and religious about discerning God’s will for their lives.

The Mass was celebrated by Father Mark Ivany, the director of priest vocations for the Archdiocese of Washington. He was joined by Father James Wiseman, the abbot of St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington: Father Mark Cusick, the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Washington; and Father Alec Scott, the parochial vicar at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington. 

As he opened the Mass, Father Ivany encouraged the eighth graders to be open to what God was asking them to do.

“In the season of Easter, we are reminded that God’s plan Is greater than our plan,” said Father Ivany, who noted that no one thought the Resurrection was possible until it happened. “I ask you to believe this truth…God created you for a particular purpose that no one else can do.”

Students pray during the Vocations Mass. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

In his homily, Father Scott recalled that eighth grade was the year that he had his “first vocational crisis,” because he realized that his initial dream of becoming a professional athlete was never going to happen. He began to ask himself, “What else am I good at? What else could I do with the talents that I have?”

He decided he wanted to become a sports writer, and said he stayed with that idea through college, becoming a good writer who was well set up to pursue that career.

“I had my course set. I was ready to go,” he recalled, saying that he didn’t change his mind because of someone telling him that the Church needed him or because he felt it was his duty, but rather, “I realized there was a far deeper, far greater happiness than anything I loved had ever given me.”

While it is hard to figure out what makes them happy on their own, Father Scott said, “if you follow what God has in store, you will find happiness that you guys haven’t even experienced yet.”

Father Alec Scott speaks to the eighth grade students gathered at the basilica on April 30. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

He told the students that he knows priests and religious sisters who are former Olympians, professional athletes, lawyers, Air Force officers, police officers, and graduates of top tier colleges who decide to leave all of those things behind to answer God’s call. He said they are all talented people who spent a lot of time trying to figure out where that talent would lead, but after they experienced Jesus’s love, “nothing was more attractive than that.”

At the conclusion of the Mass, Sister Anna Wry, a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia, shared her own testimony about discerning her vocation. She said two things that she has experienced intimately are, first, “when I act and think on my own, I am weak and stupid,” and, second, “When I allow Jesus to act, to think and to suffer in me, I am stronger than death and am completely free.”

Students pray during the Vocations Mass. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Growing up, Sister Wry’s parents made a point not to tell their children about religious life, because they thought the religious sisters they had encountered were the “most miserable people they’d ever known.” But one day while she was in college at The Catholic University of America, she was so intrigued by seeing a man in a flowing white religious habit, that she followed him across the street and into the Dominican House of Studies.

While she was there, she joined them for their prayers, and said she was struck by the feeling that “for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by love that was entirely pure.”

After learning that there are Dominican sisters, she decided to cancel her spring break plans and tour a convent. But when she initially visited the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, she decided that she did not want to teach, to live in the South, or to have to live with some of the sisters whom she had met (all of which she would have to do if she entered the order).

Sister Anna Wry speaks to the students about her vocation story. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

After thinking that was all she needed to o to discern God’s will, she went on to get engaged and pursue her career plans, but knew there was “a sort of restlessness” in her heart that was continuing to grow. One night, the restlessness was so bad that she couldn’t sleep and went to a chapel to ask, “Lord, what do you want?”

“I heard in my heart, the Lord said, ‘I want your heart,’” she recalled, which led to her deciding to enter religious life.

“If I had relied on my own strength, I wouldn’t have broken my engagement. I wouldn’t have changed my career plans,” she said, adding that with Jesus’ strength, she was able to.

Students and religious sisters pray during the April 30 Vocations Mass. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

“Discernment is not about what you want to do for God, but what God wants to do in you,” said Sister Wry, who added that discernment takes work, but “the work for us is simple – listening to God and waiting for Him.”

After the Mass was over, students had the opportunity to meet priests and religious from various different orders and ask them questions. Kimber Dickson, a student at St. Augustine School in Washington, said she appreciated hearing the testimonies at Mass, and also liked that it was specifically for eighth graders and “directed toward people about to go through changes in their lives.”

“I learned that God would never leave you, and His love is pure,” she said. 

Abbot James Wiseman blesses a student during Communion. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

A group of students from Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, Maryland, spoke to Pallottine Missionary Sisters, including Sister Sahaya Mary Ambrose, who is from India. She said she hoped that at least a few of the young women at the Mass would “see the need of the times” and that “God would touch them” to lead them to entering religious life.

Bailey Guessfore, one of the students from Mary of Nazareth, said the Mass taught her that “God has a plan” and “it is not always what you think it is going to be.” But even if you end up doing something different than what you initially plan, “you might be happier there,” she said.

Jennifer Juhring, another Mary of Nazareth student, said she really related to the people who spoke at Mass, because “I have always wanted to play sports,” but by hearing their stories, she sees, “you need to lean on God. Whatever happens happens. It is His plan for you.”

Students speak to a religious sister following the Mass. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Bianca Francia, a student at St. Mary of the Assumption School in Upper Marlboro, said she appreciated the Mass because she had never heard the perspective of priests or religious sisters before.  

“I enjoyed seeing all the other schools coming together and talking about vocations,” she said. “No one would know about it if no one talked about it.”