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    Students learn about religious career options

    As part of a national strategy to increase numbers, leaders asked students to consider "a life of service to God.''

    By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


    It was Career Day with a difference for hundreds of Catholic school students bused to Christ the King Parish in Tampa from surrounding counties this week.

    Diocesan priests, men and women from religious orders and even the bishop showed up to promote their vocations and invite students to follow in their footsteps.

    "It's an awesome life," Bishop Robert N. Lynch told about 700 uniform-clad sixth-graders Wednesday.

    "There are a lot of professions, but today we're asking you to think of a life of service to God. I bet that 90 percent of you are thinking of doing something. All I ask, all I pray, is that you put into that list that you're thinking about serving God."

    The bishop gave his talk on the first morning of a three-day campaign, said to be the first in the nation to specifically target 11-year-olds and 11th-graders. Organizers of the program based their strategy on studies showing that these groups of youngsters are at the stage of their lives when they are beginning to make -- or are making -- important choices.

    The program, Focus 11 Vocation Days, dovetailed with a national strategy to combat the declining number of priests and religious sisters and brothers in the United States.

    To that end, this week the Diocese of St. Petersburg offered students a not-too-serious, but focused, combination of pep rally, job fair and school outing.

    "This is a special day to talk about following Jesus . . . as a priest, and for young ladies, as a religious sister," the Rev. David Toups of St. Frances Cabrini in Spring Hill told sixth-graders Wednesday.

    The Rev. Jonathon Parks of the Salesians of Don Bosco traveled from New Orleans to participate in the event, which included rousing religious songs, a roll call, speeches and a skit created by St. Petersburg Catholic High School students.

    Had it not been for a nudge from a priest at his parochial school, Parks told the large crowd, he probably would not have considered becoming a priest.

    "What I want you to know is that you are being asked," said Parks, who is his order's vocations director.

    "We are not trying to convince them to become priests," said Leonard Plazewski, director of the diocesan vocations office, during an interview the previous day. "We're just saying to be open to what God wants, and we'll give you the tools."

    Among those participating in Wednesday's program were Pat Hosack's 27 sixth-graders from Holy Family Catholic School.

    Kelly Jordan had been looking forward to the outing.

    "I wanted to learn about being a priest," she said.

    "Kelly, you can't be a priest," interrupted her friend Tiffani Botts.

    " . . . and a sister," Kelly added quickly.

    Christina Fontaness, an aspiring lawyer standing nearby with Jenna Kesneck, who wants to be a dancer, said, "I wanted to hear why priests become priests."

    If nothing else, the day might have assuaged some of the natural curiousity of the 11- and 12-year-olds. During panel discussions, they heard the personal stories of how some priests and members of religious orders decided to pursue a religious life. In turn, the children asked about their inability to marry, the definition of chastity and even about their clothes.

    The students also had the opportunity to speak with members of 21 religious communities -- all represented in the Tampa Bay area -- at tables set up in the parish hall. Colorful literature, rosaries and pencils were available, with candy, a scavenger hunt and prizes thrown in for good measure.

    The event, attended by 1,900 students from 34 Catholic schools, was conceived about 51/2 years ago, said Sister Phyllis Shaughnessy, the diocese's assistant vocations director for religious communities.

    "We started physically planning it a year and a half ago. It was like planning a convention," said Shaughnessy, who is based at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor.

    A survey of active young adult Catholics revealed that recruitment efforts are being made too late, said Shaughnessy, a Sister of St. Clare. A national church study indicated that important choices, however tentative, are being made by sixth- and 11th-graders, she said.

    "We need to help children and their families to talk about vocations and realize that it is a viable option," she said.

    Two St. Petersburg Catholic High School 12th-graders say support from their parents is key as they decide whether to enter the priesthood.

    "It's something I'm considering," said Matt Sullivan, a 17-year-old only child who plans to start at Florida State University in September.

    His friend, Copley Gerdes, 17, who has been accepted at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, said: "Right now, if I decide to go into the seminary and begin on the road to priesthood, I would go into the Salesians. . . . Right now, nothing is definite."

    In any event, diocesan officials are pleased with the results of their recent efforts. Twenty men are studying to be priests with the St. Petersburg diocese, Plazewski said.

    "Last year there were 11. There were six before that," he said. "We will probably notice an increase for next year."

    The diocese, which will have one ordination in May, at present counts 352 diocesan and religious priests, a number that includes retirees. It also counts 46 brothers and 358 sisters.

    "The future of the church," said Bishop Lynch, "depends on getting more priests, brothers and sisters."

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