Sr. Gertrude Sopracolle
The aim of a vocations director for a religious order is to help others find where God is calling them.
But perhaps the job is unnecessary because, as Sister Gertrude Sopracolle says, "God hounds people who have a vocation."
She first felt called to religious life in Grade 7. Doing God's will was important in her family, but she had other distractions. She resisted the call because she was boy crazy, had her future house planned, and the only thing not yet determined was her husband's face. There were many opportunities to go in other directions.
"By the time I was in Grade 12, I already knew that I didn't have a choice.
"I did not want to do God's will. But what happens is the Spirit enters us and transforms us from within, and after awhile you want nothing more than what at the beginning you didn't want," explained Sopracolle.
Today, few, if any, in her order, the Ursuline Sisters of Prelate, are under 50. The majority are in their 70s, 80s and 90s. With fewer young women discerning a vocation, this might be cause for alarm.
Yet Sopracolle said many times throughout its history the order looked on the verge of being wiped out, but it kept re-emerging. The order has been squished, but never squashed. In fact, what has happened to the Ursuline Sisters during their 500-year history is a microcosm of the whole Church, said Sopracolle.
"No matter how down and out it looks, the Holy Spirit is directing the life of the Church and the consecrated life."
An important element for any woman discerning a vocation is to examine the charism and mission of its foundress. The Ursulines of Prelate trace their origins to St. Angela Merici, a 16th century mystic. Her writings are a paradigm for religious life in the 21st century, said Sopracolle.
Sopracolle cautions women that the desire for a loving, long-lasting relationship, the desire for marriage, does not go away when one enters religious life. Instead, it takes constant refocusing on who is number one in her life.
"That is the same struggle of married people too. It is the continuous choosing to remain faithful to a commitment. That is what's missing today," she said. The lack of commitment in many people today explains not only the lack of religious vocations, but also the demise of many marriages.
Fr. Pierre Ducharme
"The Holy Spirit is speaking, but the ground in the child's heart is not cultivated the way it was in the past," said Sopracolle.
Religious orders seem to have an urge to record their histories in books, which Sopracolle views as an indicator that they are on the way out. A book on the history of her order was published in 2003. It was titled, Where To Now?
She expects the Ursuline Sisters of Prelate will soon be selling their properties, and concentrating their efforts on attracting associate members.
Franciscan Father Pierre Ducharme, from Cochrane, is the vocations director for the Franciscans of Western Canada.
Ducharme must be doing something right because more young men are discerning the priesthood, and many are choosing the Franciscans. They are a province of about 40 men, with six men in formation; by fall, they may have three more. The situation for the Franciscans in Canada is much healthier than in the United States and elsewhere.
"If you look at the Franciscan order around the world, the Franciscans of Western Canada are the fastest growing in the order statistically. We never were big numbers, so to have a few guys coming through every year, that's very positive for us," said Ducharme.
Unlike a diocesan vocations director who works within a small territory, Ducharme travels a lot, covering all of Western Canada.
He wants to find men who are called to this vocation, but admittedly not all men are.
"I talk to a lot more than the number who actually turn out to be good candidates," said Ducharme. "Some people come and talk to a vocations director and it turns out they might be called to married life or a very different vocation, and I would not have trouble telling a person that."
Ultimately, he wants people to be happy, so he wants them in the religious order where they will be happiest and will benefit the most.
While Canadian society has an increasingly aging population, Ducharme still finds many young people out there with a zeal for their faith.
"That being said, those young people out there who are passionate about their faith, I think the job of a vocations director is to be able to harness that passion and zeal, and help them find a path they can commit to," said Ducharme. "I really find that enjoyable."
It is crucial to return phone calls, he said. When a man leaves a message expressing interest in the Franciscans, his duty is to respond.
"When vocation directors get burnt out, they stop returning calls, and that is probably the most important part of the job is returning calls," he said.
Suitable candidates are often asked to meet Ducharme and the rest of the Franciscan community. A vocation is all about the interaction with the community, so the candidate must be able to fit in.