NOTRE DAME, Ind. — As the seconds ticked away, the timekeeper cast her eyes across a student lounge on the Notre Dame campus here and announced it was time for the speed daters to change partners. So April Adalim, 24, got up and moved to a tall chair at a round table across from her newest suitor: a graying, bespectacled woman in a religious habit, Sister Theresa Sullivan of the Daughters of Charity.
In this version of courtship, Ms. Adalim was seeking not an affair of the heart but of the soul. After two years of volunteer teaching in a parochial school in Tulsa, Okla., as part of the Alliance for Catholic Education program, Ms. Adalim was attending its Vocation Day.
Along with 31 other young men and women from ACE, as the program is known, Ms. Adalim was agonizing over whether to answer the call to what Catholics refer to as “the consecrated life,” one spent in the priesthood or a religious order. In that process of discernment, the participants were all wrestling with whether to set aside marriage, family and a conventional career.
The speed-dating session — yes, it was called exactly that — put 17 women into rotating conversations with sisters from a dozen religious orders. The sisters had brought along swag in the form of nail files, bookmarks, bottles of hand sanitizer and knitted pouches for rosary beads, all branded with the names of their orders. A large poster from the Sisters of St. Benedict offered a slogan intended for idealistic youth: “The world is zigging. I zagged.”
Ms. Adalim looked at Sister Theresa and said: “With me, I feel like I’ve been discerning on and off for three years. Then I freak out and think I’m discerning about discerning. How do I know which voice to listen to?”
Sister Theresa embodied the commitment and purpose that Ms. Adalim was seeking. She had spent 35 years in the Daughters of Charity, much of it providing medical care to the uninsured and remedial education to the unlettered. Having entered the order at 19, she also embodied the decision to willingly forsake romantic and familial life.
“Pray, be in relationship with God,” Sister Theresa replied. “If you feel the nudge, go and visit some religious communities. And do think of it as dating. If you feel called to go on a first date, you’re not being called to marry.”
Since its founding 23 years ago at Notre Dame, ACE has trained 1,753 college graduates to teach for two years in Catholic schools with low-income, largely nonwhite student bodies. Not unlike priests, brothers or sisters, ACE volunteers live in intentional households, being paid a stipend so modest that they are compelled by finances as well as faith to cook, clean, plan and pray communally.
A handful entered the seminary in the first 12 years. Then, in 2005, ACE began to promote vocations by taking interested teachers on a pilgrimage, and it started the annual Vocation Day — a mixture of worship services and question-and-answer sessions. This summer’s version attracted a sizable number of the 185 ACE teachers on campus for required graduate courses in education.
By now, 41 ACE alumni have gone “into formation,” as Catholic lexicon puts it, for the priesthood or a religious order. Of them, nine men have been ordained as priests and one woman has taken her vows. Another 10 alumni are still studying, while the remaining 21 left the process.
The numbers, though modest, help to ease the steep decline in incoming priests, sisters and brothers. Perhaps even more vividly, the ACE participants stand at a radical remove from the careerist track of their generation of students at elite colleges.
As speed dating was winding down for the women, the men were gathering for conversation and prayer. Brendan Ryan, a former ACE teacher and fourth-year seminarian, stepped before the offertory table in a chapel to deliver a sort of homily that stretched from Galatians to his former school in Alabama.
Mr. Ryan told of being conscripted as his school’s baseball coach, even though he had not played the game in years and his team had neither uniforms nor a field. He told them about driving a bus 90 minutes to an away game and how amazing it was when his leadoff hitter singled to start the game and shouted in joy from first base.
“I’ve had access to things I never would have otherwise,” Mr. Ryan, 30, told his rapt listeners. “Students will come to you in their darkest times. And they’ll come to you in their happiest times. It could only happen because of who and what you are in that community. It’s being part of something larger than yourself.”
Andrew Hamaty, 22, was one of the teachers who heard Mr. Ryan’s talk. When it was over, Mr. Hamaty walked up the aisle of the main sanctuary and knelt and genuflected before the crucifix. Then he settled into a pew for contemplation.
“Being a priest has been in the back of my mind for a very long time,” he said earlier in the day. “Probably since I was 11 or 12. It was like a jack-in-the-box. I’d try to put it away, then it’d pop up again. I was part of a volunteers’ program in college, but I feel drawn to a deeper connection to people, not a superficial kind of service.”
The desire compelled him to enter ACE after graduating from the University of Central Florida. He has been teaching fourth graders in the border town of Mission, Tex., and over Christmas break went to an ACE pilgrimage to Mexico.
“There’s something countercultural about going into the priesthood,” Mr. Hamaty said. “Just like there’s something countercultural in ACE. You’re going to go somewhere you’ve never been to live with people you’ve never met to work for essentially no money. It’s a complete surrender of self. But for your students, you get to bring the face of Christ.”
Jacqueline Salas has been going through a similar sort of rumination. She started college with “my 10-year plan,” which would culminate in a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and a professor’s position.
Instead, as she got to know several religious sisters at her Catholic college, she followed a passion for social justice into a volunteer program with the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul. ACE came next, placing her in a middle school outside Atlanta. Vocation Day merely heightened her curiosity about the possibility of a consecrated life, both what is gained and what is sacrificed in it.
“This is the million-dollar question,” Ms. Salas said. “Why would you want to do this? Why do you feel propelled to become a women-religious worker when you can do all that they do and still have a family and have kids?
“But there’s this state of pure joy when you’re immersed and in the presence of these powerful women figures,” she said. “You wonder how is it possible when the work you’re doing involves so much pain that these women have a presence of the spirit you just can’t fathom.”
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