July 13, 2016 at 2:49 PM
By TAMI QUIGLEY Staff writer
A week after the Fourth of July fireworks lit up the summer sky in Allentown, four speakers gathered with young adults in the city’s downtown to share lively recollections of their individual roads to a religious vocation.
One had a self-described “vanilla” story albeit one filled with multiple graces.
One finds it helpful to chat with God – aloud – while walking in the park, never minding what passersby may think.
One even found inspiration in triumph of good and evil in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
And another was so surprised at the vocation she wanted to pursue, she thought incredulously, “Who has so much fun with a bunch of nuns?” after spending time with the sisters.
All this was weaved into “Tending God’s Sheep,” the second session of Theology on Tap’s summer series July 11 at Allentown Brew Works.
“I have never had an unhappy day because I made this choice to be a priest,” said Msgr. Alfred Schlert, one of four speakers who addressed the young adults gathered at the event sponsored by the diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry (OYYAM).
“Sure there are trying days, but not because of the choice,” Msgr. Schlert said. “Not every day is a bed of roses. You have to recommit yourself to what you do every day, just as in marriage and religious life.”
Other speakers were diocesan seminarian Giuseppe Esposito; Sister Rose Bernadette Mulligan, vocation directress of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), Immaculata; and IHM Sister Melissa Mastrangelo of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Sue Matour, director of OYYAM, welcomed those gathered. Those attending included Mary Fran Hartigan, secretary of the diocesan Secretariat for Catholic Life and Evangelization.
Theology on Tap is designed to allow young adults (21 to 35 years), single or married, to come together in a comfortable and relaxed setting to share community, learn more about their faith and discuss faith topics relevant to their life experiences. It originated in the Archdiocese of Chicago, Ill.
MSGR. ALFRED SCHLERT
Msgr. Schlert said this September will mark his 29th year as a priest. He always thought as a priest he’d be in a parish and high school, but never imagined being a college chaplain or vicar general. “I never envisioned myself doing some of these things, or that I had the wherewithal,” he said. “That’s the joy and at the same time mystery of religious vocations.”
Msgr. Schlert, a native son of St. Jane Frances de Chantal and alumnus of Notre Dame High School, Easton – where he later taught for 10 years as a priest – began to think about the priesthood in high school. He noted the positive influence of the IHM sisters at St. Jane and Notre Dame, as well as the Sisters of St. Joseph as a student at Notre Dame.
“We had good priests in the parish and school who took an interest in us. They seemed so in love with their vocation.”
Msgr. Schlert said like many contemplating a vocation to the priesthood or religious vocation, he at first kept the idea to himself. The monsignor subsequently entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia after high school for his first year of college.
Msgr. Schlert described his time studying in Rome – alone and away from seminary friends – as “a very defining time for me. It was a great growth experience for me in my vocation. I really felt God’s presence, how he carries you along in your vocation.”
“The church helps us to discern our vocations and sustain them,” Msgr. Schlert said, noting this applies to the priesthood, religious life, married life and a chaste single life.
“We’re never alone in discerning our vocation and living it.”
Msgr. Schlert said there was no “lightning bolt moment” in his “vanilla” vocation story, but there were “a lot of graces God was able to shower on me, including a supportive family and good examples.”
“I see the whole process, to this day, as a gift from God.”
Esposito, a graduate of Marian High School, Tamaqua, just completed his first theology year at St. Charles Borromeo, but was in the seminary several years ago before leaving and boomeranging back.
He noted vocation is derived from the Latin word “vocare,” which means “to call.”
“God has put forth a calling to draw us closer to him.”
One way he draws closer to God is to talk to him during the day. Sometimes this is in the park, when Esposito will say, “God, I have this situation.”
“If you are self-conscious about walking by yourself in the park while praying, you can always use a prop, like bringing a dog with you,” he said with a smile.
After hearing a priest talk about serving the poor and bringing people the sacraments while a high school student, Esposito was “awash in this feeling this is what I want to do.” A week later Espositio – who was usually dating – changed his mind. While a biology major at DeSales University, Center Valley, he drifted from his faith.
“But then I started thinking, ‘if everything is materialism or a chemical reaction, what does anything matter?’”
The pendulum swung the other way and brought Esposito back to God.
“I decided God gives my life meaning and value, so I wanted to give my life to God.” Esposito entered the seminary during this “honeymoon period of my faith” and was there for three years. When things began going wrong – “like in a relationship” – he left.
Esposito went to nursing school because he wanted to help people, and “being with people at the end of life and praying with them” caused him to think about returning to the seminary, which he did.
SISTER ROSE BERNADETTE MULLIGAN
“God knows what will speak to each of your hearts, no matter your vocation,” said Sister Rose, who has worked in vocations for nine years.
Sister Rose grew up in Jim Thorpe, and recalled her parents’ devotion to the Eucharist, though they were not an “overly religious family.” She said her fifth-grade teacher, a religious sister at Immaculate Heart School, “was so nice that I thought, ‘I could do that.’”
There were many nuanced nudges along the way, such as in sixth grade when her Uncle Jim – the late Msgr. James Mulligan of the Diocese of Allentown – gave her “The Chronicles of Narnia.” “I thought wow, if Jesus is like that lion, he’s wild, he’s not boring,” she said.
Later, while watching the movie “The Empire Strikes Back,” Sister Bernadette thought, “I want to help God fight the battle of good and evil with my light saber.”
While a student at Marian, Sister Rose was excited and happy but also nervous about the possibility of a vocation. She wrote to a religious sister who suggested she pray about it and then contact a sister who worked in vocations. Sister Rose did just that, and attended a discernment retreat.
“I love being a sister – deep down I know this is what God is calling me to do. Not every day is perfect, just as in any vocation.”
Sister Rose recalled being a bit rattled 10 years after joining the IHMs when a former boyfriend called and said, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.”
“I welled up – what if I was meant to marry him?”
In the chapel, she talked to God about it. “I felt inside as if God was saying, ‘Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.’”
SISTER MELISSA MASTRANGELO
Sister Melissa is a “junior professed,” meaning next month she will renew her vows for two more years, at the conclusion of which time she’ll make her permanent vows.
In high school, Sister Melissa believed her future was getting married and having children. She excelled in sports, being a sprinter and playing field hockey. She was drawn to community service and had a strong faith, noting her family went to Mass regularly but was not overly religious.
Sister Melissa earned a track scholarship as a sprinter to LaSalle University, Philadelphia. “For sports, it was great there, but my faith drifted.” She was enjoying the college life, but eventually knew she had to get her priorities in order.
“I made the decision my faith is important, so I had to do something about it.” She returned to attending Sunday Mass.
After college, Sister Melissa’s plan was playing out perfectly. She was going to marry her boyfriend, she had her own apartment and car and a job. “But I was forgetting God’s plan for me.”
“The breakup with my boyfriend was hard, but when we were together I didn’t feel genuinely happy. I was searching for something.”
Thinking God was asking her to give more of herself by becoming a theology teacher, Sister Melissa returned to LaSalle to study theology. She became friendly with a religious sister and was curious about her life as a woman religious, often peppering her with questions on the subject.
This led to spending a weekend with the IHMs at Immaculata. “I had so much fun. How can you have fun with a bunch of nuns?”
Still wanting to be married with kids, Sister Melissa didn’t call the IHMs for three months, after which she spent more weekends there and entered the community six years ago.
“Every day isn’t perfect. I live with 16 sisters – with 16 women living together, believe me, God is involved,” Sister Melissa said. “We may not agree on everything, but at the end of the day we love each other – we’re sisters.”
NEXT IN THE SERIES
“Building God’s Church,” the final talk in the summer series, will be Monday, Aug. 8 at 7 p.m. at Allentown Brew Works, 812 Hamilton St., Allentown.
Speakers will be Deacon Rick and Sheryl Lanciano of St. Igantius Loyola, Sinking Spring; Dan and Joey Moser of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Bethlehem; and Brett Kita of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, Easton.
The series is sponsored by the diocesan Office of Youth Young Adult Ministry. For more information, visit www.allentowndiocese.org/oyyam.