My quick idea: Imagine saying, "Hey, I think you are a talented, faithful person. You really seem like you'd make a great and happy priest/brother/sister/nun." Now the worst thing the person can say is, "Thanks, but no thanks." On the flip side, someone may say, "Geez, I never thought of that before." Or, "You know, I have been wrestling with that" - in which case you are giving that person some confirmation that he/she is asking the right questions. Regardless, you are paying that person a great compliment.
In short, I don't think that God's invitation to religious life is any less present these days. I suspect, though, that people are hesitant to invite others into this life. When I ride the subways here in NYC, the MTA posts signs addressing suspicious activity that read: "If you see something, say something." This is good advice for vocation promotion, too: if you see something in someone that leads you to believe that he or she has a vocation to religious life, PLEASE SAY SOMETHING!
Now for the story:
When I was a little boy, I can’t say that I ever entertained the notion of being a Jesuit. As far as I was concerned, my career option ranged somewhere between a superhero, a dragon-slayer, and a “helidopter” pilot (family lore recounts how I couldn’t pronounce the word helicopter). When well-intentioned aunts and uncles and grandparents would ask the fateful question, “Well, Ryan, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I soon learned that my Grandma Duns was happy if I told her that I wanted to be a teacher, that my aunts and uncles were supportive of my oh-so precise desire to be rich, and that my Grandma and Grandpa Hagan were most impressed if I coyly told them that I wanted to be a priest.
The idea of being a priest probably came to me in the first grade. I attended the parish school, went to Sunday mass with my family, and had family encouragement to think about it. To be sure, the idea wasn’t nearly as captivating as slaying dragons or rescuing people in my helicopter. But, true to the form of many young Catholic boys and girls, I took my turn at “playing mass” when my cousins and friends would come over. As I recall it now, I don’t think I was as much taken with the solemnity of the ritual as I was with what I saw as the highlight of mass: my homily!
Childhood notions of the priesthood aside, I did begin to answer the “What do you want to be?” question sometime after the fourth grade: I wanted to be a professional Irish musician. A physically awkward and un-coordinated youth, my parents saw fit to sign me up for Irish tin-whistle and accordion lessons. My sisters were heavily involved in Irish dancing and it seemed only fitting that the family troupe should be complemented with its own musician. I loved my Irish music and heritage and soon became very proficient on both instruments, winning awards and performing all over the United States.
In 1994, I entered St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland as a short, fat, red-haired kid who wore glasses and penny-loafers and played the accordion…not quite the cover model of GQ! Initially I struggled in school both socially and academically and found comfort in attending mass and in my music. Though I had only one Jesuit teacher, there was certainly a strong Jesuit presence on the campus and I can still recall being impressed by the Jesuits I met there. I had a deep respect for my parish priest, but there was something different about these Jesuits because, well, they were different. Watching them process in for mass was like watching the red carpet pre-show for the Oscars: there were venerable and legendary teachers, gentle souls and tough cookies, firebrands and peaceful souls.
As the time came for me to pick a college, I knew two things: first, I wanted to go to a Jesuit college and, second, I wanted to be either a British literature teacher or a doctor. I left St. Ignatius for college in 1998 rather different from how I entered: I had grown quite a bit, wore contact lenses, learned how to dress, and I played the accordion really well. Truth told, I did sometimes think about the priesthood but would quickly push the idea out of my head and replace it with ideas of being a teacher or a surgeon.
During my sophomore year I took a pretty heavy schedule of classes including one on the New Testament taught by a Jesuit. I loved it. I loved the material, I loved the class, and I was in awe of the professor: he was in turns obnoxious and sincere, worldly and committed, steely and gentle, sarcastic and witty. In short, he was my hero. A new desire to be a priest, to be a Jesuit, was awakened.
Then, one day, I made a most fateful mistake. I was sitting in chemistry class listening to the professor expound the wonders of phosphoric acid when I decided to practice my signature in the margins of my notebook:
Ryan Duns, MD
Dr. Ryan Duns, MD
Dr. Ryan G. Duns, MD
And then, on a lark, I wrote
Ryan Duns, SJ
I stared transfixed at the paper. I wrote and re-wrote it and, each time, my imagination was set on fire and I became excited about the very thought of being a Jesuit. After class I went to see my New Testament professor, told him that I wanted not only to become a religious studies major but also that I wanted to be a Jesuit.
After graduating in 2002, I decided to do a Master’s Degree in religion. The reasons were many, but largest among them was the fact that the growing popularity of Irish dancing had put my skills as an Irish musician in great demand. In a sense, I had a pretty neat life: I was a teaching assistant during the day, took courses in the evening, and on the weekends I’d travel all over the country playing Irish music. In a sense, I was living out the answer to the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question. But there was something missing, something that money and degrees and music and travel could not fill.
The emptiness inside forced me to examine and pray through my life. I began to ask myself about my desires, about my hopes and dreams for the future. I thought back on all the ways I tried to answer the “What do you want to be” question: a student, a doctor, teacher, a musician, a priest. But none of these captured or spoke to the man I wanted to become. Over the course of several months, I stopped asking the “What” question and asked, instead, the “Who” question: “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” Through spiritual direction and prayer and with the support of family and friends I realized that my heart’s deepest desire is discipleship, to be a Companion of Jesus, to be a Jesuit.
No vocation story can capture wholly one’s sense of call. This is a good thing, for each of us is called in a different way, called in and through our very lives. My sense of call will differ enormously from your sense of call because each of us has his or her own relationship with the Lord. Further, our vocation stories do not begin the day we get married, enter a convent or seminary, or join a religious order; they begin, rather, when and where we start reflecting on how God has been working in our lives, calling us into deeper relationship, inviting us to be co-laborers in the building of God’s Kingdom. So as each of us prays our lives, let us not be afraid to ask at least two questions: Where are you leading me, Lord, and Who do I want to be?