On Sunday mornings, senior Koa Bartsch walks the half mile from his apartment to the Chapel of Christ the Teacher. He pulls open one of the heavy oak doors to reveal the group of people gathering for Mass inside. The chapel has a quiet reverence. Light enters through the stained glass windows and falls on the cross-shaped pool of water in the center of the chapel.
He does this every Sunday: Kneels by the pool, touches the water with his hand, and then crosses himself — sweeping the water from his forehead to his heart, then to each shoulder, before rising to attend Mass. He hasn’t been going to Mass for very long. He converted to Catholicism on his own his freshman year. But Bartsch can see himself doing this for the rest of his life. He can see himself giving his life to this.
Students usually plan to get jobs after they graduate, start their careers and maybe get married. But Bartsch and a group of about 10 other students, who meet at a weekly discernment group that just started at the University of Portland, are considering a different post-graduation path. These students are seriously considering becoming priests, nuns and sisters in the Catholic Church after they graduate.
Those in the group are currently in the "discernment process," which means they listen for the continued call to religious life through prayer as they continue forward in the steps to becoming a priest, sister or nun.
These students will potentially give up those typical futures to give their lives to the Church and take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. They will live in priest, sister and nun communities and never marry. The men will wear clerical collars and some of the women will wear habits. If they choose this path, their commitment to serving the Catholic Church will be lifelong.
Hearing the Call to Religious Life
Bartsch began considering life as a priest shortly after he converted to Catholicism his freshman year of college. He had asked himself, “If I really believe this, shouldn’t I devote my life to it?” Bartsch was also attracted to how the priests live in community and give their lives fully to what they believe.
“As I became more exposed to the Holy Cross priests in dorms, I just thought, ‘wow that would be a really cool life to live, to live in community,’” he said. “There’s something attractive about the common mission, common goal. You live together to serve others, serve God, serve the Church.”
Ever since he decided to pursue the priesthood, Bartsch continues to feel that draw toward a religious vocation.
“For me, there hasn’t been a day within the past two or three years where I haven’t thought about it,” Bartsch said. “It’s like when you’re really in love, you always think about that person. It’s the same way with wanting to pursue a religious vocation.”
Many students in the discernment group have felt a calling to a religious vocation for much longer than Bartsch. Kayla Garchar, a junior theology major, felt a draw to become a sister in middle school even though she lived in the rural town of Dolores, Colorado, where there weren’t any religious sisters or nuns.
“Everyone thought it was weird when I started discerning,” Garchar said. “They were like, you’ve never met a religious sister, how do you know that’s what you want to do? But it’s something I always felt like I wanted to do.”
Garchar went through difficult times in middle school. She lost a family member and rekindled her faith through tough times, and with her faith came a renewed interest in being a sister. She watched YouTube videos about becoming a Catholic sister and read about religious life online. Her sophomore year of high school, Garchar realized her interest in being a sister could become a reality.
“When I was a sophomore I realized this isn’t a funny childhood thought,” Garchar said. “It’s something I’m really interested in and could be tangible.”
Since that realization, Garchar has felt a continued draw to religious life. She plans on applying to the Daughters of St. Paul, an order of sisters who specialize in modern media, next year.
“You can’t describe a call just like you can’t describe falling in love,” she said. “It’s a very difficult thing to explain. It’s an inward yearning that you feel, like a pull into that, to completely give your life to the church.”
For others, the call to the Church is an idea that keeps popping up again. Some students are still not sure if they want to devote their lives to a religious vocation, but they feel that pull. They call this process the discernment process: Through prayer and listening for God’s voice, they expect God to direct them toward a religious vocation, or to another path.
“In high school, I never really thought about it,” junior Tyler Tangen, who is considering becoming a priest, said. “It wasn’t the cool thing to do. When I came here freshman year, I started meeting the different Holy Cross guys and it sounded like something I could do. The idea keeps popping up again.”
Senior Lupita Zamora-Resendiz has also been considering becoming a sister or nun since high school, but the idea became more real when she became a faith and formation ambassador sophomore year and started considering what life she wanted after college.
“I realized I’m really longing for a relationship with God,” Zamora-Resendiz said. “I thought it was going to be more of a day-to-day relationship, but I realized there’s also the possibility of having a relationship with God and committing to it in a serious way.”
Finding the Catholic Church
Many of the students considering religious life grew up in the Catholic Church. Some of the discernment students were encouraged by family members to consider a religious vocation.
“I grew up Catholic, and (my parents) would say, ‘You’re gonna make a great priest one day!’” Tangen said. “I was like, ‘No, not at all.’”
“(Becoming a sister) was brought up to me as a possibility by my family,” Zamora-Resendiz said. “My mom is very religious and very supportive. She brought it into my mind.”
But not all grew up in the Catholic Church. Bartsch grew up in a non-denominational Christian home, but decided he wanted to rethink his faith for himself in high school. He began to research which religion reflected the faith of the early Church the best.
“I decided if I was going to believe in this, I was going to believe in it totally or abandon it,” Bartsch said. “There’s so many sects of Christian churches, and so many of them believe different things. They believe contradictory things, so I’m like, ‘Ok they can’t all be right. So who is right?’”
Bartsch spent much of high school researching early foundations of Christian faith by reading books and internet articles. According to Bartsch, he found that the early church teaching best aligns with Catholic teaching today.
“There’s continuity in the Catholic Church,” Bartsch said. “I didn’t become Catholic because I believe it’s the right church for me. I became Catholic because I believe it is the church founded by Christ. Not only the right church for me, but the right church.”
Taking Vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience
The students who are ready to pursue a religious life will apply to a certain order, like Franciscan or Holy Cross, and if they are accepted, they will live their “novice” year in a community of that order. They will take temporary vows for two years, and renew those vows every year for eight years. In the 8th year, priests, sisters and nuns take final vows and commit themselves to their respective religious vocations for life.
Women in the group will have to decide between becoming a nun or sister. A Catholic sister works in society, engaging the community with teaching or with service. Catholic nuns live a “contemplative” life in a monastery that are cloistered or semi-cloistered, meaning they are separated from the outside world.
All priests, nuns and sisters take lifelong vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Poverty means a vow to contribute to the community a priest, sister or nun lives in. They commit to pooling their income into their community and vow to live simply. Obedience means obedience to God and to the community the order serves. And chastity is a vow to be celibate and never marry.
For many outside of the church, young adults taking a vow of chastity can be a difficult concept. But students in the group say they have found a deeper meaning in the seemingly restrictive vow.
“To me it makes sense, why we can’t commit our lives to Jesus but also be married,” Zamora-Resendiz said. “It’s hard to give your all to all of your relationships. Committing to Jesus with your life, while also fully committing to someone else. I don’t think you could fully commit to both.”
“It’s that idea of giving your life totally to something,” Bartsch said. “You’re not depriving yourself of love by not getting married. You’re just manifesting that love in different ways.”
Choosing Religious Life, in 2017
Those in the discernment group are considering becoming priests, nuns and sisters in 2017, when the number of people entering religious vocations is at an all-time low. to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate from Georgetown University, the number of priests in the U.S in 1995 was 49,054, and has fallen to 37,192 in 2016. The number of religious sisters in the U.S from 1995 to 2016 dropped by almost 50 percent, going from 90,809 to 47,170.
The students live in Portland, where 42 percent of residents are unaffiliated with any religion, according to the Public Research Religion Institute (PRRI). A performed through PRRI found that Portland has the largest percentage of religiously unaffiliated residents of any city in the US.
To many students in the discernment process, communicating plans to become a priest, nun or sister to peers can be difficult.
“A lot of times when I tell people I want to be a sister, they’re like, ‘I don’t understand, that doesn’t make sense,” Garchar said. “I get a lot of hostile reactions sometimes. Some people will be like, ‘That’s amazing!’ And other people are like, ‘No, that’s completely weird.’”
“It’s a hard thing to admit,” Zamora-Resendiz said. “I feel like our culture is like, you go to college, you go to grad school, you get a job… People know I’m considering it, but I don’t know if they know that I’m very serious about it.”
But the radical aspect to the work, some argue, is what makes sense to a culture focused on fulfillment.
“Our culture is always looking for authenticity, what makes us happy and makes us feel fulfilled,” Catherine Jacobs, a senior considering becoming a nun, said. “This is an answer to that need.”
“Our generation is very radical,” Tangen said. “We don’t want to fit into the shoes that were worn before us. So in a way, it fits that aspect of doing something out of the norm.”
For many, the pursuit of a religious vocation won’t begin right after graduation. Some of the students want to pursue jobs and grad school before seriously considering a religious vocation, like Zamora-Resendiz.
“I want to go to grad school, get a job, and after that figure out what I want to do,” she said.
Jacobs, a vocal performance major, is currently applying to grad schools in vocal performance. After grad school, she will continue to consider pursuing a religious vocation.
“I’m ok with being in this space of not knowing,” Jacobs said. “I feel a pull to continue my education right now. That’s the next step for me as far as I can see.”
If she does choose to be a nun, Jacobs’ vocal performance degrees will still be a part of her life.
“If I was a nun, I would want to find a way music could play a part of that as well,” Jacobs said. “That wouldn’t just be dropped. I would be unhappy without it.”
Some students will begin the religious vocation process directly after graduation. Garchar hopes to be an editor for the Daughters of St. Paul, an order that focuses on spreading the Catholic message through modern media, like books and online through Instagram and Facebook.
Bartsch, who will graduate this year, will live in a Dominican order community after graduation and begin his novice year. Bartch is currently in Army ROTC and will serve as a military chaplain after he is ordained as a priest. Bartsch said there is a possibility that he could be deployed.
“There’s a big shortage of priests in the military, and it’s a vital place for spiritual counseling,” Bartsch said. “I want to go out into the peripheries.”
Ultimately, all of the discernment students are just like everyone else, as they search for a career and search for a way to be be happy and fulfilled in their adult lives.
Jacobs said: “We’re all trying to figure out ultimately, which is going to take years and be a lifetime process, what we’re called to do in this life.”