Late on the afternoon of Vocation Day, known on the civil calendar as July 17, 2016, Brendan Ryan ’08, ’10M.Ed., stepped before the offertory table in a chapel on the Notre Dame campus. He was six years out of the Alabama classroom where he had taught high school math as part of Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and four years into studies for the Catholic priesthood at Moreau Seminary.
Now he was giving a homily of sorts to 20 young men perched at a similar juncture between the classroom and the Church — two forms of service, two forms of vocation. As Ryan had, all were now serving in ACE, which had been founded by Notre Dame in the 1990s to provide teachers to parochial schools with especially needy students. And like him, all felt a certain persistent call to the consecrated life, one spent in the priesthood or a religious order.
Ryan told them about being conscripted as his school’s baseball coach, even though he hadn’t 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,” 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.”
His words, of course, were meant to appeal to an aspiration beyond being a teacher or a coach. He embodied and espoused a growing role for the ACE program as a pipeline for young men and women to commit their lives to religious service.
Of the 1,567 people who have completed the ACE program in its 23-year history, 42 have gone into formation for the priesthood or a religious order. Of them, nine men have completed seminary and been ordained as priests and one woman has taken her sisterly vows. Another 11 are still studying, while the remaining 21 left the process.
The numbers, though modest, contradict the steep decline in the number of incoming Catholic priests, sisters and brothers in the last half-century. Perhaps even more vividly, the ACE participants, whether or not they continue into the consecrated life, stand at a radical remove from the careerist track of their generation of students at elite colleges.
Andrew Hamaty, 22, was one of the teachers who heard Brendan Ryan’s talk. When it was over, Hamaty walked up the aisle of the main sanctuary in Moreau Seminary, where the session was held, and knelt and genuflected before the crucifix. Then he settled into a pew for prayer.
“Being a priest has been in the back of my mind for a very long time,” he had 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 chemistry in the border town of Mission, Texas, and over Christmas break went on an ACE pilgrimage to Mexico, which included a visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint for many of his Hispanic pupils.
“There’s something countercultural about going into the priesthood,” 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.”
In the early 1990s, Father Timothy Scully, CSC, ’76, ’79M.Div., a Notre Dame professor of political science, got the brainstorm of sending recent college graduates to teach for two years in Catholic schools with low-income, largely nonwhite student bodies. The only problem was, he would have to invent the thing himself.
His nascent program partly resembled Teach For America, which Wendy Kopp had founded a few years earlier to entice seniors at Ivy League and similarly elite universities to devote two years to teaching in high-needs urban and rural schools. In a more specific sense, though, Scully was addressing two definitively Catholic trends. One was the growing use of Catholic schools by working-class and working-poor families as an academic lifeline in communities with faltering public schools; the other was the steady decline in priests, brothers and women religious to teach in those schools for virtually no pay, which threatened the existence of the very Catholic schools that were most needed.
From the outset, a religious parallel characterized ACE. Not unlike priests, brothers or sisters, ACE volunteers lived in intentional households, being paid a stipend so modest that they are compelled by finance as well as faith to cook, clean, plan and pray communally.
As the priest and author Andrew M. Greeley put it in his novel The Bishop at the Lake, “Perhaps the ACErs were an anticipation of what the religious life would look like in the next generation.” Father Nathan Wills, CSC, ’99, ’03M.Ed., ’05M.Div., who went from ACE into the priesthood, looked backward for an analogy: “It’s a reflection of the disciples. This is what the apostles did when Jesus sent them to teach. They set up communities in the midst of difficult circumstances.”
Then some welcome, if unexpected, things happened. One of Scully’s first assistants in the ACE program, Sean McGraw ’92, ’00M.Div., who had been planning for a career in political science, had a revelation while attending a retreat with one of the first cohorts of ACE teachers. He pulled Scully aside and confided, “I think that I’ve found my vocation.” Several years later, another early ACE staff member, Louis DelFra ’92, ’03M.Div., made the same decision.
The proverbial light bulb went on for Father Scully. “I thought, this is too good to be true,” he recalled last summer. “Here are two of the best people I’ve ever met, and they want to go into the priesthood. And I realized they could be powerful witnesses to other young people. The ACE teachers are already living the vow of poverty and they’re living the vow of obedience. And I saw how Sean and Lou had discovered a way to serve the social justice of the Gospel.”
For young people, such an ambition had the added attraction of being atypical. “That time of service, time of focusing more on others, helps them to take a step back from the standard American college plan of getting the big job, having the big career,” said Father Jim Gallagher, CSC, ’98, ’06M.Div., the former director of vocations for the Congregation of Holy Cross. “It planted the seed that maybe having that mission, hearing that call to give more, can be more important than the big career.”
Nearly three-quarters of ACE graduates have remained in education, primarily in Catholic schools, even after fulfilling their two-year obligation to the program. Former ACE teachers now serve as the superintendents of the Catholic school systems in Chicago, Dallas and Denver. Others have gone into work on education policy through such influential organizations as the Aspen Institute. One is executive director of a program to address homelessness in South Bend.
In 2007, ACE began to deliberately promote vocations by taking interested teachers on a pilgrimage in the Christmas season. The transformational moment for Brendan Ryan, for instance, occurred during an ACE trip to the Holy Land in January 2010, during his second year as a teacher.
“It just deepened my prayer life,” he recalled. “Being in the spot where Jesus walked, where the Psalms were prayed, where the Gospels were written. On New Year’s Day, we had Mass overlooking Jerusalem as the sun rose. That made the Scriptures come alive. And so did having intentional time with people who were considering a similar life.”
The annual Vocation Day — held amid required summer courses at Notre Dame for a master’s degree in education — started in 2010. The 2016 version, which attracted 25 women and 15 men from an ACE cohort of 186, included everything from worship services to small-group discussions to a self-described “speed dating” panel for female teachers to meet in five-minute intervals with nuns and sisters from various orders.
It was, most of all, a day for questions, both profound and prosaic. How could you discern God’s will? How could you be sure? Do you miss being married and having a family? Are you happy? How long did it take you to feel good at what you do? How do you divide up the chores? What’s it like exercising when you’re wearing a habit?
“With me, on and off for about three years, I’ve been discerning,” April Adalim ’16M.Ed., who recently finished teaching with ACE in Tulsa, said in a chat with Sister Theresa Sullivan of the Daughters of Charity. “But then I freak out and think I’m discerning about discerning. How do I know which voice to listen to?”
“Pray, be in relationship with the Lord,” Sullivan gently replied. “Then, if you’re feeling a nudge toward religious life visit a variety of religious communities. Think of it as dating. On a first date, you’re asking yourself, ‘Am I called to date?’ You’re not asking, ‘Am I called to marry?’”
And just to add a modern answer to the timeless question, Sullivan mentioned a discernment group on Google Hangouts.
Almost within earshot of Adalim and Sullivan sat Jacqueline Salas, who had been going through a similar sort of rumination. She started college with “my 10-year plan,” which would culminate in a doctorate in analytical chemistry and a professor’s position. Instead, she got to know several religious sisters at her Catholic college near Boston and followed a passion for social justice into a volunteer program with the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul, Minnesota. 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,” Salas said. “Why would you want to do this? Why do you feel propelled to become a woman 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. 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.”
After Ryan’s homily ended on that July afternoon, Luke Janicki walked into the designated room in Moreau Seminary for a small-group, question-and-answer session about formation. At age 23, Janicki was the product of Catholic high school and college in Washington state and had just finished his second year with ACE in Peoria, Illinois. His task was typically formidable: teaching both Spanish and English for grades four through eight.
Janicki had chosen to enter ACE partly because of its growing reputation for developing clergy and women religious. He had felt himself in a process of discernment as far back as middle school. These days, he is drawn to the Jesuits for their orientation toward higher education but also compelled to work among “people on the margins.” Now he asked several of the ACE leaders a direct but decidedly complex question: “What’s your favorite thing about being a priest?”
“You don’t have to be interested any more in small talk,” Scully replied. “You’re able to enter into a different level of conversation.”
Father Sean McGraw added, “If you’re a priest, or even a seminarian, you have the freedom to say, ‘Let’s say a prayer’ or ‘Let’s couch what we’re saying in faith.’ People are hungry for that.”
Father Louis DelFra talked about the baptisms he had performed the previous day. There were three children, all born to mothers who had been ACE teachers. Scully mentioned how his neighbors recently asked him to perform their wedding. And McGraw recounted giving last rites to his own father.
They mentioned the challenging times, too — being assigned to Chile without knowing any Spanish, moving into a slum after a middle-class upbringing, feeling nauseous while you deliver your first sermon.
“You asked a good question,” Scully assured Janicki. “It’s not just priesthood you’re asking about. It’s life.”
Samuel G. Freedman, who previously wrote the “On Religion” column for The New York Times, is the author of eight books. This article is an expanded version of one of those columns.