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Brother Rafael Vargas, S.D.B.

Brother Rafael Vargas, S.D.B. first met his community in high school, where he absorbed the community’s ideals about service and faith. (Photo courtesy of the Salesians of Don Bosco)

THE STORIES of how God calls people to religious life are as varied as the people in that life. We present you with just three stories, each unique but with some common threads. They show that God’s call is persistent, it requires openness, and it may just surprise you with a sense of belonging that you never thought possible.

Inspired by example, drawn to community

By Brother Rafael Vargas, S.D.B.

Brother Rafael Vargas, S.D.B.
Brother Rafael Vargas, S.D.B. is a Salesian of Don Bosco and ministers in Orange, New Jersey as a parish youth minister and formator for his community.

MISSION, charism, and community—these were the three things that attracted me to religious life. Even though I was unable to name it that clearly at the time, those were the things that led me to join the Salesians back in 2010 immediately after graduating from high school.

You may wonder what about my high school experience led me to not only begin to discern my vocation, but to choose to follow it at such a young age. After all, most people join religious communities in their 20s and 30s. I was fortunate to attend Don Bosco Preparatory High School in Ramsey, New Jersey, which is run by the Salesians. My dad’s boss gave me the opportunity to attend by paying the tuition for my brother and me. He had also allowed my family to live rent-free on top of one of the car dealerships he owned. Since I was beyond grateful for everything he had done for my family, I took the opportunity to make the most of it. During high school, I dedicated all my effort to academics and to running.

The next blessing came through a summer reading assignment prior to entering high school. We were required to read the biography of Saint John Bosco. I was immediately inspired by this poor priest from Italy who gave his entire life to serve and care for young people most at risk. He was a man of many talents who won the hearts of young people through his joyful and loving presence.

One of the main people who embodied Don Bosco’s spirit for me was my cross-country and track coach, a layman. He helped create a sense of family on our team, challenged us to push beyond our limits, taught us life lessons, and was a genuine witness of faith and character. Through his example and others, I began to see that Don Bosco’s spirit and mission are meant to be shared and lived by many people. The Salesian family is very wide and includes all vocations.

It wasn’t until the beginning of my junior year during our first school Mass that we were challenged during the homily to truly consider what vocation God was calling us to. When the topic of religious vocations came up, I immediately thought of two friends who were discerning the priesthood. However, at that moment, I felt God speaking to me also. For the rest of my time in high school I began to take time each day to pray, asking God to help me to know his plan for me and to have the courage to say yes to whatever it was.

Like others, I truly identified with Don Bosco’s mission and charism and was personally drawn to live it out more fully in community. Later, during my first couple of years in initial formation (preparation to be a Salesian), I began to consider whether God was calling me to live out my religious life as a priest or a brother. Even though I had initially aspired to the priesthood, I began to feel God was calling me to the brotherhood. Living in a religious community helped me to see that at the core of my calling was the desire to be Christ for others, especially for young people who are most at risk. And I wanted to live out that call in community for my whole life.

Since the time that I joined, I have experienced countless blessings and joys, two of which I want to call attention to. The first is community life. It has been a major source of support, and at the same time, it has challenged me to grow deeper in love, humility, and vulnerability. The second joy has been young people. For me, it has been a major blessing to walk alongside so many young people as a friend and guide. It has been both a graced opportunity and a challenge to accompany these same young people through their early adulthood as they begin to experience new situations and make important life decisions.

As for me, with God’s grace I hope to continue to be faithful to my Salesian calling to “live Jesus, be family, all for youth.”

Curiosity and an attraction to service

By Sister Limétèze Pierre-Gilles, S.S.N.D.

Sister Limétèze Pierre-Gilles, S.S.N.D.
Sister Limétèze Pierre-Gilles, S.S.N.D. belongs to the School Sisters of Notre Dame and ministers from Towson, Maryland with Beyond Borders, a nonprofit in Haiti.

MY JOURNEY to become a religious began when I was a child, several years before I left my birthplace in Haiti to join my family in Florida. What is clear to me now is that God has always been present, leading every step, even when I did not notice.

I was a very quiet child who loved to read. I read the whole Bible more than once. What was mostly available to me were books about the lives of the saints. As I read and pondered their stories, I became more and more intrigued by God.

At some point, I met some of the saints not written about in books. Some of them even looked like me. They were Catholic sisters who devoted their lives to serving children and those in need. Some had left their countries to work in remote places in Haiti. I told myself that if they could leave their countries and all the comfort of home to work in Haiti, perhaps I too could do the same. I found both the missionaries and the Haitian sisters inspiring, and I wanted to give myself in God’s service just like them. However, I wanted an education, and becoming a sister was not going to happen until after I got it.

I kept going to school, while at the same time I volunteered and worked in my parish in Haiti. Eventually one of the priests in the parish introduced me to some religious congregations. I even went to a “Come and See” weekend with one community. After much prayer and reflection, I decided not to enter. I stayed focused on my education, thinking that was the end of my quest for religious life.

Then I moved from Haiti to Florida to join my family, and education remained my focus. I wrote down my plan, which included learning English, attending the community college, working with attorneys, and eventually going to law school. Entering religious life was not part of the plan, while in the meantime perhaps God was conspiring to get me back on track.

Sister Limétèze Pierre-Gilles, S.S.N.D. with Sister Sharon Kanis, S.S.N.D.
Sister Limétèze Pierre-Gilles, S.S.N.D. with Sister Sharon Kanis, S.S.N.D. Behind them is an image of their community’s foundress, whose portrait triggered a conversation that eventually led Pierre-Gilles into religious life. (Photo courtesy of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Atlantic-Midwest Province)

One obstacle to my plan was that I needed a monthly bus ticket to go to school five days a week. This was less than affordable for me. After much resistance, I agreed to go with the parish priest to St. Ann Place in West Palm Beach, Florida to ask the sisters there for a monthly bus ticket. Upon my arrival at this ministry to the homeless, Sister Carleen Cekal, S.S.N.D. introduced me to the two other sisters, the staff, and an associate of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who ministered there.

My tour of the center included a stop in Sister Carleen’s office. A picture on the wall grabbed my attention, and I asked, “Who is this woman in the picture?”

My question prompted another question from Sister Carleen: “Are you interested in religious life?” Neither yes nor no was the correct answer at the time. I needed time to think and pray about whether I was interested—again. “I don’t know” was the safest reply I could give at the time. It turned out it was more than what God needed to work with.

I met with the School Sisters of Notre Dame in West Palm Beach. I also searched for and met sisters from other congregations. I went to another “Come and See” weekend. Eventually I met with the S.S.N.D. vocation director and kept in close contact with the community.

The S.S.N.D. ministry in West Palm Beach is what first attracted me. They were ministering to homeless people with dignity, love, and joy. I learned later that this value, joy, is part of their constitution. When they occasionally invited me to their home for evening prayer and dinner, I was able to experience their prayer life in addition to their community life.

We continued to meet, discuss, and share. We prayed together, and I learned about the life of Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, the woman in the picture in Sister Carleen’s office who founded the School Sisters of Notre Dame. How curious I was to learn her fascinating story!

Perhaps it was the same curiosity I had about the saints when I was a child that prompted me to ask my question about a woman in a picture frame—a woman, a saint, who risked everything and gave her life completely to God in the service of others.

And so I said yes to religious life and the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Continual surprises

By Sister Cecilia Ashton, O.C.D.

Sister Cecilia Ashton, O.C.D.
Sister Cecilia Ashton, O.C.D. belongs to the Carmelite Monastery of Baltimore.

BORN AND RAISED Catholic, I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through college. Three of my aunts are Catholic sisters, so religious life was a normal part of my family dynamic. From a young age, I felt drawn to their way of life—to make God the primary focus of my life and to serve the people of God in community. When I was in eighth grade, I wrote to dozens of religious communities to request information.

During high school, however, I began to question and wrestle with my faith. Unable to resolve the questions I was holding at the time, my fervor for religious life began to wane. I turned my focus toward dating and choosing a career path. Looking back, I think my questioning, dating, and professional endeavors were all important points of my journey.

After obtaining a Bachelor of Science, I went on to earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree. I practiced dentistry for 10 years, until I was no longer able to resist what I felt was God’s dream for me—religious life.

As you might suspect, my journey has been one of continual surprises. While I am not at all surprised that I eventually pursued the way of life that captivated my heart in my youth, my desire for contemplative life certainly took me by surprise, especially considering my dental degree.

The very first time I visited my community’s monastery happened to be Vocation Sunday. I remember thinking: “OK, God, you’ve got my attention now—I’m really listening.” That visit was also my first time back to church in a very long time, as I had found it difficult to reconcile my personal beliefs with church teaching in a way that allowed me to worship authentically. Yet, when I came to the monastery’s chapel and saw how much the sisters were included in the liturgy, how welcome they made me feel, and how they incorporated issues of social justice into their prayer, it was like coming home. My heart had finally found what it had been seeking.

After that first experience in the chapel, I knew I needed to continue to come back. The sisters invited me to participate in a young adult prayer group where they were teaching contemplative prayer. The prayer group opened my eyes to the richness of Carmelite spirituality. The more I learned about Carmelite spirituality, the more deeply I felt the sisters’ life resonate with my heart’s desires.

Sister Cecilia Ashton, O.C.D. with her community on the day she professed her final vows.
Sister Cecilia Ashton, O.C.D. with her community on the day she professed her final vows. (Photo courtesy of the Carmelite Monastery of Baltimore)

My vocation story is similar to the majority of newer entrants to religious life who are attracted to the spirituality of their respective communities. NRVC’s 2020 Study on Recent Vocations to Religious Life showed that more than 90 percent of us were drawn to religious life by the spirituality, charism, and mission of our communities.

As I look back, a number of things drew me to my community: Carmelite spirituality, the community’s focus on prayer and solitude, and their forms of expression, which were both intercultural and intergenerational. I also was attracted to their commitment to share the fruits of their interior life through contemplative ministry and their intellectual life, expressed in their annual Festival of Learning, their ongoing education, and their writings. As I got to know the community, I came to believe deeply in the importance of contemplative life for the transformation of the world—so much so that I desired to give my life to it.

So far, I’ve been delighted by all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. I continue to be inspired by the faith and dedication of women and men religious across many communities and charisms, and all people of goodwill who earnestly desire God.

Religious life fills me with great hope because while communities are certainly undergoing challenges, something new is emerging. And it brings me much joy to be part of this journey, helping to give birth to the next stage of religious life.

My passion for God and my desire to help others explore the depths of Holy Mystery is what attracted me to religious life. This is what continues to sustain my vocation. All along I’ve trusted that God would provide whatever I needed to flourish, and, so far, I have not been disappointed.

So, what are you waiting for? 

This article is based on presentations in a webinar series by VISION’s parent organization, the National Religious Vocation Conference. Find “Religious Life Today Webinar 6: Newer Entrants Stories” at

Related article:, “Religious life today.”




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