Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Vocation Director Father Andrew Torma, M.S.C. recently wrote about the connection between volunteering and discernment for the website and e-newsletter of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
When I was a boy, my father directed me in the helpful path of volunteering. During the summer he would send me with our lawn mower to an elderly woman to cut her grass. She was nice, but I never received anything from her but friendship and gratitude. Both my parents and my siblings also volunteered to help her with other chores around her little house. By imitating my parents, I discovered that doing a task for another person helps create a mature spirit of generosity. When the gospel said to help your neighbor with acts of mercy, I understood from experience the way to do this.
As I grew, the number of ways to volunteer increased. Some of them were more difficult, which also helped shape my character. Shoveling snow day after day for my grandmother created endurance, and helping my father with the garden created a spirit of sacrifice which became the foundation of a religious commitment. Volunteering helped me see others as children of God, a perspective which in turn helped shape my desires so that I was willing to make sacrifices to help another person.
One day in the seminary, my brother and I were assigned the task of washing and waxing the dining room floor. We worked with efficiency and cooperation and later that day someone remarked that we worked well together. I thought nothing of the incident at the time, but day after day of working as brothers for the well-being of our family made a habit of giving of self for the good of others. Teamwork and love created a spirit of community among us.
Any volunteer commitment shapes us, but volunteering can also help us discern our life's calling. When a person works alongside a member of a religious community, he or she is sharing the experience of the same values, identifying with the organization and its charism. For instance, when a person volunteers as a catechist, he or she takes on the evangelizing characteristic of the church. It is for this reason that when a person is discerning about a religious vocation, the vocation minister may suggest that the person act as a mentor in the RCIA program of his or her parish for a year. Hopefully the person will internalize the characteristic of evangelizing as a life skill, which deepens the awareness of a life commitment to the goals of the church and to the charism of the particular religious order.
Many young men and women have committed themselves to a year of volunteer service with an organization. The U.S. government has developed service projects to pay back loans for education and build the value of patriotic generosity to one's country. The church has provided volunteer programs as a means for the faithful to begin to respond to their baptismal call. While not all immersion experiences are designed as "mission" endeavors, they can serve as good cross-cultural preparations and as wake-up calls to a dormant baptismal calling. A year of volunteer service helps a person feel like a missionary and shapes the person's character accordingly. Volunteering with an organization helps us get to know the organization better, which is also an excellent tool for discerning whether or not this is the way we are being called to serve the church and each other.
Any form of volunteer service helps discern one's vocation, and volunteering is good preparation for all vocations. The call to marriage is founded on self-giving. The single way of life overcomes loneliness by being committed to giving amply of one's time for the good of others. The ordained celibate life finds it strength in personal sacrifice. Consecrated life comes from community support and a life of prayer together in the companionship of Christ. To volunteer in Jesus' name is to direct one's life according to the mind and heart of Jesus himself.