By coming together in pilgrimage, says Sr. Jacinta, a religious sister of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, young people thinking about pursing the priesthood or religious life learn that the vocation they are discerning is "not hard, it's not weird … it is something that is very real, and it is very much a part of our life to choose Jesus, and to follow him."
The CFR sister was one of hundreds of pilgrims who came to Rome last week for a four-day retreat dedicated to seminarians, novices and those on a vocational journey. The weekend included a Marian Vigil in the Vatican Gardens, an audience with Pope Francis, as well as Sunday Mass with the Holy Father.
Sr. Jacinta, who is from England, and several other CFR sisters were among a group of 80 pilgrims from the UK, most of them young men and women in various stages of vocational discernment.
Speaking with ZENIT about her experience of the pilgrimage, Sr. Jacinta said: "I feel like my heart has been so set on fire. I have already made final vows. I've already committed, but coming here has made me want to give even more, and to really desire to give everything that I am and everything that I have, for the Church, for the people, to be a missionary."
Sr. Jacinta said the idea of "pilgrimage" is important for the process of discernment, in particular for young people. "There is this real sense of leaving everything behind in your life," she said. "You need to stop, and you need to step away, and it's only by doing those things that then the Lord can speak."
Coming to Rome in particular, and "being surrounded by the proofs of your faith and the proofs of people who have lived and died for your faith, is the most powerful message, and it makes you realize what's most important in your life," she said. "You suddenly say: My job is not really that important, and my day-to-day problems are not that important. What matters is answering what Jesus wants me to do with my life, and really giving my life to Jesus."
"I had that experience myself 11 years ago, coming to Rome as a young person, not even considering a vocation, not even really living my faith ardently," she recounted. "But as soon as I stepped into Saint Peter's, as soon as I prayed at his tomb, as soon as I experienced the faith of thousands of years, I wanted to do something more. I wanted to give my life to Jesus. "
Currently based in a mission house in Leeds, England, Sr. Jacinta and her fellow sisters received their formation in New York City, where the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal order was founded.
Sr. Catherine was another Franciscan Sister of the Renewal participating in the pilgrimage who, although American, also serves at the CFR mission in Leeds. She said she was moved by the experience of the pilgrimage, "especially being in the [audience] hall with the Holy Father, gathered with so many young religious, and also young people, and young seminarians, and seeing the hope of the future."
Speaking on Pope Francis' "fatherly" presence among those who gathered for Saturday's audience, she said: "I feel that there is a tremendous amount of hope in this experience, and experiencing the Church in this way, and being here, gathered in Rome for this event… with our father, being home with him."
"The unity that I feel we've experienced, and the oneness of heart is very profound," she said.
One of the pilgrims from England was Gregory Treloar, a young man preparing to enter seminary for the Diocese of Suffolk. He told ZENIT that although he wanted to go to university and have a girlfriend and career, he found that "things weren't working out the way I'd wanted them to. I'd told myself that I wasn't going to be a priest, that I wasn't going to think about it, for quite some time."
"I then was at a Blessed Sacrament procession and the priest put his hand on my shoulder and said 'I think God may be calling you to be a priest.' My innards shook. It wasn't sort of a deified sign, but it was the first moment in which I thought I should really give this a thought," he explained.
Taking part in the vocations retreat to Rome, he said that the pilgrimage "puts the Church in context. It's something that's been around for many, many years, and it brings back the great faith that many people had, and it encourages you then to go then and be a good faithful seminarian or priest."
Gregory was joined on the pilgrimage by his sister, 17-year-old Jacinta, who is also thinking about joining the religious life. "One of my favorite things about the religious life is that you are a spouse of Jesus," she said. "It's one of the great blessings of the religious life. Jesus really is your spouse, he almost indulges you with massive spiritual graces, and he just gives Himself to you completely."
"I also love the idea of wearing a habit, because you become like Mary," she commented. "Your head is shrouded – you're completely covered – and you're physical exterior doesn't matter so much. Because you're not wearing cool or fashionable clothes, it really draws you to what is the most important thing in this life: your spiritual soul, and how beautiful your spiritual soul must be if you want to please Jesus."
Emma Findlay-Wilson, a university student, was part of the pilgrimage group from England, which was organized by the vocations initiative Invocation. "Apart from the general companionship, I love being with Catholics because I don't get it very often," she said, describing her experience. "You make friends so easily, and the atmosphere of being with so many people, and praying – saying the same words is wonderful."
The retreat, she said, "has made me more confident in my vocation. It's made me feel more that I know God's will, that I'm willing to listen to him, that I'm willing to follow him. We've heard lots about how Peter just got up and followed the Lord, and I think that we feel that we can all do that now."
Not everyone who came to Rome for the vocations weekend was actively pursuing a vocation, but some began to consider the possibility over the course of the weekend.
"I knew that it was about vocations, but I didn't come for that reason at first," said Beth Lockett, also a university student. However, she said she was struck by "the sheer amount of people who are actually interested in vocations. In our country, we have a shortage of priests, and it's so good to see all these young people. It's made me consider it."
"I wasn't really thinking about religious life before I came here," she said, "but these last couple of days have been so enlightening and so reflective and have really made me think about it as a serious possibility in the future, if that's what God wants."