Religious communities gather for Wake Up the World Conference

By: By Jennifer Willems

Caption: Members of religious communities around the Diocese of Peoria pose for a group photo during the Wake Up The World Conference Sept. 18-19 at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Nearly 400 students from Catholic schools around the Diocese of Peoria accepted the invitation to join consecrated women and men at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria for the Wake Up the World Conference on Sept. 18.

Before they left they had attended a Mass celebrated by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, heard vocation stories, been challenged to seek out friendship with God by keynote speaker Mario St. Francis, and collected souvenirs and information from 13 religious communities active in central Illinois.

The conference, held to celebrate the Year of Consecrated Life called for by Pope Francis, was sponsored by the Peoria Association of Religious Life.


First, a sharing of the joy of their consecration with each other

Conference closes, but “the party ain’t over”

Former model, actor, athlete: Fame is fleeting, but God is eternal


“Awesome” is how Sister Mary Ann Schaefer, FMA, described consecrated life.
She told the students of a person who rode a motorcycle, could shoot a shotgun and loved to go fishing. She was even engaged — before she entered the convent.

It was Sister Mary Ann’s own story.

“God calls whom he wants and gives them the gifts he wants to use with the young people we serve,” she said, noting that her current life doesn’t look much like her former life. “But all these things, all these gifts that I was given as a young person and the experience of dating help me to work with the college students I’m working with.”

She is part of the campus ministry team at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois.

She said that while all vocation stories are different, the “golden thread” that runs through all of them is prayer, moments of talking to God and asking what he wants for our lives.

“It’s all about opening yourself up so God can take you by the hand and guide you,” Sister Mary Ann said.

Brother Bernard Mary, OFM Conv., told the students it was important to learn humility and take God seriously. “The two things really do go together,” he said.

He found that out as a youth in Sydney, Australia, telling the students he didn’t really take God seriously until he went on retreat. In the sacrament of reconciliation he felt like “a huge boulder” was taken off his shoulders and his life changed.

He eventually came to realize that he was being called to consecrated life and said, “It makes you unbelievably happy. I’ve never been happier than I am now, living out my vocation as a religious Brother. I really encourage you to think about that: What are some of the steps I can take to really take God more seriously?”

A former model, actor, producer and semi-professional soccer player, Mario St. Francis now travels the world as a Catholic lay evangelist.

As he shared his story with the students — and the consecrated persons, lay people and families later in the day and on Saturday — he told them that fame and fortune are fleeting but God is eternal. Once he handed over the keys of his life to God and let him drive, he found the joy he had been seeking and everything started to fall into place.

“I came to learn that no matter how much money I had, it was God and having a relationship with him that was really important,” said St. Francis, which is a stage name he adopted after a profound conversion experience.

“I started to develop better relationships because now I had something to point my friends to. Instead of going to parties with them, I took some of them to church,” he said.

St. Francis urged the young people not just to learn about their faith but to ask God to help them understand it. “Because our mission in life is to know God, to love God and to serve him. You cannot love what you do not know.”

Bishop Jenky also encouraged the young people to be “students in the school of Christ” and to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

“That’s the only thing that makes sense that we do as believers,” he said. “Because of our knowledge of the Lord, we try to live a certain way.”

One way of imitating Christ is in religious life, the bishop said.

“Not all are called to be religious, but all religious are called to build up the entire body of Christ, which is the church,” he told them.

Bishop Jenky said the students are also called to be “convincing teachers.”

“Be people who show the world what you believe. Be filled with enthusiasm about our faith. And then, by that witness, do what Jesus expects and win the whole world for his Gospel,” he said.

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