Backgrounder. First in a series.
By Anna Capizzi
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Growing up, De La Salle Christian Brother Javier Hansen never anticipated a religious vocation.
Hansen, 27, is one of the three delegates representing the United States at a pre-synod gathering March 19-25 at the Vatican in preparation for October’s synod of bishops on “Young people, the faith and vocational discernment.” Hansen is the only U.S. delegate with a religious vocation.
From Northern California, Hansen attended public schools until he enrolled at St. Mary’s College of California, which is run by the Christian Brothers.
He first seriously considered the idea of religious life during his freshman year when a friend told him she was leaving school to join the Sisters of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart at the end of the semester.
“My gut reaction was, ‘Does anyone do that anymore?’ because I didn’t grow up around consecrated religious,” Hansen explained. “I remember going to my dorm room later that night and just thinking to myself, ‘Wow, if she could that, maybe I could do something similar.”
The next week, he told his friend what he was considering and asked for her help, which turned into praying the rosary together and going to daily Mass with the Christian Brothers.
“My sophomore year of college, I had a lot of doubts about religious life, not about my faith, but, do I want to sacrifice all these things?” he told Catholic News Service. “Eventually, by the time I was a junior and senior, I had made up my mind that in some capacity, I would be a religious.”
What attracted him to the Christian Brothers was their apostolate of teaching.
“No one in our order is a priest,” Hansen said, and the brothers are “completely dedicated to our apostolate.”
Today, five years later, Hansen is a Brother of the Christian Schools in the Lasallian District of San Francisco New Orleans and a religion teacher at Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas, where he teaches six classes a day and is working on a master’s degree in education through the University of Texas.
Hansen believes he was selected to be a delegate in part to create greater awareness about religious life, and in particular, to the vocation of religious brothers.
“A lot of people are kind of confused when they meet a brother,” said Hansen, and he has to remind them not to call him “Father.”
“My students ask me all the time, ‘Are you going to become a priest? or, ‘Don’t you want to become a priest?’ They think that’s the ultimate part, that’s the terminus, that’s the end,” he said.
“Although maybe to some people, that vocation may not seem fulfilled, mine is,” Hansen said.
“Sometimes I use the analogy of a religious sister,” he said. “They don’t join intending to be priests, they join with the intention of doing whatever that order does.”
Awareness surrounding vocations to the religious life is a topic Hansen said he can bring to the pre-synod conversations.
He also sees himself as representing young people in the United States who are discerning a religious vocation.
How can the church better support young people who are discerning? First, find them outside university and college campuses, Hansen said.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 60 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are not enrolled in college or university. Hansen was surprised to learn that statistic in his preparations with the other U.S. delegates.
In his religious order, he said, “a big focus is going out to the Newman centers and following our graduates from high school into college,” but as he discovered, “a lot of young Catholics are not even in college.”
Statistics such as these could help reorient the focus of outreach, he said.
Hansen noted another difficulty for those discerning a religious life: the idea of chastity.
“For me, I think it’s opening myself up to all kinds of opportunities,” he said, “but for many young people, especially those who are not thinking about religious life but are curious about it, they think it’s more of a sacrifice than a way to open themselves up to love more.”
“Some people believe it’s like you’re cutting something out of your life, but really I’m saying no to this and I’m saying yes to a lot of other things in my life,” Hansen said.
Hansen also has practical solutions for what can be done to help reach young people who have drifted away from the faith.
Inspired by his congregation’s provincial, national and international councils of young people called “Young Lasallians,” he suggested the idea of diocesan young adult councils that could meet regularly to discuss what’s working in the diocese and how to better accompany young people.
“Public school is the main option here in El Paso. How are we reaching out to them except for confirmation classes? After confirmation, who is going to motivate them to go church except for their parents — if they listen to them,” he added.
A rotating council of young people to investigate the needs of their peers might be key for dioceses to keep youth involved beyond confirmation.
Hansen is looking forward to his first trip to Rome, and to connecting and collaborating with his fellow U.S. delegates and delegates from around the world.
During the gathering, one of the delegates’ tasks is “to create a document together that will be delivered to Pope Francis on March 25,” Hansen said.
“I’m really curious on what other countries do, or how they do church compared to how we do church here in America,” he said.
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Capizzi is the special projects editor at Catholic News Service. Follow her on Twitter @annamcapizzi.