Three things are holding Sarah Salazar back from religious life -- and a boyfriend is not one of them.
The 24-year-old Chicago teacher broke up with her longtime boyfriend this past January, a difficult decision she knew in her heart to be right.
“I was very worried,” Sarah recalls. “‘OK, God, religious life keeps coming up in my head, but I’m dating Paul.’ I kept praying on it. I felt so lost. A part of me knew I had to break up with him, but I was so afraid to do it.”
Once she was single, Sarah felt at peace, free to deepen her faith, advance her career and discern her vocation. She has decided to pursue a master’s of science in Speech-Language Pathology at St. Xavier University, a Chicago-based university rooted in the mission of the Sisters of Mercy.
Her faith and her desire to serve others fuel her. “I don’t see this as a career,” she says. “I see it as a ministry.”
After attending Profundo Encuentro, a vocational discernment retreat hosted in March by the National Catholic Sisters Project, she feels more comfortable with the idea of religious life. “I’m very open to it!” she says.
Being able to own and articulate that possibility marks a huge step. She believes many Catholic women feel embarrassed to discuss it.
“The other day my grandma asked me about it. ‘I heard you’re considering religious life,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I am!’ I feel so open about it. If we’re able to talk about marriage openly, there’s no shame in talking about religious life too. As Catholics, that’s unique to us; we have different vocations. I feel a lot more passionate about that after the retreat.”
Still, Sarah says, three factors stand in her way. The first is a practical one: educational debt.
The second is others’ perception of religious life. “Stereotypes are another barrier,” she says. “Even my family members have asked me: ‘Why do you want to be inside all day praying?’ They don’t realize that religious sisters are out in the world making a difference. Mom is very supportive of it. She really wanted to be a sister herself and really looks up to sisters. My dad, on the other hand, is afraid of sisters. He has that stereotype of mean, cold women.”
Her brothers also harbor a negative view. “The men in my life have definitely have had that stereotype. It’s something I’m going to work through, getting past those stereotypes.”
Sarah’s not alone. In a CARA survey of the men and women who entered religious life in 2018, women were more than twice as likely as men to be discouraged by relatives to pursue their vocation (37 percent versus 14 percent).
Those relatives have not met women religious like Sister Andrea Lee, IHM, president of Alverno College in Milwaukee. Sarah has had that benefit. She was awed by the talk Sister Andrea gave at Profundo Encuentro titled “Religious Life: An Adventure of Many Surprises.”
“What gave me confidence was hearing Sister Andrea Lee speak about how religious life has stereotypes, but that women are breaking those stereotypes every single day. Her being a president of a university is like, ‘Wow!’ Sisters are not silly and naive. They’re leaders. They’re doing amazing things. They have power that cannot be underestimated. I want to be part of breaking that stereotype!”
As more of her relatives come to see religious life as she does -- as an expansive, adventurous vocation -- Sarah is confident she would have their support.
The third factor Sarah identified as a barrier to religious life rests in her heart. “The last thing is fear of taking the next step,” she says. “Accepting a decision can be so hard. But I know God always has plans to prosper.”