Nov. 3-9 is National Vocations Awareness Week
SCOTT ATHEY AND SYDNEY STRACKE were on two very different, yet similar, vocational journeys before their paths crossed last year.
Scott had entered seminary several years earlier, studying two years at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul before heading to Rome, where he studied at the Pontifical North American College.
Sydney graduated from Moorhead State University and pursued a religious vocation with the Missionaries of Charity sisters in Chicago.
Scott’s vocation story came to life as a junior in college at St. Cloud State University.
“It was just so abundantly clear that God was asking me to enter seminary,” Scott said.
After college, he entered seminary, and during his second year in Rome, Scott felt the Lord working on him in a different way.
“I had always felt called to be in seminary. But is being called to seminary the [same as the] call to priesthood?” he said.
When he came back to the St. Cloud Diocese over the next summer, he wrestled with that question. He was assigned to the parishes in Eden Valley and Watkins with Father Aaron Nett.
“All those things were good and beautiful, feeling so welcomed and joyed by the experiences. But I had learned enough from four years of discernment to know this isn’t peace,” he said.
Scott returned to Rome to begin his third year. He spent more time in prayer and in conversation with his spiritual director.
“In today’s Church, in today’s culture, we can be overly focused on the practice rather than what that call is. I knew I was capable of doing priestly things — preaching, offering the sacraments. None of it seemed difficult for me. But I was more convicted that that’s not what a vocation is, it’s not what a calling is.”
Scott discerned out of the seminary but still felt called to ministry and teaching. He accepted a position at Pines Catholic Camp in Texas where he worked with youth doing retreat ministry. Afterward, he began teaching at Holy Trinity Catholic School in Winsted, Minnesota.
“I’d already left seminary feeling convicted that
the priesthood or being a religious brother were not my vocation, so then the question was, ‘Who am I called to marry?’”
Sydney grew up in Sauk Rapids and attended Sacred Heart Church. During her second year of college, her faith life took off.
A friend came to her one day after Mass and said, “I think you should consider religious life.”
That invitation was the catalyst for what happened next. Sydney sought the advice of a priest, who told her she needed a spiritual director.
At the same time, she was experiencing a difficult semester and was especially drawn to prayer and adoration.
“I was praying a lot more than usual. In the silence of adoration, day after day, I kept hearing religious life come up randomly. I asked, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do with this? I’m only 20. I have all these other plans.’ It sounds exciting, but I was scared. What will other people think? Will they think I’m crazy? I was encouraged by my spiritual director just to take a look into religious life.”
Over the next two years, Sydney visited three convents. But it was Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, where she had the greatest experience of her life.
“I felt an intense joy that I never felt before. It seemed to really fit my missionary spirit,” she said.
After more discernment and prayer, she entered the convent in January 2018, six months after graduating from college.
“In my time in the convent, I enjoyed what I did, but I was so restless in prayer. I remember thinking, ‘I feel like I can’t pray at all,’” she recalled.
She spoke with her mistress, the sister in charge of all the women in formation, as well as her spiritual director and a counselor.
“They helped to draw out of me different things. I
realized that maybe some of this restlessness came from things that I hadn’t settled or hadn’t healed from completely,” she said. “I knew in my heart that I had to leave. That’s probably the hardest decision I ever made in my life because I loved it so much.”
When Sydney returned home, she wasn’t sure what the Lord was asking of her. She made a commitment to give herself six months before discerning any vocation, whether it was a return to religious life, marriage or something else. She began substitute teaching and became involved with the St. Cloud Catholic Young Adult Group.
TWO PATHS, TWO LIVES COLLIDE
“I noticed her first,” Scott said about the night he and Sydney met at the young adults group last October.
When Scott learned she had recently discerned out of the Missionaries of Charity, he wanted to be a source of encouragement.
“For me, that was a lonely time because you’ve gone from a huge amount of community and structure and being separated from the normal day-to-day grind of reality. So, I just offered to talk,” he said. “I was trying to not be overly forward because I authentically wanted her to have a friend. But I also wanted to walk the line of being interested. So, I left it up to her.”
Although Sydney was still committed to her six-month, self-imposed time off from discerning anything, she suggested meeting as friends. They met and visited for about four hours, but it was clear to Scott that she was not interested in dating.
Later that month, Sydney visited the Missionaries of Charity where she had an important conversation with one of the sisters.
“In that conversation, [the sister] talked about following Jesus and what he wants, she talked about how there’s suffering in any vocation. She said you can be holy in both vocations. I felt my heart melt and open up. I realized, ‘Wow. It is OK to pursue the vocation to marriage.’ And then I remember thinking, I already told Scott right before I went on this trip to Chicago to visit the sisters that I wasn’t interested in dating him. In my head I was thinking, ‘Oh no! I just said no to this wonderful, holy guy. What was I thinking? Jesus, please give me a second chance.’”
And she was granted that chance. The two went on their first date on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. They attended Mass and shared a meal.
“After the first date, it was an instant ask for a second date,” Scott said. “I had already felt prompted not to ask for a third date because I wanted there to be time to really discern and she agreed.”
They took some time in prayer and later, set a third date.
“During the third date, we officially started dating,” Scott said. “Then fairly rapidly in prayer, it was scarily obvious that the Lord was saying, ‘I brought you together with the person I’m calling you to marry.’ But I was like, “Lord, I’ve known her for three months. What do you mean we’re supposed to get married?’ It was so incredibly fast but so incredibly clear. It finally clicked. This is the call. This is hearing the vocation. This is what love looks like for my life, for our life.”
Always throughout their discernment journeys, they put their love for the Lord first. They discerned to get engaged before Lent started so they could spend Lent together. In early March, Scott proposed in the adoration chapel at St. Anthony Church in St. Cloud.
Around the same time, Scott accepted a position at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud teaching theology.
“Our prayers just kept being answered,” Scott said. “All along, I kept saying, ‘Lord. This is crazy. I have known this person for not that long and yet I am so sure that I have discerned properly. I don’t really need any more affirmation but at the same time, it’d be real nice to have that complete peace.’ In that moment, I felt total peace like I hadn’t felt in years.”
Scott and Sydney were married Aug. 11, 2019, during the Sunday liturgy at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
TIME WELL SPENT
Sydney, who recently accepted a new job as the mission education coordinator for the St. Cloud Mission Office, said the hardest part of discerning out of the convent was that people didn’t always understand the depth of discernment she went through.
“People were confused as to why I left. Some said, ‘Oh. It was just too hard for you.’ But that wasn’t it. That wasn’t what God was asking of me,” she said. “If we want to tell anything to anyone, it’s don’t be afraid to go in [to seminary or religious life] but also don’t be afraid to leave. That fear is not from God. Even though it is difficult, we were united through that similarity,” she said.
Sydney and Scott reiterated that their time in the seminary and convent wasn’t lost.
“I came to a better reflection of my woundedness while I was in the convent — how I responded to criticism in self-defense because I didn’t see myself as a daughter of Christ,” Sydney said. “I was able to love myself so much more than I ever loved myself before. I remember learning throughout my life that in marriage, you have to love God, love yourself, love your spouse. So, if that ‘love yourself’ part is missing, that would really affect the vocation of marriage. It’d be hard to have a healthy marriage when you can’t love yourself.”
Scott said for him, formation in seminary eroded away different character flaws that he struggled with and sharpened good qualities that he already had.
Some people have said, ‘Why would God have called you to go to the seminary? Why would you have been called to go to Rome if you weren’t supposed to be a priest?’ My response is, ‘Because in Rome, I went from living a life of obligation to a life of true freedom because I am now capable of loving not only my wife but everyone better. Why wouldn’t God want me to come to that?”