A rare occurrence in the Diocese of Savannah, proclaiming of private vows, will take place April 20. The private vows will be taken by Janet Benton, a member of Saint Paul Church in Douglas, who has been in discernment for nearly 10 years.
She traveled to the Pastoral Center in Savannah to meet with Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv. on March 30. After that meeting she agreed to an interview with the Southern Cross. Presented below are excerpts from that interview.
SC: What are some of the things you spoke with the bishop about?
JB: Primarily the upcoming profession of my private vows. And as always love as a connection with the Church and with Christ and how that plays out in your life with the vows.
SC: How about a little background on how you got to this point. What was life like in the Benton household as you grew up?
JB: After World War II, there were no job opportunities. My father and several other young men were very poor down in south Georgia. They went up north where he met my mother in Niagara Falls, and I was born there and lived there as a child, and also lived in Oregon and also around the age of 7 moved back to south Georgia. My parents had saved up money, and they opened some small businesses in Douglas.
My mother was Catholic and very devoted.
We moved from Oregon to Douglas just before my 7th birthday and she wanted to make sure that I had my first communion in Oregon just in case that when we got to Douglas there was not a Catholic church available. She didn’t really know—and still to this day doesn’t—that Catholics in south Georgia are in a minority.
I did not go to Catholic schools. I would have loved to have. I went through public schools.
SC: Was a Catholic church available?
JB: Oh yes, there was, but we were a minority.
SC: What was that like?
JB: It was a very stable community demographically then, when I was a girl. And so there were about three of us all the way from grade two until we entered high school, just three Catholics in the entire second grade class. So we knew each other very well. The church was also small. You got to know the priests. We had Franciscan Sisters who taught us at that time for religious education. I felt as a child that sense of being in the minority. We still said prayers for the first few years of my elementary education and the Protestant Our Father was said as they completed it.
And I remember at the time wanting to go to services on Good Friday and explaining to people just post Vatican II — do we eat fish? Don’t we eat fish?
So the things you take for granted as a Catholic in a majority environment: As a minority you feel them, you see them more clearly when you have your little friends pointing them out to you. So I grew up feeling like a minority, which I think has helped me later in life and in being empathetic to other people.
SC: How did your professional career path develop?
JB: So I’m just like most people who I’ve taught that have become English teachers: I like the subject.
I taught high school and I then taught at Rheinhardt college which is Rheinhardt University now. Composition writing was my specialization. And then, I realized I needed to go on past a Masters and in the early nineties went back to the University of Georgia and got a Ph.D. in language education.
And after completing my Ph.D., I worked at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and then at Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton.
SC: I understand that you began taking care of your parents in 2002. How did that come to pass?
JB: For several years I’d noticed that their health was declining. I have a brother. He and his wife are now settled in Atlanta and I knew I would be the one. I wasn’t married, did not have any children and prayed for a few years—it wasn’t a saintly quick decision. I hate to admit I had to pray about it for a few years. But, in 2002 I left Boca Raton and moved back to Douglas to care for them. Best decision I ever made.
SC: Was there a sense of spirituality in your caring ministry to your parents?
JB: Yes there definitely was. It was the first step in leading me here to request taking private vows with the diocese.
My father was in and out of the hospital with heart problems, which is not uncommon for people with heart problems. The local priest was Father Dan O’Connell who is incredibly gifted in his ministry with visiting the sick in their homes and in hospitals.
I got to observe what Father Dan was doing and of course I was praying: I took a couple of my mom’s prayer books with me if one of them was in the hospital. I would stay, sleep there in the hospital. We also had some women who would come in who stayed with us. Couple of women who were caregivers too. But I would stay with whomever in the hospital.
Father Dan would come by daily to visit. It changes your perception of God’s role in our lives when you care for people who are ill and obviously moving toward death in this life.
SC: How did your discernment develop and who guided you through your discernment?
JB: I would say it obviously had to come from God and from the Holy Spirit leading me. But also from some excellent priests and just some wonderful people who work for our church. Father Dan O’Connell was there to provide spiritual support when my father and my mother died. Bertha Capetillo is our pastoral assistant. She was brought in for Spanish ministry, Hispanic ministry, years ago. She suggested I teach so I’ve been working with the confirmandi for going on 12 years and we had Father Ray Levreault and Father Nick Mansell—each priest gave me something different.
And I kept asking each one along the way. I said I seem to be a little too old for many of the religious orders and the longer I live here the more I am set at Saint Paul in South Georgia, in this community with this work. I’m recognized here. It takes several years to get recognized within a community interested. And my work for the most part is here. And oddly enough my university work fits the environment of south Georgia. My work was in the use of English or teaching of English in multicultural environments and that’s what Douglas is.
SC: So after you make your private vows how do you intend on working within the vineyard.? How do you intend to work in that community?
JB: Whatever is needed and whatever I have the talent for is the best answer. And of course because I work with whoever the priest is at Saint Paul at that time—whatever they want to guide their people into or provide opportunities for—and if I have the talent I will gladly help in any way I can. I continue to teach confirmation classes. I work part time in the church office. I assist in any way that I can with different events including Our Lady of Guadalupe even though I was just the runner. I was the runner for cupcakes to make sure they had plenty of cupcakes at one booth. We do what we can.
SC: How would you describe approaching discernment to someone who may be considering a vocation?
JB: I would say discernment is knowing you have a strong, true relationship with God. Almost like a string that’s attached from your heart to God that you are always connected to.
And if you’re looking for a vocation within the church don’t give up. Because I had always had a feeling over those 10 years to continue to look. If it wasn’t a traditional religious community perhaps consecrated virgin or hermit or my private vows.
You will feel propelled to continue. That’s I think the truest test: Is this my vocation and am I discerning correctly? It’s that feeling: Let me ask one more person if there isn’t something I can do within the church. Find a role for me within the church.
Watch the complete interview with Janet Benton at bit.ly/PrivateVow
Sister Margaret Downing, RSM Diocesan delegate for consecrated life,on the difference between public and private vows
The distinction between public and private vows is not a very clear one. Ordinarily, in current Church practice, one makes vows in the context of a religious community. With the vows, one takes on a set of responsibilities to the religious community, and also becomes available in a public way for the work of the Church. Someone who chooses to make private vows usually does this as an individual, and the person receiving the vows might be a spiritual director. The vows are private, not secret. But a vow can be made to God with no other human person present.
However, there are societies of apostolic life in which the members make private vows and live in community.
Janet Benton has not experienced a call to religious community, and she is older than most communities would accept a candidate. She wants to consecrate herself entirely to God, as she says, “to work in the vineyard.” She wants the consecration to be known. Her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, will be private. Bishop Hartmayer will receive the vows. This is an unusual situation, but we do have another woman living private vows received by the bishop in our diocese. I am aware of one woman who has taken private vows received by her spiritual director.
In the lived reality of the promises the person makes, it makes no difference whether it is public or private. The vows are promises made to God. They affirm a relationship with God in a formal way. But it is the relationship itself that matters, rather than the way it is affirmed.