Sunday, February 04, 2007

Dolores Hart: What’s Your ‘Gut’ Reaction To Her Story?

Dolores Hart, then . . .

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on February 4, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 5: 1-11.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of the Year 2007]

What is your personal, “gut” reaction to the following true story?

Her name was Dolores Hart. She was born in 1938, the daughter of actor Bert Hicks and the niece of world famous tenor Mario Lanza. In the late 1950s and early 1960s she was a young actress whose star was definitely on the rise. In 1957 she co-starred with Elvis Presley in Loving You. The following year she was in another Presley film, King Creole. In 1960 she had one of the lead roles in the popular teen movie, Where the Boys Are.

In 1959 she was doing a play in New York City, when a close friend invited her to meet some nuns at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis, located in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Dolores responded to the invitation by saying, “Nuns! No, I don’t want to meet nuns.”

But her friend was persistent. She said, “[These sisters] are very special. Did I ever steer you wrong?”

Finally Dolores decided to go. And she enjoyed her visit. So she went back again—and again—several times, in between shows. Eventually she asked the Reverend Mother, “Do you think I have a vocation?”

The Reverend Mother answered, “No, no—go back and do your movie thing. You’re too young.”

So she went back to acting. She did Where the Boys Are, and then another film on the life of St. Francis of Assisi—a film in which she played the role of St. Clare.

When she was in Rome making the movie about Francis, she had the honor of meeting Pope John XXIII (the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council). When she was introduced to the Holy Father, she said, “I’m Dolores Hart, an actress playing Clare.” The pope responded, “No, you are Clare!”

Dolores thought the Holy Father had misunderstood her so she repeated the statement: “I’m Dolores Hart, an actress portraying Clare.” The pope looked right into her eyes this time and said, emphatically, “No. You are Clare!”

She was engaged at that point to a man named Don Robinson. In a recent interview, she said this about her engagement:

It was a very wonderful experience for Don Robinson and me. He had a feeling that I might have a ‘calling’. He wanted to try the engagement. “Let’s give this a try.”

Several days went by, and we were driving down the road when he stopped the car. Don said, “Something isn’t right. Do you love me?”

“Of course, Don. I love you.”

He asked again, and then said, “Something in you is not with me.”

When I returned home at 1 a.m., I called and got a flight for 6 a.m. to Regina Laudis. God is far from all of us until we get into the reality of ourselves. I finally came to say—in my heart more than anything and then openly to myself—“my search for God was a marital search.”

When I spoke to Don again, he knew, because a man knows—every human being knows—when something is real. We were at supper, and I didn’t have my ring on.

Don said, “I know—I’ve known it. This is what you’ve got to do—and I’ve got to do this with you. We’ve got to do this together.”

That was an amazing gift—and all these years he’s been like that.

Don says, “Every love doesn’t have to wind up at the altar.”

Many relationships can wind up a lot worse. He never married. Don comes every year at Christmas and Easter. He wants to do whatever he can for the community.

You have to be open to a larger family in a vocation. When you don’t have children of your own, you realize your children may be of a high order—as a test of faith.

Dolores Hart has lived in the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut since 1963. In 2001, she became the prioress of the community, which means that her official title is now, “Mother Dolores Hart”.

At the beginning of my homily, I asked you to monitor your personal, “gut” reaction to this true story. Here we have a beautiful, talented young woman with a bright future in the entertainment industry, who gave it all up to serve Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church as a religious sister. She gave up marriage and a natural family—as well as fame and fortune—to live in a cloistered monastery in nearby Connecticut for 40-plus years.

In all honesty, what is your reaction to that story?

Or better yet, imagine that you were Dolores Hart’s mother or father. Truthfully, how would you have felt about her decision to enter the convent?

Would you have said, “What are you doing? What a waste!”? (I know Catholics who would have done that!)

Would you have been a little more diplomatic and said, “Well, go ahead and do it—if that’s what you want.”? (Translated, that means, “Well, if you insist on throwing your life away, go ahead. I know I can’t stop you—but don’t expect me to be happy about it!”)

Or would you have rejoiced that Dolores was finally fulfilling God’s perfect plan for her life by following the Lord’s call and becoming a religious sister?

I suppose your reaction would be determined to a great extent by your general outlook on life. If you look at life in purely natural terms (as many people do), then you obviously would say that this woman made a mistake—a very big mistake!

But if you truly believe that God has a plan for every single person he has created; if you believe the words of Jeremiah 29, where the Lord says, “I know well the plans I have in mind for you, plans for your welfare, not for woe!—plans to give you a future full of hope”; and if you believe that a person will only be truly happy to the extent that they follow the Lord’s call and plan during their time on this earth, then you will praise God for what happened to Dolores Hart! You will rejoice that this woman finally heard the call, recognized it, and responded to it, in accord with God’s plan for her life.

Speaking of responses to religious vocations, I often wonder how the families and friends of Peter, James and John reacted once they learned that these men were leaving their fishing business to follow an unknown rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus. As we heard in today’s Gospel text from Luke 5, after blessing them with a miraculous catch of fish (probably their best catch ever, ironically enough!), our Lord called these 3 men to be his very first apostles. And they accepted the invitation, knowing that it involved a complete, radical commitment on their part. As it says in the last line of the story, “When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”

They left EVERYTHING! That included, incidentally, not only their boats and their business, but also their families and friends!

They were to go on the road with Jesus of Nazareth, to be full-time “fishers of men,” with nothing—and with no one—to hold them back!

Here’s an interesting question: What do you think Peter’s wife said when he went home that day and told her what he was planning to do?

“By the way, dear, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is I met this incredible man today at work. The bad news is I’ll be leaving with him tomorrow!”

Until she met Jesus for herself, and experienced her own personal conversion, she probably didn’t have too many good things to say about the situation!

More than likely, her support for her husband’s religious vocation came only gradually.

Hopefully we will always be very supportive of people we know who are trying to discern a vocation either to the priesthood, the diaconate or religious life—even if they happen to be from our own family!

Our desire should be for them to discern God’s will correctly, and then to follow it faithfully in their lives—since that’s where they will find their greatest fulfillment and happiness.

And so our prayer for them should be, “Lord, if it’s your will for them to be a priest, deacon or religious, help them to see it; if that’s your call for them, help them to hear it! If, on the other hand, that’s not your will or your plan—if in fact you’re calling them to another state of life and to another vocation—then help them to see that as well.”

Let me give Mother Dolores Hart the last word this morning. That seems most fitting. When she was asked, “What would you say to someone considering a vocation?” she responded as follows:

I can only go back to my own experience, which was a long and severe test, and it was not easy. I would say you can never allow anyone to take you out of a vocation. The fact is, there is a promise given in a vocation that is beyond anything in your wildest dreams—there’s a gift the Lord offers and he is a gentleman.

I have not been profoundly missed by any means [in the outside world]. My vocation has been totally gratifying and I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that in leaving Hollywood I was disappointed.

For every generation, the call of a vocation is different because the needs of the Church are different. Young men and women today who are seeking God in this new era really have to listen to their heart. This age must have its own witness.

Dear Lord, may all those whom you are calling right now to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life listen to their hearts and follow your good and loving plan for their lives—in imitation of faithful disciples like Peter, James, John—and Mother Dolores Hart.

. . . and Dolores Hart, now.