Vocations to the priesthood are a key area of concern for Catholic bishops across the nation, with some dioceses having an ample number of priests and seminarians and others struggling. Our Sunday Visitor recently spoke with vocations directors from four dioceses that have either been strong for vocations or have shown significant improvement in recent years to ask them about the components that make for a successful vocations program.
A mystical call
The Diocese of Santa Rosa in Northern California serves a Catholic population of 178,000. Vocations were scarce several years ago but have since improved, with an average of eight to 11 men in formation annually. Father Frank Epperson, director of seminarians, said that a good candidate for the seminary “is a man who is psychologically and spiritually mature, who is disciplined and who has a strong prayer and devotional life.”
He stressed the importance of “good liturgy” in attracting men to the seminary, “offered with the reverence, dignity and the solemnity that it deserves. ... This is what draws a man to want more — to want to enter into a deeper relationship with the Lord and his Church.”
Recognizing the supernatural dimension of the priesthood is essential, Father Epperson believes. “If a man sees the priesthood as nothing more than an occupation whereby he can help people, as a sort of social worker, he will eventually say to himself, ‘Why give up everything for this? I can get a degree and do this as a layman!’” A culture that has lost the sense of the supernatural will inevitably have fewer priests, and “without a sacrificial priesthood, there is no Eucharist (Jesus), and if there is no Jesus, there is no salvation.”
Family and sacrifice
Father Greg Ihm is vocations director for the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, which serves a Catholic population of 280,000 in the southwest part of the state. The diocese has 24 seminarians and hopes to ordain three priests in 2018 and five in 2019.
Father Ihm has observed that a man who comes from a strong family does “extremely well” in the seminary, as does one who “knows who he is, knows responsibility and is willing to sacrifice for the sake of others.”
He believes the diocesan bishop plays a key role in encouraging vocations, and noted that Madison’s Bishop Robert C. Morlino exudes a “love for the priesthood, and has made vocations a priority in the way he does evangelization.”
Since becoming bishop in 2003, Bishop Morlino has appointed a full-time vocations director and “put solid priests in college Newman Centers to have good, strong witnesses teaching solid faith where young people are trying to figure out what to do with their lives.”
Every diocesan priest needs to be a vocations director, Father Ihm continued, encouraging and guiding young men he meets in the parish. The challenge in the culture, however, is that young people are reluctant to give up their freedom and make commitments and often have the example of parents “who haven’t made sacrifices for the Faith.”
Culture of discernment
Father Daniel Barnett is director of vocations for the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, home to 115,000 Catholics. He is also rector of the diocese’s Bishop White College Seminary. He was appointed to his role two-and-a-half years ago by Spokane Bishop Thomas A. Daly in an effort to revive the diocese’s vocations program. His “marching orders” included fostering vocations. The diocese has since gone from having three to eight seminarians.
He’s frequently on the road promoting vocations, and he has launched the website spokanevocations.org. He believes his job is to help create a “culture of discernment” in Spokane, in which individuals reflect on who they are and where God might be calling them.
A good candidate for the seminary, he said, is one open to formation.
“I tell the guys that the presence of problems in one’s life is not a problem,” Father Barnett said. “Everyone has something to work on. We’re all growing.”
Men who don’t ask the tough questions concern him, he said, as “he’s a man who thinks he has nothing to learn and is not open to growth. That’s deadly.”
What the diocese is looking for are “normal” men, he added, those men “who have a desire to be holy, do good to others and allow themselves to be docile to the Holy Spirit so they can collaborate with the Lord.”
Serving someone greater
The Archdiocese of San Francisco has 470,000 Catholics, and has remained steady in the area of vocations over the past decade, with between 15 and 20 seminarians. Currently, there are 16.
Father Patrick Summerhays, director of vocations, said that a “love for Christ in the Eucharist and his Blessed Mother” are common characteristics of the men drawn to seminary, as well as a desire “to serve something or someone greater than himself.”
He continued by saying, “A ‘culture of vocation’ in which young men know that vocations to the priesthood are valued and encourages praying to know God’s will for one’s life are also attributes of dioceses or parishes that are nurturing priestly vocations.”
The men who persevere in San Francisco’s seminary are “all are men of prayer. They are able to surrender to the process of seminary formation, realizing that Christ works to form his priests slowly and he can even work in those occasional trials along the way.”
Conversely, he continued, if a seminarian “carries with him a sense of entitlement for the priesthood, he will make himself miserable and have difficulty being formed.”
To promote vocations, Father Epperson said, the laity’s role is to “constantly pray” and offer encouragement to those young men in their lives who might be considering the priesthood. He also stressed the importance of the laity having large families, noting “if a family has several sons, they would be less inclined to discourage a son from becoming a priest, knowing that the family line will be carried on.”
Father Summerhays especially encouraged family prayer, as “vocations are born and nurtured in families that are centered on Christ and model lives of service and sacrifice.”
Father Ihm asked the laity to live “good, holy lives according to what the Church asks, which requires a deep faith, spiritual life and dependence on the Church and sacraments.”
“As a priest, I feel built up when families ask for my blessing and expect me to lead a holy life,” Father Ihm said.
“The Church of Jesus Christ is going through a tough time,” Father Epperson added. “To regain its rightful place as center of the life of society, strong, fearless men are needed to lead it and to recatechize the lost generations of the past 50 years.”
Jim Graves writes from California.