Like many Catholic men who wonder about the priesthood, Patrick William May felt a calling but didn’t know where to start looking for answers.
A graduate of Augusta State University (now Georgia Regents University), May had found a job with the National Barrel Horse Association. But the ineffable tug to consider becoming a priest persisted. He was a practicing Catholic who attended Mass; he prayed; and he even talked to some other friends who were asking the same question: Can I be a priest?
Then he came across the Melchizedek Project, a 3-year-old discernment program based on Father Brett Brannen’s book “To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood” (Vianney Vocations, $20). The project centered around small groups of men either in high school or college that meet seven times a semester to find answers to the questions accompanying their discernment. Father Brannen’s text is their guide.
“As a vocation director, I had always asked other vocation directors if there was a book, some resource, that we could use,” Father Brannen told Our Sunday Visitor. “This was so important, yet there was not one resource that would take a guy through the process.”
The Melchizedek Project, supported by the nonprofit Foundation for Priestly Vocations and through a grant from the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, is run by Vianney Vocations, which published Father Brannen’s book. The project’s name derives from Melchizedek, a king and priest who is recognized in the Book of Genesis as the first priest. The Letter to the Hebrews identifies Jesus as a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek, and Jesus assumes the role of High Priest forever.
The idea for the book took root when Father Brannen was meeting with his spiritual adviser when vice rector at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
“Out of the blue he said, ‘God is calling you to write a book (about discernment).’” In response, Father Brannen said, “I told the Holy Spirit, ‘If you will help me, I’ll write the book.’”
Once he discovered the Melchizedek Project, May joined 10 other men in Augusta in a group led by five priests.
“It was helpful to be with other guys who are open with their own discernment,” said May, 27, who is now in his third year as a seminarian for the Diocese of Savannah at Mount St. Mary’s. “A lot of guys came to the meetings because they felt called to serve. That is pretty awesome. A lot of guys think they might be the only one thinking about the priesthood.”
May had a lot of questions about seminary life, and he hadn’t had much chance to talk to anyone about it.
“It was good to have someone to talk to about seminary formation,” he said. “I was ignorant about discernment.”
May’s experience is typical of many of the men who participate in the project, according to vocation directors who see the effort as a vital resource for giving young Catholic men a place to discern a calling with other like-minded men.
A typical meeting includes adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Mass, a lengthy discussion and then a meal that is often prepared by volunteers in a parish or school, said Father Jorge Torres, director of vocations for the Diocese of Orlando. The strength of the Melchizedek Project, he said, is the bulwark it raises “to the lie that creeps into the heart when a guy is discerning and he starts to think he is the only one. I see the relief in their eyes when they first walk into a group and they see all these other guys who are also discerning a call.”
Father Michael McCandless, coordinator for vocations to diocesan priesthood for the Diocese of Cleveland, said the small groups offered in the Melchizedek Project provide an opportunity for conversation that should be occurring with young men in Catholic high schools, colleges and in parishes across America. There are some 350 discernment groups from across the country.
“You have dozens and dozens of young men talking about the priesthood ... experiencing discernment in a communal, comfortable and authentic way,” Father McCandless said. “Where otherwise there would be too much of a hump to overcome to further their discernment and to feel comfortable doing so on their own, they have these groups. There would be many men who would not move beyond those feelings of a calling otherwise.”
Father McCandless has already seen the effect of the Melchizedek Project in the Diocese of Cleveland’s Borromeo Seminary, where there are now 63 seminarians, up from 51 in 2011.
“Vocations are on the rise,” he said. “Of the men who are coming to the seminary, the Melchizedek Project has aided in at least 12 guys entering in the last three years.”
Father McCandless is excited about the effects of the Melchizedek Project not only for college students and young men in their 20s and 30s, but for numerous Catholic high schools in the Cleveland diocese and other dioceses across the country.
“We now have sophomores and juniors who had additional people — other than their priest’s support — for their discernment,” Father McCandless said. “There is widening support and a greater source of influence from the Church because of the people who become involved with them. The conversation with the Church expands and the support expands.”
Vianney Vocations President Sam Alzheimer said an informal survey of about 30 of the 350 or more Melchizedek Project groups found that 50 men who attended the groups had applied to seminaries. Extrapolating that number by the total number of groups indicates some 500 men from Melchizedek Project groups have applied to American seminaries and religious orders.
“The Melchizedek Project offers a diligent discernment for these men,” Alzheimer said. “They actually know how to take the next step.”
Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Rhode Island.