It is almost always the first question asked when I tell people I am the vocations director for the Archdiocese: “How many guys do you have?” This could refer to a variety of different possibilities: How many are enrolled in seminary? How many will be ordained? How many am I currently working with who are seriously discerning? People ask this because there is a genuine concern about the number of men who are in active ministry and those who will soon join them. Our people see their priests doing more with less resources and are worried about what this will mean for the future and our access to God’s saving work in the sacraments. It can at times be discouraging or frustrating when we do not see the results that we would like. In the midst of this concern, there are signs of hope as well.
March 19 was the annual evening for vocations at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie. From high schools to youth groups, 105 young men attended. The evening began with tours given by seminarians, followed by evening prayer at which Bishop John O’Hara presided. It concluded with dinner featuring talks by three of our seminarians at different levels of formation and Msgr. Dermot Brennan speaking about his nearly 62 years of dedicated service to the Archdiocese and his clear love for the priesthood. As I was walking out, someone stopped me and said, “Father, if half these guys sign up, you’ll be in good shape.” I know how important this event can be from personal experience. I attended my first vocations evening more than 20 years ago as a freshman at Msgr. Farrell High School on Staten Island. In the parish, I brought down four or five men every year and I know that some are currently actively discerning if the priesthood is God’s will for them.
What a great blessing it was to see so many young men who opened their hearts to the possibility of God’s call, and I am so grateful to my brother priests who took time out of their busy schedules to bring them to the seminary. The visit to St. Joseph’s was the first for many, and the history of the building and the beauty of the chapel impressed them. They came because their priests reached out to them and asked that all-important question, “Have you ever considered becoming a priest?” It is about recognizing the characteristics in a man that can prompt us to ask that question.
Bishop Gerald Walsh, who was the rector of the seminary for my last two years of formation, often said that the headline for encouraging vocations is the same as the Office of Homeland Security: “If you see something say something.” Studies show every year that the number one reason a man considers a vocation to the priesthood is because he was asked to do so by a priest. The same holds true for religious brothers and sisters when they ask someone whom they think may be called to their vocation. There is no substitute for the personal invitation and no harm in asking, even when the answer is no. Recently, at a high school I was visiting, I asked the lay chaplain if he ever thought about the priesthood. He smiled and said, “Sorry Father, I’m engaged.” We both laughed, and I said, “Well, we certainly need faithful Catholic families, too.”
Working in the field of vocations can be discouraging at times, but events like the one last month restore my hope that the Lord is still working in the hearts of His people and still calling men to serve. In this beautiful Easter season we are reminded that the Risen Christ will never abandon His Church. We simply need to cooperate with Him in encouraging more men to listen and heed the call of the Good Shepherd.