Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
Vocations are a top priority for diocesan bishops across the U.S., with some dioceses having strong numbers and others struggling. I spoke with bishops, seminary rectors and vocations directors in different parts of the country that are doing better for vocations and asked them to share their secrets to success.
Father Daniel Barnett, rector of Bishop White Seminary, Spokane, Washington. Father was appointed to his position by the Bishop of Spokane, Thomas Daly, after his arrival in the diocese in 2015, gave Father Barnett “marching orders” to improve the diocese’s vocations picture.
Father Barnett believes it is important to 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; everyone has something to work on, we’re all growing.”
Men who don’t ask the tough questions concern him, he continued, as “he’s a man who thinks he has nothing to learn and is not open to growth. That’s deadly.”
The diocese is looking for “normal” men, he added, “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.”
Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Bishop Sheridan is turning 75 and will submit his resignation to the Vatican in 2020, after serving as diocesan bishop for nearly 20 years. The diocese has grown significantly since his arrival, both in numbers of Catholics and parishes. Vocations to the priesthood have also grown.
“When I arrived, there were next to [no vocations]. But, by God’s grace, today we have 13 men in the seminary. That may not sound like a lot, but it is pretty good for a relatively small diocese like ours. We will ordain two men to the priesthood [in 2020], and another the following year. God has been good.”
“… I attribute [our success] to prayer and encouragement. I’ve had two fine young priests who have served me as vocations directors. We have a young presbyterate because of our influx of vocations, which is a mixed blessing. We don’t want to make our men pastors too soon, before they’re ready. But we’re blessed to have some very good men to be our priests.
I also believe the reform of the seminaries inaugurated by Pope John Paul II has given our dioceses and many others the kinds of priests we need to continue the work of the Church.”
Father Frank Epperson, Director of Seminarians, Diocese of Santa Rosa, California. Santa Rosa had virtually no vocations when Bishop Robert Vasa arrived in the diocese in 2011, but has enjoyed an increase in its numbers of seminarians since then.
Father Epperson believes 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 … When he assists at a dignified, reverent Mass, he is lifted up, out of his every day existence, into the sublime. 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 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.”
... the laity must “constantly pray” for vocations, Father continued, and offer encouragement to those young men in their lives who might be considering it. He also stressed the importance of the laity to having large families, as “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.”
“… The Church of Jesus Christ is going through a tough time. To regain its rightful place as center of the life of society, strong, fearless men are needed to lead it and to re-catechize the lost generations of the past 50 years.”
Bishop Kevin Rhoades, Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. Bishop Rhoades made vocations a priority when he arrived in the diocese in 2010, and has seen the number of seminarians double.
… [Attracting quality vocations] starts with prayer. It must be a priority for our people in the parishes to be praying for vocations to the priesthood. This includes Holy Hours of adoration in parishes; we also have a diocesan-wide Holy Hour for vocations monthly at our cathedral in Fort Wayne.
Also, at the parish level, we need to have our priests actively engaged in promoting priestly vocations among young men. In parishes in which we have strong youth ministry programs, we’re seeing a lot of vocations. For example, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne has a strong youth ministry program, which helped produce eight or nine of our 30 seminarians.
I also try to assign some of our young priests as high school chaplains, who can inspire young men to become priests. And, as the family is the ultimate seed bed of vocations, we hope to see our families encouraging their children to consider the priesthood or religious life.
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia. Bishop Burbidge was a former seminary rector at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, and Arlington has had strong vocations numbers.
[Serving as rector] was my greatest assignment. I loved working with our future priests.
A successful vocations program must have several components, including:
1) We need a culture of prayer for vocations. As a diocese, we must pray that we will be blessed with an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In this diocese, we regularly pray for priests and religious.
2) We need the example of good priests, who show their joy in living out their priesthood and invite others to this life. We also need parents who give a faithful example of their call, so that their sons and daughters seek what God is asking of them.
3) We need programs to introduce our young people to the priesthood and religious life. This includes retreats, days of recollections and week-long summer programs. In our diocese, we have a successful St. Andrew’s dinner program. Young men in their junior year of high school or older are invited to come to dinner where they can meet me, and we can pray together, talk and participate in a holy hour.