By Fr. Thom Hennen
As it has been a few months since my last column, I thought I would offer a “State of Priestly Vocations Report” of sorts.
This past year (my second as vocation director) has been busy. On June 23 Father Corey Close was ordained; Dec. 15 we added Father Steve Witt, and just this last Saturday, May 25, we welcomed Father Jacob Greiner as the newest priest of the Diocese of Davenport.
July 13 two of our seminarians, Kevin Anstey and Bob Cloos, will be ordained to the transitional diaconate along with 12 men who will be ordained to the permanent diaconate for the diocese.
By and large our seminarians had good years at their respective seminaries and several new prospects have come forward. We have already accepted two new seminarians and I know of three men who are in the process of applying. These new seminarians and prospective seminarians range in age from 18 to 52. While an application is not a guarantee of acceptance and acceptance is not a guarantee that a man will go all the way through to the priesthood, I think this is very encouraging. To add four or five new seminarians to the eight already in formation in one year would be outstanding.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that we’re “out of the woods,” not by a long shot. If I have learned anything in these past two years it is that vocations ministry is constant. It is “finesse” work, if you will, not “recruiting.” It is about planting seeds early, nurturing seedlings further along and, finally, harvesting the crop, and doing all of that more or less simultaneously.
One of the many activities we did this year to help plant and nurture a few seeds was a discernment group at the Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa. Both in the fall and spring semesters about a half-dozen young men would gather on Tuesday nights for Mass, a meal, a presentation and discussion. In the first semester we looked at how one authentically discerns God’s call, how to deal with the fears that a man faces when considering a call to the priesthood, and what seminary life and diocesan priesthood looks like. In the second semester we tackled Blessed John Paul II’s groundbreaking apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds) on the formation of priests.
One of the points that Blessed John Paul II makes in this exhortation is that the work of fostering priestly vocations is not “a secondary or marginal matter, or the business of one group only, as if it were but a ‘part,’ no matter how important, of the entire work of the Church. Rather … it is an essential part of the overall pastoral work of each Church, a concern which demands to be integrated into and fully indentified with the ordinary ‘care of souls,’ a connatural and essential dimension of the Church’s pastoral work, of her very life and mission” (PDV, 34). Now, I know that’s a mouthful, but how true!
Certainly the fact that vocations ministry is the work of the whole Church was borne out yet again in the recently released survey of ordinands (those who will be or have already been ordained) to the priesthood for 2013. This is an annual survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The survey showed that 69 percent of diocesan ordinands said they were encouraged to think about priesthood by their parish priest. Forty-three percent said they were encouraged by a friend, 37 percent by a parishioner, 33 percent by their mother, 26 percent by their father, 22 percent by a teacher or catechist, and the list goes on. The point is that there were multiple voices of encouragement to consider a call to the priesthood for those who were or will be ordained this year. Sadly, the survey also showed that some of these same people (parents, friends, priests, etc.) were discouraging of a vocation to the priesthood.
It has been a good year (Thanks be to God!), but the work and the need is still great. Will we recognize, as Blessed John Paul II reminded us, that fostering vocations is essential to the overall pastoral work of the Church and the duty of all her members? Will we be voices of encouragement or discouragement? I pray that we will all take up this charge and be voices of encouragement so that we have many more good years to come.
(Fr. Hennen is vocation director for the Diocese of Davenport. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)