Father Thom Hennen
Every spring my office prepares the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Budgeting is always a bit of a guessing game, but this is especially true when it comes to seminarians.
Back in March we were looking at the good possibility that 13 of our 14 seminarians would be returning (one would be ordained to the priesthood, always a good reason to “lose” a seminarian) and that we might have as many as 10 new applicants. If 13 returned and we accepted all 10 applicants, that would put us at 23. I made an educated guess that perhaps not all 10 would actually follow through on their applications and that we might not accept all of them. Also, there is always the possibility of seminarians currently in formation either discerning out or being dismissed, so I budgeted conservatively for 20 seminarians for the fall of 2017.
This was exciting and scary all at the same time. As a diocese, it has been many years since we were up around these numbers. Of course, the question about how we would pay for all of these new seminarians was also on my mind. Fortunately, we had already planned to do a special seminarian education appeal this year, which would help alleviate the added financial burden.
I met my April 1 budget deadline and all was right with the world … and then things started to happen. I learned that one of our potential applicants had decided to wait a year or two. Then, I learned that one of our current seminarians had discerned that he was not called to continue in seminary at this time. Then, we had to dismiss a seminarian. Also, in the past few months as the Seminarian Admissions Board has been reviewing applications and interviewing candidates, we got a more realistic picture of how many new seminarians we would actually have. We have an application process for a reason, and there were several candidates we decided not to accept, at least not this year. We are now expecting around 15 seminarians.
None of these happenings is necessarily “bad” for vocations ministry. I have always said that my role as vocation director is to help people authentically discern their calling and, at the same time, to discern with them on behalf of the church. My role is not to “sell” the seminary or the priesthood, nor is it to “rubber stamp” every applicant or seminarian in the pipeline. I remember vividly my rector in major seminary saying that when a man discerns to leave formation, the seminary has done its job. This struck me as counter-intuitive at the time, but as my own formation went on it made more and more sense to me.
When a man who is thinking of applying for seminary discerns through prayer and spiritual direction that this is not the right time or that this may not be God’s calling, this is actually good news. Similarly, when a man prayerfully discerns to leave priestly formation, this is also good news. Even when we decide not to accept a candidate or have to dismiss a seminarian, this is, in a sense, good news. It doesn’t always mean that the circumstances for turning a man down or dismissing him from formation are good in themselves, but somehow the church, relying on the Holy Spirit, has done her job. It is, admittedly, my least favorite part of being a vocation director, but I consider it to be as important as all of my “recruiting” efforts.
In many of these situations I think of the “rich young man” in Matthew’s Gospel who went away sad when challenged by Jesus not to rest on his moral accomplishments, but to leave everything and follow him. We don’t really know what happened to him. Maybe he eventually came around. Or I think of Justus, who was the other candidate along with Matthias nominated to fill the vacancy among the apostles left by Judas Iscariot. No doubt Justus was a good man even to be considered, but the apostles prayed and Matthias was chosen. It didn’t mean Justus didn’t have a vocation. It just meant that this wasn’t it, or at least not at this time, or that God had something else in mind for him. It is hard for us to know the final purposes of God.
At every vocation director conference I have attended in these past five years, I have heard the constant refrain: “It’s not about numbers.” As my spring dream of 20 seminarians slowly faded, this is something I have gone back to frequently. Please pray for those discerning God’s will in their lives, pray for our seminarians, and pray for me, the Seminarian Admissions Board and for the bishop, that we would have true wisdom in this great work of discernment.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)