By Father Thom Hennen
The Catholic Messenger
After Christmas, I had the wonderful opportunity to go with a few of my brother priests to Uganda. Father Paul Appel, Father Kevin Anstey and I accompanied Father Richard Okumu to his home country, a trip that he typically makes by himself every few years to visit family. This was my first trip anywhere in Africa, and it was truly an eye-opening experience for me. I have been blessed to travel to Europe, the Holy Land and Mexico, but I knew that this would be a very different cultural experience — it did not disappoint.
We spent several days in the capital city of Kampala, which included going to Mass at a local parish and visiting the shrine of the Catholic Ugandan Martyrs, 22 men who were persecuted and ultimately killed for their newfound faith by King Mwanga II between 1885 and 1887. We were also able to travel to Murchison Falls National Park, one of Uganda’s many beautiful national parks. In addition to the stunning scenery, we saw animals in such numbers and variety as I had only seen before in National Geographic specials! Of course, we were also able to meet and spend some significant time with some of the people of Uganda, all of whom I found to be incredibly gracious, hospitable and warm. All in all, it was truly a blessed time and a trip that I will never forget.
In returning home and getting back to the grind, I barely had time to reflect on this journey; in particular, what moments or experiences were most meaningful to me. In the past few weeks, one experience in particular kept resurfacing, though it was a relatively mundane experience compared to the many amazing things that we saw. It was our visit to the college seminary in Gulu. Sadly, the seminarians were still on Christmas break, so we did not get to meet any of them. But there was a group of young men seated in chairs in a circle on the lawn. We stopped to visit with them and learned that they were a group of alumni from the seminary who never went on to priestly ordination. They were there for a reunion and prayer meeting. Fr. Okumu asked them to introduce themselves and say what they are doing now. They are now professionals from all walks of life.
I suppose what made this brief experience so memorable was their sense of joy and the fact that they all spoke of how grateful they were for the time they had spent there in the seminary before discerning that God was calling them elsewhere. The fact that they were even there at all was very telling. They may have left the seminary, but the seminary had not left them, as they gathered regularly for prayer as proud alumni and as faithful Catholic men now pursuing other paths.
It reminded me that the work I am privileged to participate in as a vocation director is not just for the seminarians, but for the church as a whole. Many of our seminarians will, I pray, persevere to priestly ordination. But even if they discern another calling (as long as it is authentically discerned), they will still be better men, better Christians, better husbands, fathers, workers, parishioners and volunteers for the time that they spent in formation for the priesthood.
I have occasionally met someone who has wistfully wondered, “What if I had gone to seminary?” But I have yet to meet a former seminarian who “discerned out” and regretted their time in seminary. To be sure, some had faced great challenges and not all of their memories were rosy, but to a man, the former seminarians I have encountered talk about how much they grew in their prayer life and in their relationship with the Lord during their time in seminary. They speak warmly of the true sense of fraternity and the unparalleled opportunity for genuine discernment they had in seminary.
To see these young professional lay men gathered in prayer at their former seminary, their “alma mater,” was truly heartening. By all means, we need to pray and work for an increase in vocations to the priesthood for our church, and for our diocese in particular. But in doing so, we should also pray for the right men at the right time — and pray that those who may be led by the Spirit to follow a different road will nonetheless continue to serve the church and build up the body of Christ by their faithful and joyful witness.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or hennen @davenportdiocese.org.)