By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has been through a lot in the past two years. But Father Richard Rocha, director of the diocesan Vocations Office, says, with confidence, that the Holy Spirit has been at work. There are 30 young men in various stages of study and formation for the priesthood in this diocese.
It’s not easy, nor is it done quickly. In the U.S., ordained priests must have a Bachelor’s degree in Catholic philosophy plus four to five years of graduate level theology. Vocations to the priesthood are discerned at different times; one young man may have wanted to be a priest since childhood, another may be in his 30’s or 40s, or even older, when it becomes clear that he is called to the priesthood.
After talking to Father Rocha and Father Gregory Lockwood, administrative director of the Vocations Office, completing applications, background checks and other paperwork, if a young man is accepted, Bishop Finn will assign him to a seminary or seminary college. The assignment is based on education, age and other criteria.
There are several seminaries and colleges that seminarians from this diocese attend.
Just a few hours north of Kansas City lies Conception Abbey and Seminary College. Two Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan seminarians, Randolfo Lemus and Olvin Giron are currently in the Seminary College’s Language, Culture and Church Program.
Ten seminarians of this diocese are attending Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. Michael Anani, Patrick Puga and William Fox are in their first year Pre-Theology; David Chunn, Levi Cochenour and Jonathon Davis are in their first year of Theology, Jorge Andres Moreno is in his third year of Theology; Leonard Gicheru is a fourth year Theology student; Phillip Sgrignoli is a third year College student, and Luis Felipe Suarez is studying Theology in Holy Apostles’ International Studies Program.
St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward, Neb., is attended by six seminarians of this diocese. Tyler Sanders is a second year pre-Theology student; Andrew Kleine and Nathan Rueb is are first year Pre-Theology students; Wesley McKellar is a third year College student, and Garrett King and Jared Samson are second year College students.
Columbus, Ohio, is home to the Pontifical College Josephinum, and nine seminarians of this diocese are studying Theology there. Reverend Mr. John Fitzpatrick, Reverend Mr. Daniel Gill and Reverend Mr. Eric Schneider, all ordained transitional deacons earlier this year, are in their fourth year of Theology and will be ordained to the priesthood in May 2014.
Bryan Amthor, Joshua Barlett, Ryan Koster, Gabriel Lickteig and Curt Vogel are third year Theology students, and Samuel Miloscia is a second year Theology student.
At the Pontifical North American College in Rome are third year Theology students Alex Kreidler and Andrew Mattingly and first year Theology student Trevor Downey.
Each seminarian has a unique story of how his vocation became clear. Tyler Sanders recalled his “long and curvy road” to the seminary. A dating relationship wasn’t working and “it was in the moment when I let myself begin to wonder what was to come next in my life that I felt what I often refer to as a ‘tap on the shoulder’ from God. It was if God planted a little thought in my head, saying, ‘Hey, why have you never considered the priesthood?’ It was when I was stripped bare of every distraction (I was jobless and not in school for the first time in my life) that I could begin to hear God’s voice clearly. I strongly believe that daily Mass attendance and regular Eucharistic adoration played a central role in my disposition toward the call and willingness to hear it when it came. When I felt that ‘tap,’ I turned around to see if it was really God … I began to see the path I had been on for several years leading up to that point how God had been guiding all along. I felt at peace, knowing that I was where I was supposed to be … Each curve (in that long, curvy road) had played a role in bringing me to that place and time. The conviction I felt then never left and grew stronger in the following months. I spent … six months discerning the call before I contacted the Vocations Office. By this time I was pretty firm in my conviction so I primarily needed to be confirmed in what I was feeling called to and to be guided through the application process.”
It doesn’t happen overnight.
“Some guys are in regular contact with the Vocations Office for quite a while,” Ty said, “before they decide one way or another and rely a lot on the solid spiritual guidance that Father Rocha and Father Lockwood are trained to give. I wasn’t really like that. For me it was more like ‘hey, I think I might be called to be a priest, where do I sign up?’”
He already had a spiritual director who had been walking him through discernment.
“The Vocations Office was there to welcome me with open arms when I decided to take that step and to make the process as easy as possible. Fathers Rocha and Lockwood are great priests; super down to earth and easy to talk to and they made me feel comfortable during a really frightening (in a good way) time in my life.”
Deacon Eric Schneider is in his final year of formation before ordination. He praised the Office of Vocations. “Father Rocha and Father Lockwood, along with Bishop Finn, have been very supportive over the last few years and always make a visit to the Josephinum to visit with each of us personally and answer any questions we may have.”
Following his ordination to the transitional diaconate last spring, Deacon Schneider was assigned to his home parish, Christ the King in Kansas City, to serve over the summer. “I was able to see both Father Lockwood and Father Rocha quite a bit over the summer. Both were instrumental in helping me to get more acquainted with parish life and were happy to answer any questions I had about the ministry. None of us would be here in the seminary studying for our diocese if it were not for the hard work that the Office of Vocations puts forth to make these years of study and preparation fruitful for us.”
Deacon Schneider looks forward to parish ministry. “Christ’s pastoral charity is intimately tied to the sacramental aspect of priestly ministry,” he said. “For this reason, I greatly look forward to offering Mass and providing the sacraments for the faithful entrusted to my care. Next, I believe that being accessible and available as a priest for my parishioners is of the utmost importance. Lastly, I hope to do some teaching in the parish environment, either by helping with adult education or with youth programs. It is through the sacramental life, being present to the faithful, and teaching that I hope to better serve my parish in priestly ministry.”
Ty Sanders, who expects to finish his studies and be ordained as a priest in Spring, 2018, has many things he hopes to be and do as a priest. “I often find myself daydreaming of achieving great works of charity like so many of the saints before me. What I really hope to be as a priest is holy. That’s the most important thing. I have to focus on my own holiness if I ever hope to have holy parishioners someday. I have to get the basics right first: carrying my cross, identifying with Christ, constantly deepening my conversion, thus strengthening my relationship with Christ and, relying ever more on His grace. If I can improve in these basics everyday, then the great works of charity must … follow.
Specifically, I see myself spending a lot of time hearing confessions, as much time as possible building relationships with parishioners, and trying to figure out the best ways to communicate the Gospel to them that will resonate with them. I see myself spending a lot of time on my knees, in prayer.”
Ty hopes to become fluent in Spanish eventually to help fill an ever growing need for Spanish-speaking priests. He also hopes to be very involved in pro-life outreach as well. Another hope and dream is to “find ways to inspire parishioners to the works of mercy that so many people are in need of, both corporal and spiritual.” He plans to take an active role in teaching the faith through things like Catechesis and RCIA. “All of these things relate to what I believe a priest’s primary role in the parish and community are: working in persona Christi, administering God’s grace through the sacraments and preaching the gospel. That’s what I want to do as a priest.”
Father Rocha said that following the ordination of six seminarians in 2012, 10 new seminarians arrived that spring and nine this year. “This coming May,” he said, “we will have four newly ordained priests. The week before the ordination, seven of our nine third year Theology students will be ordained to the transitional diaconate and the other two will be ordained in October. All nine will be ordained to priesthood in 2015. We have a new seminarian arriving in January ready to go. All in all, we will have had 20 priests ordained within four years. That is a wonderful consolation for what happened in our diocese. It speaks well of our diocese and how the seminarians and their parents see our shepherd, Bishop Finn.”
The increasing number of seminarians is a great blessing for the diocese and a great challenge for the Vocations Office financially. The average annual cost per seminarian is over $30,000 for tuition and professional training. The Vocations Office asks for help, prayers and generosity to maintain the momentum. “More young men are on the way and the future, in God’s grace and in the Holy Spirit’s care, is bright.”