By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Deacon Jack Fitzpatrick has been to nine of these events.
Newbie seminarian Darrin Petitt was at his first one.
Never mind. The members of Kansas City-St. Joseph Serra Club chapters rolled out the same red carpet for both of them — and their families — at the annual Christmas season “love fest” between Serra Club members, who foster and support religious vocations, and the men studying to serve the diocese as priests.
Held once again at St. Thomas More Parish with Bishop Robert W. Finn celebrating Mass preceeding a sumptuous dinner Dec. 20, both the veteran and the rookie felt the love — as did the 28 out of 31 seminarians who were able to attend.
“They keep telling me it’s a formation process,” Petitt told The Catholic Key. He wouldn’t attend his first class at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., for another month, but he was ready to get started.
Pettit, 41, admitted he hasn’t always followed his faith closely.
“I took a hard road,” he said. But he said he is now ready to turn everything over to God’s will, thanks to the support he received from members of his home St. Patrick Parish in St. Joseph, and the support he was receiving that night from Serrans.
“I used to pray, ‘Show me why I should be a priest,’” he said. “Now I pray, ‘Show me why I shouldn’t.’”
It took him a while to hear his call, he said. But his mother, Bonnie Petitt, said she always knew.
“Mothers have this gut feeling,” she said.
Deacon Fitzpatrick and three others ordained with him last May as transitional deacons will be ordained to the priesthood next spring.
When he does, he will be the first seminarian ordained to the priesthood who began his studies after Bishop Finn became ordinary of the diocese in 2005.
“This is my ninth and final seminarian Christmas dinner,” Deacon Fitzpatrick told the parents and Serrans who jammed the large St. Thomas More Hall.
And as he has done at each of the previous dinners, Deacon Fitzpatrick couldn’t resist a joke.
“His excellency (Bishop Finn) was speaking in his homily about the crosses our Lord calls us to bear,” he said.
“I am about to lay down the cross of the seminary and take up the much larger cross of you,” he said, quickly adding, “and I am very happy to take it up.”
But Deacon Fitzpatrick also couldn’t pass up his final opportunity to let the Serrans know what they mean to him, and to all seminarians.
“I couldn’t have done it without all your help,” he said. “It is a testament to the goodness of the Lord. It is in no small part because of your prayers that I have come this far.”
Deacon Leonard Gicheru, also to be ordained next spring, told the Serrans that they have become family to him since he left his home in Kenya four years ago.
“What you see in front of you is the work of your hands,” Deacon Gicheru said. “Your presence here is witness to the kind of help you give each one of us.”
Deacon Daniel Gill, also nearing his priestly ordination, asked for more help now and through the coming months and years.
“Thank you very much for your prayers,” he said. “Continue to pray for us as we continue forward.”
Deacon Eric Schneider, also a relative newcomer to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, echoed Deacon Gicheru’s gratitude for his new friends.
“You really make us feel like family,” Deacon Schneider said. “I look forward to service this diocese as a priest and serving each one of you.”
In his homily at Mass, Bishop Finn told the seminarians, parents and the Serrans that the men studying for the priesthood mirrored Mary’s acceptance of God’s will when Gabriel told the virgin she was with child, the Son of God.
“The Gospel says Mary was greatly troubled. She says, ‘How can this be?’ Mary, the most perfect expression of the human person doesn’t understand,” Bishop Finn said.
“So when we don’t understand, we are in pretty good company,” he said. “The message can be pretty heavy. It can require a lot from us. But it is the fulfillment of the promise.”
That promise is the promise of Advent, the bishop said.
“This is what Advent is all about — that there will be a Messiah who will free us of all our sins,” Bishop Finn said.
“It is very much a message of salvation. It is a message of joy, a message of peace and consolation,” he said.
That joy, peace and consolation is in knowing that Jesus lives and will never leave us, he said, in whatever vocation God calls us to.
“When crises arise and challenges come forth, we can say with confidence, ‘I know you are with me,” Bishop Finn said.
“God is with us. He has a plan. He has a purpose for our lives. How will it unfold? We never know, and it is good that God doesn’t tell us or we would run the other way,” he said.
“But we come to the Holy Eucharist so often. Here is where God is with us. Here is where we share in the life of Christ, share in his death, share in his resurrection,” he said.
Bishop Finn told the congregation that the Angel Gabriel said to Mary that the child she was bearing would be called “Emmanuel.”
“‘Emmanuel’ means, ‘God is with us,’” Bishop Finn said.
“I have heard that described as the summary of the Gospels — ‘God is with us.”