Catholic Key Associate Editor
Think of them as first responders, the people who run to danger, not away from it.
That’s how the two top men in the Diocesan Vocations Office view the wave of young men who have come to them to begin the path to priesthood.
And they are still coming. In droves. In spite of all the scandals and bad press, both locally and nationally.
“They are running to a challenge, not away from one,” said Father Gregory Lockwood, associate director of the office whose primary job is to keep track of the young men in various seminaries as they are formed into priests.
“I totally respect every single one of them,” Father Lockwood said.
And that is the key, they said, to the surge in vocations as their job grows increasingly more difficult, and time consuming with more and more seminarians on the way.
Consider: So far in 2015, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph ordained nine men to the priesthood. Go back to October 2014, and the ordination of Father James Carlyle, and that makes 10 in a single fiscal year that began July 1, 2014 and ended June 30.
That many ordinations in a single year usually puts a dent in the number of seminarians studying for the priesthood.
Not this year. When the fall semester opened 14 new seminarians began their studies, swelling the total number to 35 now in formation.
It all begins with a personal relationship, said Father Richard Rocha, director of the office who is in charge of identifying and encouraging young men who may be called to the priesthood, as well as guiding them through the rigorous application process.
“When Bishop (Robert) Finn approached me about this job, he said, ‘I want you to get to know every young man in this diocese,’” Father Rocha said.
He took that instruction to heart, aided by what his colleague Father Lockwood calls, “a steel-trap mind.”
“He remembers the face and name of every young man he meets,” Father Lockwood said.
Father Rocha hit the road, especially to the high schools and parish youth groups, as well as the colleges that young men from the dioceses are attending to sell the notion that if God is calling, they must not only listen, but respond.
Their goal, both priests agreed, is just to get young men into the seminary.
“That’s the best place to learn if you are truly called,” Father Rocha said.
And even if a young man discovers that he is not called, God wastes nothing, especially the time spent in a seminary, Father Lockwood said.
“Some of the strongest, most involved laymen we have in this diocese are men who have gone to a seminary,” he said. They become, as a result, better men, better husbands and better fathers, as well as better Catholics, because they have discerned, not a vocation to the priesthood, but the important vocation to marriage.
Father Lockwood noted that in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, the council’s call to “universal holiness” was often misunderstood to downplay the important role of the priest.
“We lost 25,000 priests in the United States between 1965 and 1975,” Father Lockwood noted.
As time passed and the number of priests and seminarians continued to dwindle, slowly the proper role of the priest began to become realized by clergy and lay alike as essential, in fact irreplaceable, in a church who considers the celebration of the Eucharist to be the “source and summit” of faith.
It is the Eucharist that the Holy Spirit uses to call young men. But it is priests and lay people who will stand with them along the way that helps seminarians know that the Holy Spirit is working.
That was the greatest strength of Bishop Finn, whom both priests give major credit for the surge in seminarians over the past decade.
As soon as they began the application process, Bishop Finn would begin to form a bond with each man, taking a personal interest in their lives, as well as their formation as priests.
“They would get gifts from him on their birthdays,” Father Rocha said.
“Every year, he would go to every seminary where we had these guys and visit each one of them,” Father Lockwood added.
Bishop James V. Johnston is equally committed, said Father Rocha, who quickly noted that Bishop Johnston also greatly increased the number of seminarians in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in his eight years there.
“Bishop Johnston is going to take the ball and run with it,” Father Rocha said.
But both Father Lockwood and Father Rocha also note that they are also expanding on the work of diocesan vocations directors before them.
Some 20 years ago, Bishop Raymond J. Boland divided the work of the office between two priests — one to encourage young men to seek the priesthood, the other to guide them along their seminary path.
The first two were Father Joseph Cisetti and Father Michael Roach. They were succeeded in turn by Father Stephen Cook, Father Robert Stewart and a lay man, Keith Jiron, who discerned his vocation to marriage while in a seminary and who is now director of the School of Faith in Omaha.
On top of that, the two priests point to top notch support staff who keep the office humming — the now retired Marilyn Schaeffer and her successor, Beatriz Livingston.
Then on Nov. 2, 2002, Bishop Boland summoned hundreds of people from every parish in the diocese to the first Vocations Congress, held at St. Therese Parish in Parkville, where he put bluntly the situation of a decades-long decline in the number of young men answering the call to priesthood.
“Suppose you came here on a Sunday and there was no priest. You could pray, but you could not have the Eucharist,” Bishop Boland said. “If we lose our priesthood, we are no longer the Catholic Church.”
Bishop Boland called for a “culture of vocations” throughout the diocese in which young men would be encouraged to follow the call, and also strengthened by the prayers of lay and clergy to meet the challenges of answering it.
Slowly that culture began to take shape. Serra Clubs, dedicated to fostering new vocations, increased their work and their membership.
Lay man Bob Miller formed C.O.R.E. — Celebrating Our Religious Enthusiastically — which held special events for priests, seminarians and women religious to show the appreciation of the laity for their indispensable work.
Parishes began praying special prayers for vocations before Mass, and began rotating a special “Vocations Cross” into homes, where families would say their own special prayers for a week.
Bishop Finn put that “culture of vocations” on steroids, and Bishop Johnston will continue in that vein, rejoicing in the ever increasing number of high-quality seminarians, Father Rocha and Father Lockwood said.
But it comes at a financial cost.
“It costs an average of $30,000 to educate a seminarian for a year,” Father Lockwood said. “The seminarians pay part of that cost, but the diocese picks up a lot of that.”
When seminarians were few, an endowment fund helped pick up those costs from interest earned. But with the increasing enrollment of young men from the diocese, that reserve has been tapped.
“We’ve pretty much used it up,” Father Lockwood said.
Finding the money to pay for the educations of even more seminarians is going to be a challenge, Father Lockwood said. But it is a happy challenge.
“Look at the guys we ordained this year, and look at the guys coming up,” Father Lockwood said. “They are all very serious, and I respect each one of them.”
Besides, he said, he knows the limits of the job of a Vocations Office.
“Our job is to get them into the seminary,” Father Lockwood said. “It is the seminary and the Holy Spirit that does the formation.”