By TARA CONNOLLY Staff writer
With the worldwide Church facing a decline in vocations to serve its 1.28 billion members, more than a dozen diocesan men are responding to God’s call to discern at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia; Mount St. Mary Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland; and Seminario Hispano de Santa Maria de Guadalupe, Mexico.
While the numbers have fluctuated over the years, popes can have a measureable impact.
“Pope St. John Paul II made the gravity of the current crisis in the number of priestly vocations very clear when he remarked that ‘There can be no Eucharist without the priesthood, just as there can be no priesthood without the Eucharist,’” said Msgr. David James, Diocesan vicar general and director of the Office for Vocations.
“It was our Lord’s intention when founding the Church that the sacramental priesthood would be an integral part of the Church. We cannot get away from that.
“Jesus will not leave his Church without priests, but that does not mean that we can idly stand by and hope for the best.”
According to Msgr. James, Bishop of Allentown Alfred Schlert is taking concrete steps to promote vocations by creating a culture of vocations and encouraging discernment under his leadership.
“Men must be open to being called by God and not push that possibility out of their minds as something beneath them or beyond them or too hard for them. Men who feel themselves called need to have the courage to discern their vocations and ‘put out into the deep,’ he said.
“They need to boldly and joyously accept their vocations when they identify the call. Parents need to generously support the priestly vocation in their sons and not just hope that someone else will answer the call.”
In addition, he stressed that priests and teachers at Catholic elementary and high schools, along with catechists for religious education, must enthusiastically encourage young men to think about a priestly vocation.
“Priests must live their own vocations in a joyous manner as they find fulfillment in their ministry – the joyful priest is the best advertisement we can have for men thinking about the priesthood,” said Msgr. James.
He also maintained that it is incumbent on priests, laypersons and consecrated religious to share with a young man that he may have a vocation to the priesthood when indications are visible.
As baptized Catholics, we all have an innate sense of what makes a good priest, what we want to see in a priest who would minister to us. When we do see it, we need to tell the young man the truth that we see in him. Maybe all he is waiting for is for someone to confirm what he is already thinking about himself,” said Msgr. James.
“Do we want to be the one who holds our tongue about a priestly vocation only to cause a true priestly vocation to be lost? Without that vocation, someone can be deprived of the sacraments and for lack of the sacraments someone can be denied the joy of everlasting life. That is why priestly vocations and the promotion of them are so important. Someone’s salvation hangs in the balance.”
Among the group of diocesan seminarians discerning at St. Charles Seminary are Philip Maas, 26, parishioner of Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, Allentown, and Aaron Scheidel, 19, parishioner of St. Benedict, Mohnton.
Maas, who is studying First Year Theology, received unyielding support from his parents after he told them he was leaving a successful career as an electrical engineer to study for the priesthood.
“I think happiness is oft misunderstood in our culture. We all experience happiness in fleeting moments day-to-day. But we also experience sadness, anger and a whole slew of other emotions,” said Maas.
“What really sets the Christian apart is his or her abiding joy – a joy that comes from saying yes to Christ and his plan for us every day. This is what enabled me to leave behind a good job, a good paycheck, wonderful coworkers and a relatively carefree lifestyle.
“I was certainly happy during that part of my life. I was active in my faith but knew there had to be more to this life and that God was calling me into deeper communion with him.”
As part of First Year Theology participating in seminarian life, Maas said he continues to experience moments of both happiness and challenges, but with a depth of meaningful joy that informs his life now in a greater way than it did before.
“First Year Theology entails learning how to think well while building a foundation for learning more about the Father of the Church, the life and identity of Jesus Christ, the fundamentals of Sacred Scripture, the history of the Church, and basic theological method.
As part of the year, Maas engages in an apostolate at St. Christopher Catholic Newman Center, Kutztown University.
“Much of my day revolves around giving a talk in the evening on some element of the Catholic faith, either in principle or practice. Beyond these changes, our days still consist of daily liturgical and private prayer, weekly meetings to develop our understanding of the priesthood, and fraternity with our fellow seminarians,” said Maas.
“First Theology marks the beginning of what the Church sometimes calls ‘proximate preparation’ for the priesthood – meaning things are starting to feel very real.”
Familiar with the fear of contemplating the priesthood, Maas said men owe it to the Church and themselves to talk with a vocation director or a priest if they are feeling called.
“I recognize the fear that a man of any age might feel in considering the priesthood. Sometimes we feel like we have a lot to lose if we enter the seminary, but in reality it’s just the opposite – we have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he said.
“The feeling of unknown is much more tormenting to live with than doing our best to see if the Lord is actually calling us to a vocation as a Catholic priest. And the only place to receive a definitive answer to that call is in the seminary.”
Scheidel, Second College at St. Charles, who entered the seminary after high school, said he turned to a seminarian and a few priests to learn how to become a priest and what the priesthood involves.
“What really helped me was a conversation I had with a friend who had already decided to enter the seminary. My friend said that the seminary is the best place to discern a call to the priesthood,” he said.
“This really struck me because I wanted to do God’s will, and if the seminary was the best place to discern the priesthood, then that was the place I had to go.”
According to Scheidel, life as a seminarian is “unique,” with Mass every morning and community prayer twice a day, along with college classes.
“Last year my apostolate was at Holy Family Manor nursing home in Bethlehem and this year I am going to Mercy School for Special Learning in Allentown. These apostolates have been and are incredible experiences, and are very helpful for seminarians during their discernment because they teach us how to serve God’s people,” he said.
“Overall, life as a seminarian is really helping me to grow in relationship with God and others while also forming me into the best man I can be.
“Even though it is very busy and there is always something you can be doing – there is also time for you to relax and hang out with friends. The other seminarians are great guys and an incredible fraternity, and brotherhood develops where you all help and support one another.
“Seminarians are normal guys. There are guys that like sports, movies, art, music, board games, video games and really anything else.”
Also discerning the priesthood is Juan Rodriguez, 45, who is studying Second Theology at Mount St. Mary Seminary.
A parishioner of St. Paul, Allentown, Rodriguez, a native of the Dominican Republic, said he always felt the call to a vocation but decided to study graphic design and advertising at the University of Santo Domingo.
He then went on to a career as an art teacher in both public and Catholic schools, as well as a graphic designer for a local television station.
After arriving in the United States in 2010, Rodriguez engaged in serious discernment while working in warehouses, as a bookkeeper and as a catechist for the Hispanic community at St. Paul.
“It is the Lord who calls, and he calls when he wants. In my case, the Lord called me to discern the vocation to the ministerial priesthood of Jesus Christ when I was a youth, but I responded a little late to that call. I always made some excuses not to respond to the call of the Lord, who called me through different people and moments of my life,” he said.
“But God’s timing is perfect, and I have responded to the Lord’s call in this adult stage of my life because I want to follow my true vocation.
“Today it is not strange that many adult men with fulfilling lives and even men who are widowed and have children, who are independent adults, are deciding to enter the seminary to discern a vocation. Many adult men have entered the seminary because we want to have a better relationship with the Lord.”
Other seminarians discerning a vocation are:
- Alexander Brown, 20, parishioner of Holy Family, Nazareth; Third College at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- Keaton Eidle, 20, parishioner of St, Ignatius Loyola, Sinking Spring; Second College at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- Giuseppe Esposito, 35, parishioner of St. Catharine of Siena, Allentown; Third Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- Kevin Gembarski, 22, parishioner of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Roseto; Second College at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- Deacon John Hutta, 28, parishioner of Sacred Heart, Palmerton; Fourth Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- Matthew Kuna, 23, parishioner of St. Thomas More, Allentown; Pre-Theology II at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- John Maria, 49, parishioner of St. Ignatius Loyola, Sinking Spring; Third Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- Miguel Ramirez, 24, parishioner of St. Peter the Apostle, Reading; Third College at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- Leiser Ramirez, 29, parishioner of St. Paul, Allentown; First Philosophy at Seminario Hispano de Santa Maria de Guadalupe, Mexico.
- Robert Rienzo, 25, parishioner of St. Thomas More, Allentown; Pre-Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- Jeffrey Tomczyk, 26, parishioner of St. Catharine of Siena, Reading; Pre-Theology II at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
- Zachary Wehr, 26, parishioner of Holy Trinity, Whitehall; Third Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.