By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor
About a third of the active priests in the Archdiocese of Louisville have committed to a new effort that promotes vocations to the priesthood. The archdiocese’s Vocation Office calls these priests “vocation initiators.”
There are about 30 initiators, so far, who are making an intentional effort to talk about vocations, reaching out to young men and — most importantly — showing by their examples that a priest’s life is a happy one.
“My parish priest was a role model and that’s why I wanted to become a priest,” said Father Peter Do, the pastor of St. Bartholomew and St. Ignatius Martyr churches. “I think young people look up to priests and if they see us happy, they will want to join.”
His experience isn’t unusual, said Father Jeffrey Shooner, director of the archdiocese Vocation Office and the vicar for priests.
“Perennially, in studies done on ordination classes they ask the question, ‘What influenced you to become a priest?’ And usually somewhere between 60 and 80 percent indicate they were inspired by being asked by a priest to consider (the) priesthood,” Father Shooner said.
He noted that some priests in the archdiocese are more inclined and interested in promoting vocations. “So, the focus on vocation initiators is to encourage and equip those priests who are already inclined and gifted to invite” young men who seem to be potential candidates for the priesthood, he said.
The Vocation Office will provide resources to those priests interested in helping and is developing programs for the future.
Among the ideas in development is one for small “discernment dinners” which could be attended by a few young men interested in discerning a vocation. They would attend the dinners with their pastors and perhaps the archbishop, said Father Shooner.
These dinners would offer a more intimate alternative to the large, diocesan-wide Dinner with the Archbishop vocation event, which typically draws hundreds of young people.
The smaller dinners would give pastors who have identified a potential candidate an opportunity “to relate to that young man more and for that young man to meet other discerners and connect to the Vocation Office,” Father Shooner said.
Father John Schwartzlose, pastor of St. Gabriel Church, said he tries to promote vocations in the parish school, within parish life and in daily tasks, such as grocery shopping.
Last week, he accompanied students on a field trip to visit the old state capitol in Frankfort, Ky., he noted. He wanted to connect to students outside of church, he said, to show them an example of a happy active person who is present to them.
“You have to be present to people,” Father Schwartzlose said. “I think presence is something kids receive more than words and homilies. To see your pastor, your priest, at Kroger, at the fish fry, I think it means something more.”
With very young children, he said, “I just read to them a simple book. That can be a lesson. The young children get access to the pastor or the priest.”
St. Gabriel School students entered the Serra Club Vocation Essay Contest for the first time this year and won first place in both age groups. (Emily Robinson won the fourth- to sixth-grade division and Zoe Peterson won the seventh- and eighth-grade division. Ryan Coffman took third in the fourth- to sixth-grade division).
Father Schwartzlose said he also makes a special point to be a “good witness” — that means living his vocation with a positive attitude and being present to people even when he’s not feeling happy.
“We’ve all gone to places where we’ve had the unhappy mechanic, the unhappy plumber, the unhappy eye doctor,” he said. “That shows.”
Father Matthew Hardesty, who was ordained a priest three years ago and was recently named pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Fredericktown, Ky., and Holy Rosary Church in Manton, Ky., said his approach is similar to that of Father Schwartzlose.
“I really try to be positive, avoid cynicism and pessimism at all costs,” he said. “I wear a collar to show the church is present wherever they are. If they can see me young and joyful, then maybe that can break down a stereotype.”
Father Hardesty has been interested in promoting discernment since before he was a seminarian. He and Father William Bowling, a former director of the Vocation Office, started a discernment group called Men in Black.
“It’s something that means a lot to me,” said Father Hardesty. “As a young man in a priestly vocation, I feel like I could help young men thinking about the priesthood.”
He said he’s available to parents who have questions or concerns, he preaches about the priesthood and aims to be a “clear witness myself that draws young men to think about it.”
Father Hardesty said he also makes a point, when the opportunity arises, to spend time with families — whether joining them for a family dinner or interacting in parish life.
“You can’t underestimate the impact of interaction between families and priests — the impact on young children,” he said. “The priest doesn’t have to be someone you have to be intimidated by or have a meek approach. The priest is someone who shares your life and is involved in your life as a friend.”
Father Shooner said the vocation initiators hope to continue the strides the archdiocese has made in the last several years to increase the number of seminarians.
This year, one man — Deacon David Cockson — will be ordained to the priesthood, and next year, four men are likely to be ordained. Currently, there are 17 seminarians in formation, he said.
“We’re in good shape. We need more priests, but we’re not in a place where we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
According to the Chancery, the Archdiocese of Louisville currently has 112 active priests. Of that number, 85 are diocesan priests and 27 are religious order priests.
Priests who are interested in the vocation initiator effort can call the Vocation Office at 502-626-0296. In addition, parishioners who want to recommend a young person may call the Vocation Office or contact their parish priest.
The Vocation Office also offers an annual retreat for young men interested in discernment and other opportunities throughout the year.