By Tim Puet
Catholic Times Reporter
As Published in the Catholic Times
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke say that when looking for his first disciples, Jesus had a simple recruiting pitch: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
In a culture where communication was mainly through word of mouth and fishing was a major industry, those were effective words, powerful enough to attract a core group of men whose belief in their leader and his message ultimately changed the world.
More than 2,000 years later, the Vocations Office of the Diocese of Columbus is searching for men who discern that God might be speaking those same words to them and calling them to become the disciples’ successors as priests. Today’s methods of communication are much more varied, but Father Paul Noble, diocesan vocations director, said Jesus’ fishing analogy remains an apt one.
“The goal of the vocations office is to meet with young men – and those not so young – who are interested in discerning a vocation to the priesthood, to assist them with the discernment process and to be a liaison between the bishop and the seminary in that process,” said Father Noble, who has been vocations director since 2010 and also is pastor of Sunbury St. John Neumann Church.
“We do this by throwing as many nets as possible out there to see who we can catch. We deal with men of different ages and interests and are ready and open to meet them where they are, moving ultimately toward the moment at their ordination when, as vocations director, I declare to the bishop that they are worthy of the priesthood.”
The office’s “nets” include two websites – Face Forward, www.faceforwardcolumbus.com, and SeekHoliness, www.seekholiness.com. The Face Forward site is the main portal to the office and contains links to related sites on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube and to a Face Forward blog.
It is regularly updated by MJ2 Marketing of Dublin with the most recent information from the office, including coming events and information about the discernment process and stories about some of the diocese’s inspired young Catholics. The SeekHoliness site is a more stationary portal with basic vocations information.
One of the vocations office’s principal annual events is its annual Quo Vadis program for young men in ninth through 12th grades, which will take place from Sunday, July 28 to Wednesday, July 31 at Sts. Peter and Paul Retreat Center in Newark. The program, led by diocesan priests and seminarians, will mix talks on the priesthood, virtue and fatherhood with periods of prayer, recreation and relaxation.
The cost is $40, and scholarships are available if needed. The registration deadline is Tuesday, July 16. To register, go to www.faceforwardcolumbus.com/quo-vadis. For more information, contact Michael Haemmerle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last month, the office sponsored a Colorado wilderness trip by a group of young men considering the priesthood, led by Father Daniel Swartz, then-parochial vicar of the Perry County Consortium of Parishes in New Lexington, Crooksville, Corning and Junction City. On July 1, he began service as a U.S. Navy chaplain. While in the Navy, he remains a priest of the Columbus diocese, where he will return on completion of his tour of duty. A story on his Colorado trip can be found on Page 14 of this week’s Catholic Times.
The vocations office also sponsors a monthly program known as the Melchizedek Project for young men who have graduated from high school and most likely are in college and are seeking to explore the discernment process and gain a deeper understanding of vocations. The group meets each month during the academic year at Columbus St. Joseph Cathedral and studies the book To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood by Father Brett Brannen. The program’s schedule for 2019-20 is being planned.
In addition, the office sends material to parishes for the World Day of Prayer for vocations on the Fourth Sunday of Easter and for National Vocation Awareness Week, the first full week of November.
For the past several summers, the office has sponsored a three- or four-day summertime bicycle tour featuring stops throughout the diocese by diocesan seminarians attending the Pontifical College Josephinum. Father Noble said no tour was scheduled this year “because we just didn’t have enough riders and support people. They were too busy with other things.” He hopes the tour will resume in 2020.
During the academic year, the Josephinum sponsors live-in weekends in the fall and spring for high school juniors and seniors and college students interested in learning more about seminary life. These usually take place in conjunction with the seminary’s annual Mud Bowl intramural football game, a basketball tournament with other seminaries or an in-school softball tournament. The seminary also offers live-in programs on an individual basis, depending on interest and need.
The Josephinum offers as many as eight years of education leading to ordination – four years of liberal arts training and four years of theology. It also has a pre-theology program for college graduates who need additional course work before beginning a graduate theology program.
The diocese currently has 27 seminarians in various stages of formation at the Josephinum and one attending Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, which specializes in educating men who discern a call to the priesthood after they are 30 years old.
Four of the diocese’s seminarians – Deacons Frank Brown, Michael Fulton, Seth Keller and Gordon Mott – were ordained as deacons this past May and anticipate being ordained as Columbus diocesan priests on May 23, 2020. A fifth, Eugene Joseph, is to be ordained as a deacon on Saturday, Sept. 14 at 9 a.m. in St. Joseph Cathedral and also anticipates ordination as a priest next May.
Father Noble said that he usually talks with about 20 men per year who express an interest in the priesthood, with about eight applying to become seminarians after the initial discussion. “Before calling me, a candidate should talk with his own parish priest or another priest he knows. I will then meet with him to assess his level of readiness, in an age-appropriate way,” he said.
“That level is different for an 18-year-old than someone 25 or older. Whatever the age, I’m looking for a healthy, happy person with a stable personality, with no chronic illness or severe depression. It’s essential that a candidate for the priesthood be interested in living a chaste and prayerful life and have an interest in developing his own relationship and the relationship of others with Jesus Christ. Basically, a priest has to like people and have an interest in serving them.
“For someone who’s, say, a sophomore in high school, I can’t do anything more than talk to him,” Father Noble said. “If he’s of college age, I ask him to visit the seminary so he can realize it’s a real place with real people, not some sort of holy Disneyland experience of perfection. If someone is still interested, then I recommend that he go ahead with the dual application for sponsorship by the diocese and admission to the seminary.”
Sponsorship refers to the diocese’s long-standing policy of paying for all books, tuition and room and board costs for each of its seminarians. “We want all of them to be supported by the diocese because we’re not looking for Lone Rangers,” Father Noble said. “We don’t want anyone to feel that becoming a priest will be a financial burden.”
Funding for seminarian sponsorships and for the costs of operating the Vocations Office and the Office of the Permanent Diaconate comes from donations to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal (BAA). Those three programs, listed under the heading “Priest, Deacon and Seminarian Education,” account for 21 percent of the BAA’s expenditures – the largest percentage for any group of activities.
Besides the standard components of applying for admission to a college, the Josephinum requires applicants to undergo a criminal background check and to take nine psychological tests that require a full day to complete. “Psychological testing for seminary candidates has taken place for decades,” Father Noble said. “But as more specialties have developed, testing has expanded, and we have been better able to identify candidates for the priesthood who may be dangerous and eliminate them.”
One of the nine tests, known as the Diana Screen, was developed in the late 2000s and is designed to identify people who fail to recognize sexual boundaries between adults and children – a subject that has caused great pain in this diocese and throughout the United States as past instances of abuse of minors by priests have become known.
“I don’t think the presence of abusers is evidence of a failure in the formation process,” Father Noble said. “There always will be that one abuser who may slip through, but once he is discovered, it’s up to us to take immediate action. If diocesan policies are followed, it makes it very difficult to abuse a child. For those who may think this policy doesn’t apply to them, the red flags should be up immediately. There’s no formation that can address the character of an abuser. Pedophilia is not something that can be cured, and it’s dangerous to think that it can.
Seminary formation isn’t just theological. It’s also designed to form men for healthy relations with their peers, with the opposite sex and with children.”
This year’s annual survey of newly ordained priests by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that since the start of the 21st century, the average age for newly ordained priests in the United States has been in the mid-30s – much older that it had been in the last half of the 20th century. All four men ordained by Bishop Robert Brennan as diocesan priests in May are at least 30, with Father Brian Beal, a John XXIII graduate, the oldest at 41.
“The day of having a priest ordained in his mid-20s is pretty much gone,” Father Noble said. “I see it as part of the trend among young people to take longer in general to make major life decisions. The age for marriage also is increasing. It’s all part of a change in the whole maturity process. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, for it means men are having more life experiences before making a commitment to the priesthood, so they’re likely to be more well-adjusted.”
The number of priests has been declining nationally and locally for decades. In the Diocese of Columbus, that number is about half what it was 50 years ago. “This is a concern, but there also is a lack of awareness of what a unique period American Catholicism went through from about the 1870s to the 1970s,” Father Noble said. “During that time, there was a boom in the number of priests that never was seen in the past and never will be repeated.
“It used to be that a priest had two or three experiences in different types of parishes and was an assistant pastor for 10 years or more before becoming a pastor. This year, some priests in our diocese received their first pastorate four years after ordination. But if they’re coming into the priesthood when they’re older, maybe it doesn’t make that much of a difference.”
Father Noble said that any man who thinks he might be called to the priesthood but feels hesitant about the discernment process should “keep in mind that we’re not asking you to become a priest today, but to enter the formation program to determine whether the priesthood is for you. If it’s not, it’s actually a sign the program is working, and we’re OK with that.
“Take a deep breath, jump in and let the Spirit work,” he said, “and you should come out all right, one way or the other.”