by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
One of the highlights of my summer during recent years has been the annual pilgrimage with our seminarians.
Among my most important responsibilities is the ordination of priests. If I select well candidates for priestly ordination, then the church in northeast Kansas will benefit for several generations. Potentially, each priest will touch thousands of lives. On the other hand, if I ordain men who are not well-suited or well-equipped to serve as a priest, the whole church will suffer.
Fortunately, I am aided in my assessment of men’s suitability for the priesthood by our vocation director — Father Scott Wallisch; our co-directors for seminarians — Msgr. Mike Mullen and Father Mitchel Zimmerman; our vicar general with responsibility for the clergy — Father Brian Schieber; the pastors of the home parish of our seminarians; and the faculty and formation team at the seminaries.
Before being accepted as a seminarian for the archdiocese, each young man: 1) is interviewed by several members of our vocation team; 2) submits a series of essays on why he desires to be a priest, as well as articulates his understanding of the priesthood and the church; 3) undergoes an in-depth psychological evaluation; 4) receives a positive recommendation from his pastors and others who know him; and 5) manifests a love for the Eucharist and a desire to develop a healthy personal prayer life.
The faculty and formation team of the seminary provide a written evaluation of each seminarian that includes recommended areas of growth, as well as a recommendation for the man to continue or not continue in seminary formation. Over the course of his time in formation, each seminarian is involved in a variety of apostolic works. In most instances, the supervisor for these ministries or parishes also provides an evaluation on the suitability of each man.
Even with the benefit of all the evaluations and recommendations for our seminarians, in the end it is my responsibility to call a man to the priesthood or not. It is important for me to know, as well as possible, each man whom I ordain. It is also my responsibility to take a personal hand in the formation of our seminarians.
I read carefully all of the evaluations and reports about each seminarian. I meet with the vocation team at least once a year to receive the benefit of their analysis of the progress of each man, as well as to discuss any areas of concern. I usually visit the seminaries at least twice a year, interviewing personally each man and receiving the insight of the seminary formators about their development.
I find the pilgrimage to be of particular value because it allows me the opportunity to interact with our seminarians both formally and informally. Each day, I celebrate Mass and give the homily. There are several opportunities each day (e.g., during our Holy Hour, while riding the bus, as we visit a religious site or in the evening during a time for sharing) to articulate aspects of my vision for the priesthood and what a priest must do to keep himself spiritually, emotionally and physically strong and healthy.
During the course of the pilgrimage, each seminarian is given the opportunity to share his assessment of his progress over the past year and to offer some insights he has gained about himself and the priesthood. He also shares his experiences from the apostolic activities or formation programs he participated in during the summer months. The pilgrimage affords an opportunity for the seminarians to get to know each other better.
The pilgrimage also gives the opportunity for our seminarians to get to know me better. At the time of ordination, the man being ordained promises obedience to his diocesan bishop and his successors. During the liturgy, the candidate for priestly ordination places his hands in the bishop’s hands, while making his promise of obedience. This gesture symbolizes the priest’s willingness to place his life in the hands of the bishop and at the disposal of the church, although it is not wise for an aspirant to the priesthood to choose a diocese based on the current bishop. Each bishop serves only for a time. Still, it is important today that priestly candidates have confidence in his bishop’s solicitude — not only for the welfare of his people, but also for the good of his priests.
Thirty-nine years ago, when I was ordained to the priesthood, I never had a personal meeting with the archbishop who ordained me — Cardinal John Carberry. At the time, we had no such expectation.
However, also at that time, the whole Catholic community supported and encouraged young men to consider seriously a priestly vocation. A priestly vocation was recognized as a great blessing to a family. There were legitimate concerns that some young men, who did not have a call to the priesthood, might pursue ordination to please a parent.
Today, we have a much different climate. Our culture does not promote commitment in general, much less a priestly vocation. The culture encourages young people to keep their options open for as long as possible. More than a few seminarians find themselves discerning a priestly vocation over the objections of one or both parents. Parental opposition is one of the biggest hurdles that many young men encounter when contemplating entering seminary formation.
In this context, it is imperative, I believe, for a bishop to be personally involved in promoting and cultivating priestly vocations. However, it is not enough for the bishop or the vocation director or all of the priests to encourage priestly vocations. Fostering vocations to the priesthood is the responsibility of the entire community.
This is especially true for Catholic families. It is important for all of us to pray for priestly vocations for our Archdiocese. However, it is particularly important for parents to pray for vocations and not just in the abstract, but to pray for a priestly vocation from their family.
Pray for your priests and encourage them. Pray for our seminarians that they will be able to discern God’s will for them and follow it wherever it may lead. Pray that many other young men will hear Our Lord’s invitation to discern a vocation to the priesthood.