by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — George and Kathy Werth aren’t certain their son will be a priest. After all, no one knows the will of God.
However, as parents of a first-year seminarian, they feel at peace with where their son Aidan is in his faith journey.
The Werths were among approximately 55 people who participated in one of two annual Project Andrew events sponsored by the vocations office of the archdiocese, and held Oct. 25 at Christ the King Church in Topeka. The other event was held Oct. 18 at St. Joseph Church in Shawnee.
Project Andrew is an evening designed for men at least 16 years of age — in high school, college or the workforce. It creates an environment — if just for an evening — in which they can be with other men who are curious about how God calls ordinary men to extraordinary lives. The evening is designed not to pressure men into the priesthood, but rather help them learn how to hear God’s voice in a world of noise — and how to discern God’s vocation for their lives, whether it be to the priesthood, religious life, marriage or the single life.
Allowing time for God’s voice is, according to Father Scott Wallisch, the archdiocese’s director of vocations, important to reversing the trend of a shortage of priests in this country.
In 1965, there was one priest for every 840 Catholics in the United States. Now, just 50 years later, there is one priest for every 2,000.
Is God calling fewer men to the priesthood?
Father Wallisch doesn’t think so.
He thinks God is calling just as many to the priesthood today, but the noise of modern society sometimes makes it difficult to hear God’s call. It’s through events such as Project Andrew that men can take time for prayer and reflection on God’s will for their lives.
The evening allows men and their family members to hear the personal stories of how others have discerned calls to the priesthood, spend time in prayer and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, and informally ask questions of the archbishop over dinner.
During the Oct. 25 event, the Werths, along with Melanie Savner, administrative assistant for the vocations office, and Father Mitchel Zimmerman, co-director of seminarians and pastor of Christ the King Church, shared a few thoughts about how to help a man discerning a possible call to the priesthood or religious life without discouraging him or placing any undue pressure or burdensome expectations on him.
“We didn’t want to hinder him or push him one way or the other,” said Kathy Werth of her son.
Since he was at least 7 years old, Aidan has expressed a possible interest in the priesthood. However, George and Kathy did not want to interfere in any way. So, as parents, they did what comes naturally. They provided him opportunities.
Aidan became an altar server and was often taken along, with their seven other children, to daily Mass. That way, they could be provided more chances to, first and foremost, worship Jesus, but also get to know the parish priests serving at the various parishes they’ve been associated with.
They also regularly invited priests over for dinner or coffee. By doing so, the children became better acquainted with priests in a different way other than just watching them during Mass.
Through it all, and especially now, the Werths said they’ve never wanted to interfere with God’s call for Aidan or his seven siblings.
“We want to give him the opportunity to find out God’s will for his life,” said George, adding that he thought that should be the goal of every parent.
For her part, Kathy said she occasionally wondered if sending her 18-year-old to a seminary in rural Missouri was the right thing to do. It wasn’t a major concern — just something that crossed her mind once or twice. Once she discussed the idea with a priest, she felt completely at peace.
“He told me that [Conception Seminary] is a great place to discern a possible vocation,” said Kathy.
The priest also told her the daily routine of Mass, classes and praying the Liturgy of the Hours will foster a vocation if one is truly present. And if not, Aidan will have learned how to better listen to the voice of God.
After the Werths shared their thoughts, family members of the men in attendance asked questions of the Werths, Savner and Father Zimmerman. Topics included how to start the process of possibly becoming an archdiocesan seminarian, the steps involved in the application process, the academic coursework necessary to become a priest and the cost involved for the family as well as the overall formation process designed for archdiocesan priests.
During the Q&A period, Father Zimmerman discussed the four main areas of formation. Each man studying for a possible call to the priesthood is formed in the spiritual life, character development, pastoral care and intellectual formation. However, the intellectual formation often gets the most attention, as priests are now required to hold degrees in philosophy and theology.
Of the number who apply within the archdiocese, Father Zimmerman said about half are accepted as candidates. And of those, about half will end up serving in ordained ministry as priests.
Nonetheless, both Father Zimmerman and Father Wallisch said any man who thinks he might have a possible vocation should begin the process. The question many ask, said Father Zimmerman, is when.
“I often tell people the right time is whenever the Lord calls you,” he said, adding God calls a variety of men, none of whom are perfect.