Priests, classmates and teachers thought Riley Durkin might make a good priest long before he seriously considered the idea himself.
Comments he received starting in grade school played a role in the college freshman’s recent decision to apply to the seminary. Participating in a discernment group this year at North Dakota State University has made him more sure.
“It put me at ease with my decision,” said Durkin, who will study this fall at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit for the Fargo, N.D., Diocese if his application is accepted.
Each week, Durkin and up to 10 fellow students meet with the diocese’s vocation director to read a book and discuss a range of issues and questions about discernment and the priesthood as part of the Melchizedek Project, a program introduced this school year on more than 50 U.S. college campuses.
Named for the Old Testament priest considered an archetype for Christ, the great High Priest, the Melchizedek Project represents a more robust effort to help Catholic men consider the priesthood, said Sam Alzheimer, founder of Vianney Vocations, a Valdosta, Ga.-based firm that promotes vocations to the priesthood and religious life and which helped develop the Melchizedek Project. The project is a joint program with Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors. As many college students are figuring out what to do with their lives, it’s a good time to present the possibility of priesthood, added Alzheimer.
Though only in its first year, the program already seems to be boosting seminary applications in some areas, Alzheimer said. Fifty-five groups met during the fall semester, and another 27 started this spring semester, he said, adding that the company is seeking funding to continue the program next year and to bring it to Catholic high schools. The project’s developers would like to offer a similar program for young women if they find the right materials and religious sisters to lead it, Alzheimer said.
The program centers around a book by former vocation director and seminary vice rector Father Brett Brannen, To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide to Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood. Since it was published in 2009, more than 25,000 copies have been sent — many at no cost — to dioceses, seminarians, campus ministers, as well as discernment-group participants, said Father Brannen, who helped develop the program.
Father Brannen draws on his previous experience as the Savannah, Ga., Diocese’s vocation director and later as vice rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., to present discernment issues with real stories and encourage men to develop their prayer life. Topics include signs of a priestly vocation, practical ideas for discernment and celibacy and chastity.
“As a vocation director, I was always looking for a single source that I could give to a man — because I was always answering the same questions again and again,” said Father Brannen, now pastor of St. Matthew in Statesboro, Ga. “I would find these pamphlets that would describe one aspect of discernment or another, but never one resource that would take a guy through the whole process.”
The book encourages men to get to know their vocation director. “You can’t discern diocesan priesthood without a church,” he said. “You can’t be a cyber discerner forever. … You’ve got to go to that priest the bishop has placed in charge — the vocation director. There’s a personal relationship there that has to develop.”
Father Chris Luoni’s Tuesday night discernment group at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, often runs long because the five participants typically have a lot of questions, said Father Luoni, the Youngstown Diocese’s vocation director. “They have asked me some very deep questions about priesthood and what it means, about the personal life of a priest.”
Father Brannen, who leads a group at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, agreed: “The guys learn a lot. And just being able to talk about fears, talk about ‘What would your parents think if you were called to be a priest?’ (is important).”
Peer relationships also help. “It gives a format for men who are in the same place with their faith,” Father Luoni said. “They’re all men who are thinking, Is God calling me to the priesthood? Right away they become, in a sense, equal peers, and they feel very open (to share).”
“While the Melchizedek Project focuses on discerning the priesthood, it helps men deepen their relationship with Christ,” Alzheimer said. “This isn’t just thinking about becoming a priest. It’s helping guys to make a deliberate choice to be better disciples of Jesus.”
Two men in Father Luoni’s group are in dating relationships. “They’re kind of torn between ‘Am I called to married life?’ or ‘Am I called to the priestly life?’” he said. “The discussion questions have been very, very helpful to answer some of those issues for them.”
At the same time, Durkin said the program identifies real discernment issues. “I’ve thought many times, going through this book, This sounds familiar,” he said. “This is exactly how it is. This is what I’m going through right now. Just knowing I’m not the only one struggling with all these things (is helpful).”
Overall, the Melchizedek Project offers something many young men don’t find these days — an inside look at priestly life, Father Brannen said: “Once they start learning the life of a priest is so rich, it’s a wonderful life, then they become very excited and attracted to it.”
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.