RALEIGH, N.C. — For a growing Church, seeing new ordinations of young men in the sacrament of  holy orders brings excitement and hope. The joy from the congregation in Sacred Heart Cathedral resounded throughout the prayers and full-throated hymns when Raleigh, N.C.’s Bishop Michael Burbidge ordained two young men as transitional deacons.

On the eve of the canonization of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, Bishop Burbidge, 56, ordained two seminarians, Rob Schmid and Ian Van Heusen, to the order of diaconate, investing them with the stole and dalmatic and the book of the Gospels. He pointed to the canonizations to remind the two men that what the Church ultimately expects of them is “to become saints and to help others to do the same.”

God willing, the Church in Raleigh will celebrate next year even more when the two deacons present themselves for ordination to the priesthood.

Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith spoke with Bishop Burbidge during the reception for the newly ordained deacons. The bishop, who has led the Raleigh Diocese since 2006 and is the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, discussed what these two new deacons mean to him as a bishop, about the state of vocations in the Church today and the importance of the upcoming World Day of Prayer for Vocations.


Bishop Burbidge, as a bishop, what do these two newly ordained men mean to you personally?

A bishop has to have a special rapport with the seminarians. It’s very clear in all the Church documents that the bishop is to know his seminarians, nurture them, direct them and walk with them in their path to ordination. Now that I’m here almost eight years, I’ve been with Ian and Rob throughout most of their journey, so I know them very well. They become, as a bishop, your spiritual sons, actually.  

So it’s a day of great rejoicing for me personally, but I know it’s a great day of rejoicing for the diocese and the Church.

 

What particular gifts do these men bring to the diocese?

Ian is an evangelizer. Ian truly would go out into the streets, on the campuses, knocking on doors — nothing will hold him back. He loves evangelizing, teaching, bringing the Good News to others — and just that missionary zeal that we very much need in this diocese. Rob is a real philosopher, a thinker, and he can articulate and teach in a different manner and style, but that’s what I see as the beauty [of his gifts].

 

What are some of the challenges that your new deacons will face now and later as priests?

In a diocese like Raleigh, they will be administering at the same time to two cultures. In our diocese, the largest number of immigrants would be from the Hispanic community. They will be in parishes in the summer and as priests where there will be a large Anglo community and a large Hispanic community. So they will be ministering to both in two different languages, but not just the language differences, but the cultural differences and the expectations.

That’s why we’re trying to do everything possible prior to them being ordained priests to make sure they have the language part down.

 

So your future priests have to learn Spanish?

Oh yes, that’s a requirement. They have to know Spanish to be ordained. And then we send them out to Guatemala for language school and Honduras for a mission trip as an intensive experience.

Everyone has different linguistic skills, so you don’t have to be perfect at it.  My linguistic skills aren’t great, so you don’t need to command it, but you have to at least be able to minister in Spanish.  

 

Why is celibacy such a gift for our priests?

First of all, those who are configured to Christ through the sacramental graces of ordination are to imitate him — so the one who freely gave himself totally, completely and selflessly is the one you imitate. Celibacy certainly allows us to do that. It points others toward the Kingdom of God beyond this world. … There’s a freedom about it. In other words, if celibacy is not freedom, then it is misunderstood or misused.

 

Freedom for what?

Freedom for devoting one’s entire life to Christ’s bride, the Church. And to service: not to activities and programs, but to truly humble service. And so it is, because we seek to be free in this gift of ordination (in the gift of being a priest or deacon), celibacy is the gift that enhances us to do what we promised to do.

 

What is the state of priestly vocations in the Church today? Can you give us your perspective as head of the USCCB’s Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations?

We’re seeing an increase of vocations to the priesthood. There’s been a significant increase since 2006; we’ve seen a steady climb to 500-plus priests ordained in 2013.

 

What are some of the committee’s priorities?

One of our priorities is to find new ways to identify and encourage vocations, particularly within the Hispanic community. I think that is where we are going to see the most increase of vocations.

 

Why is that?

A number of reasons. Family life is very strong in the Hispanic communities, and there is a real opening to their sons and daughters becoming priests and religious. So we have to find a better way of identifying who those candidates may be within the Hispanic community and creative ways of providing for their training based on the different circumstances they may have. For example, right now, we have four of our seminarians in Mexico, where the seminarian, because of the language and culture, prepares in a very wonderful way for the ability to enter into the theological seminary.

 

So it prepares them for the cultural mindset — the smell of the sheep, in a sense. What are some of the other ideas that are coming out of the committee?

We’re also trying to get a little momentum with campus ministers. One of the things we’re looking at is: What are the best practices that are taking shape on college and university campuses that are attracting vocations? And how do we share that with other bishops?

 

If we’re going to raise up more vocations to the priesthood, shouldn’t we also be doing more in our communities to strengthen married vocations, as the divorce rate for Catholic marriages is close to 32%?

Absolutely. Vocations are nurtured in family life. The stronger we have family life, the stronger vocations are going to be.

 

What should the parish — from the pastor to the families in the pew — be doing to create a culture of vocation in their church?

Speaking about it; explaining it; telling one’s story about being a priest; encouraging and inviting people to be open to the possibility the Lord is calling them; identifying — you see a young man or a young woman, and say, “Listen, if you’re ever interested in participating in a discernment group of men and women your own age, I could have that contact information for you.” Period. You don’t hound or push or anything like that, but you do all those other things.

We’re blessed in this diocese; we ask our parishes to pray for our seminarians by name. Our seminarians receive notes, gifts and cards from our parishes. When the children of these families see they’re writing to our seminarians, a seed is planted: that that could be them some day.

 

The World Day of Prayer for Vocations is coming up on May 11. Why is this day so important?

It’s very important for us to have all kinds of programs, discernment groups, posters, videos, etc. That’s all very important. But the Lord gave us the vocation program: Pray! Pray that the Master of the harvest will send more laborers. That’s what the Lord told us; that’s the program. So the World Day of Prayer for Vocations is a faithful response to that Gospel mandate for the past 51 years.

We’re human, we need reminders, so let’s highlight a day to trigger a reminder of something we should be doing every day. So this is a day for us to pray specifically for vocations to the priesthood, to consecrated life, for service to the Church.

 

Why is it important to actually pray for vocations?

Prayer is an acknowledgement of a need; and our need for vocations is great. Our prayer is also an acknowledgement that, despite our best efforts, ultimately, it is dependent on the goodness and graciousness of God, and our prayer is an offering to the Lord. We say, “Lord, we acknowledge this need; we know that only you can fulfill it; we entrust this to your hands.” And the Lord says, “Keep working and doing your part.”

So the prayer for vocations is a great act of faith that we need to make often in life.