When Jerry Usher entered the pre-theology program at Franciscan University of Steubenville in 1989, he thought ordination to the Catholic priesthood was the only acceptable culmination of his studies. Leaving the seminary to pursue something else struck the Seattle native as a departure from God’s will.
Many years later and after much prayer, Usher has come to see that he was led into the seminary for a good reason, but that the priesthood was not for him. His studies have been indispensable in his work in Catholic radio, which includes hosting Catholic Answers Live (a show he helped to develop), literally hundreds of pledge drives for local Catholic stations and, most recently, Vocation Boom Radio.
Now, Usher is bringing Vocation Boom to television. Thirteen episodes will begin airing Aug. 31 on EWTN, and in October, he will start taping 13 more episodes. Each installment features a guest — usually a bishop, priest, deacon or seminarian — who speaks about supporting priestly vocations.
While Usher’s primary job remains hosting local pledge drives, he is keenly interested in promoting Vocation Boom in whatever way he can. The radio veteran recently spoke of his current plans with the Register.
You started the Vocation Boom website in 2009 and the radio show in 2011. Now, the companion TV series will soon appear on EWTN. What do you hope to accomplish with the TV series that you have not already done with the website and radio program?
The main thing will be reaching a broader audience. Not everyone is blessed with a local Catholic radio station, but Catholic television can overcome that, since it is more widely available. So we expect to reach more souls with our desire to see the priesthood of Jesus Christ flourish.
The format for TV is a little bit different, since each of the 13 episodes is half an hour long, rather than the one hour we have with radio. Yet the same basic message will permeate all the programming. We want Catholics to take a second look at the priesthood, realize how vital it is to their spiritual lives and foster vocations in whatever way they can.
Not everyone can do something extraordinary to help the vocations process, but the important thing for each individual is to do whatever is possible for him or her. We can all pray for vocations, or laborers for the harvest, as Jesus instructed in the Gospels. The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few, we’re told, so we should pray that the Lord of the harvest sends laborers out for his harvest.
St. John Vianney spoke of how, if someone knew the greatness of the priesthood, he would die, not of fear, but of love. Do you find that more people are coming to understand how essential priests are to the life of the Church?
On a natural level, there’s nothing more foundational than the life issues. The sanctity of life and marriage are essential before anything else can even come into play. On the supernatural level, there’s nothing more important than the priesthood, which is necessary for the Eucharist — the “source and summit” of Christian life. It’s also necessary for confession and the anointing of the sick; and, of course, it’s the ordinary and most common means through which baptism occurs.
So, to answer your question, I hope more people are realizing how essential the priesthood is, but it’s tough for me to say. I’ve been blessed for so many years to meet and work with numerous devout Catholics, so my perspective is skewed in a positive direction; but I trust that more and more of the faithful are coming to see that the priesthood is absolutely necessary for the life of the soul.
You were in formation for a total of six years yet were not ordained. Do you find young men are reluctant even to enter the seminary because of the strict expectation for ordination that is sometimes placed upon them?
When I first entered the seminary as a college freshman in 1989, I looked ahead at nine years of formation that, in my mind, had to end in ordination. I was of the belief that if I didn’t become a priest, I would be operating outside of God’s will. That’s not a good place to be when you’re starting to actively discern a vocation.
The good news is that, these days, I don’t see that same ordination expectation very often. Young men are more likely to see the seminary as being more like a marriage engagement. There’s a serious mindset for discernment, but it’s not thought of as one being locked into one destination without any possibility of changing course.
What are some of the challenges seminarians face today?
Seminarians today face challenges even getting to the seminary, because of increasingly common problems like divorce, promiscuity and media saturation. There are so many negative influences that hinder someone from hearing God’s call in the first place.
However, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), huge numbers of Catholics have considered a priestly or religious vocation. A 2012 CARA survey indicated that hundreds of thousands of “never-married Catholics” age 14 and up have “seriously considered” a priestly or religious vocation. When those who had considered a vocation at least “a little” were included, the numbers went into the millions.
To add to the good news today, so many seminaries have solid formation programs, so once a young man has entered, he can be far more certain that his ultimate decision will be an accurate one based on sound decision-making principles and God’s will, rather than on emotional whim or inaccurate thinking — whether those be his or those of the seminary administrators.
Your desire to spread accurate thinking about the Catholic Church brought you to Catholic Answers in 1997. How were you able to help the development of Catholic Answers Live?
After leaving priestly formation in 1995, I became program director for Catholic Broadcasting Northwest in Portland, Ore., for one year. While there, I made contact with Catholic Answers’ founder and president, Karl Keating. I was a big fan of apologetics and was very familiar with his apostolate’s work. I asked Karl if he would be willing to record some half-hour programs that we could air on our station. He politely replied that he didn’t have the time to take that on at the moment.
In 1996, I moved to northern California to help some friends start a Catholic radio station and to assist the Lay Catholic Broadcasting Network (LCBN) in putting on the first national Catholic radio conferences. In 1997, Catholic Answers sent a representative to that year’s conference to look further into the idea of starting a radio program. Shortly thereafter, they called Chris Lyford — who, together with his wife, Vicki, ran the LCBN — to ask if he would come to San Diego and share with them what he knew about developing a show.
Chris was not able to get away to make the trip, so he recommended that they contact me. I flew to San Diego, spent a day sharing with the staff of Catholic Answers what I knew about creating a program, wished them well and flew home. A week later, they called me and said they wanted to launch a daily show, and they wanted to hire me to create and host it. The show debuted on Jan. 5, 1998, when there were only around four Catholic radio stations affiliated with EWTN. Now, the number of stations is around 240; and if you add Relevant Radio and other Catholic radio programming, the total number of local Catholic radio stations is near 270.
While I’m not sure of any hard data, it has been said many times that Catholic Answers Live is the most popular Catholic radio show. There are many other terrific shows on the air, but what I can say with assurance is that Catholic Answers Live has been a great force for good in the nearly 17 years it has been on. It remains a rock-solid program, with host Patrick Coffin and producer Darin DeLozier, who are top-notch.
How did your departure from Catholic Answers Live happen?
By 2009, I had hosted numerous pledge drives for local stations. That gig was working so well that it almost became a second full-time job. I thought and prayed about the situation, as did Karl and others at Catholic Answers, and this discernment culminated in my starting Third Millennium Media, which enables me to host pledge drives year-round. This is my regular full-time job now, and Vocation Boom is a secondary one — in terms of work hours, but not in importance. It is a labor of love.
The priesthood is the manifestation of the love of Jesus Christ, who is a priest through his human nature, which he offers to the Father. Jesus is still calling young men to his priesthood, which is about bringing man to God and God to man. The priest is referred to as an alter Christus, or “another Christ,” so it should come as no surprise that everywhere you look, grace is received through the hands of the priest.
We want to call everyone’s attention to that and thereby encourage young men to consider the possibility of priesthood in their own lives. After the life and family issues, there is nothing more important than the cultivation of priestly vocations. Our salvation depends on priests, and we get the priests we deserve. This goes either way. It’s true, whether we’re diligent or lax in things like prayer, asking young men who strike us as possible future priests if they’ve thought of the priesthood, monetary support of seminaries and other ways. We reap what we sow.
Other than the debut of Vocation Boom on TV and the filming of new episodes, what are your plans for the near future?
It’s good that you asked that question, because, recently, we got a response from Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, that he was accepting our invitation to be the chaplain of Vocation Boom’s first Holy Land pilgrimage. This is set to take place from Dec. 28, 2015, to Jan. 6, 2016, so there is plenty of time for those interested to prepare. We’re inviting priests, seminarians and all vocation supporters to join us.
Steve and Janet Ray, who have been on numerous pilgrimages, will be our guides, and we hope that many others will join us on what should be an exciting excursion in the area where Jesus Christ lived, died and rose from the dead.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.