Two years ago the pastoral and school staff at St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken, S.C., asked: What are we doing as a parish to promote vocation awareness?
Father Jeffrey Kirby, a young priest serving at the parish, enthusiastically suggested vocation clubs for boys and girls. So the parish school started the Father Kolbe Vocation Club and the St. Cecilia Vocation Club. The optional clubs for fourth- through eighth-grade students meet monthly “to focus on the virtues, the works of mercy, the beatitudes, the core of Christian belief,” says Father Kirby.
“The first year we showed how the saints model Christian virtues, how priests and sisters model them, and how we should. So it also became a club of formation in the Christian way of life for all of us.” The boys pray for priests and seminarians, girls pray for sisters and novices, and all pray that God will show them their own vocations.
“The Catholic school is the unique place to foster vocational awareness and discernment,” Father Kirby notes. “It’s all about letting these young men and women hear the call.”
The clubs are popular with the students. In March, 93 students — 80% of those eligible — attended.
Then, after Father Kirby saw research that found most young men first think about the priesthood in the fourth through 11th grades, the following question arose: If a boy is in fourth grade, what book can we put in his hands about vocation discernment for the priesthood? Almost simultaneously, a parishioner donated money to buy a book on vocational discernment for St. Mary’s school library.
Principal Marguerite Wertz searched publishers galore. “Not one,” she discovered, “could give me a book other than heavy reading geared to high school and college.”
That’s when Father Kirby, with his love for promoting vocations, and Wertz, with her background in reading and children’s literature, set out to write one. It was a perfect choice for this Year for Priests.
They received support from Charleston, S.C.’s Bishop Robert Guglielmone, and soon Becoming Father Bob came to fruition. The story follows a typical American boy named Bobby as he grows up, learns about the priesthood, and eventually becomes Father Bob.
While the main character who grows up to be Father Bob is fictional, his vocation story is loosely based on the vocation stories of the bishop and other Charleston priests. Because animal stories are popular, the authors gave Bob a dog named Mickey for his first Communion present; Mickey is the name of the bishop’s dog.
There are surprises and adventures in the tale as Bob grows up. “In the midst of all that, Bob receives a call to be a priest,” says Father Kirby. “Because he had been trained as a good Christian disciple, he pursues that.”
The story was written. Enter the illustrator, parishioner Alice Judd. As a mother of three boys and three girls ages 5 to 18, Judd was a stay-at-home mom who with husband Derron had worked with the parish’s youth as catechists. She told Father Kirby she wanted to use her art background “to do something for God to glorify him.”
“The Holy Spirit was working,” says Wertz. “Father Kirby knew she would be perfect — and I threw her name out before he mentioned it!”
“Alice has a great love of children and passion for her faith,” notes Wertz, “and she could bring those elements together.”
Judd was able to translate the story into eye-and-imagination-catching pictures.
Notably, adds Father Kirby, “she brought a love for the faith and the priesthood.”
Released on Feb. 1, Becoming Father Bob, which has a foreword by Bishop Guglielmone, became an instant hit. Even 9-year-old’s like Johnny Tindall don’t want to put it down. His mother, Rose Tindall, wanted to review the book for the library at St. Joseph School in Columbia, S.C., where she is the principal and Johnny attends.
Johnny liked the dog and the pictures, especially “when Bob was getting holy orders. It showed the bishop putting his hands on Bob’s head and the priest holding the book.”
“It’s cool,” says Johnny, who talks about the possibility of being a priest when he grows up.
“Johnny can imagine himself doing as the boy in the book does,” says his mother. “I think it’s a book that will travel with him in his life.”
Tindall bought copies for her school’s eight classrooms because it’s “a book that will have meaning for these young men and touch them in different ways.”
Along with the vocational aspect, the discussion of the sacraments of first Communion, confirmation and ordination means “a parent is going to have an opportunity to talk about them with his or her child in a way and time that’s appropriate as a child is growing up,” says Wertz.
Adds Judd, “A lot of prayer went also for the mission, for the boys to be open to the call for the priesthood, and for the parents to be open to encouraging their sons to listen to the call.”
But this is not the end of the parish’s vocations awareness. Becoming Sister, about the discernment of religious life for girls and young women, is scheduled for release next winter. The collaborators are already working on the storyline.
For now, along with the vocation clubs, Becoming Father Bob is “an act of faith to help us all see that new springtime John Paul II talked about,” says Father Kirby, who currently serves as chaplain for the diocesan vocations office.
“It would be the greatest blessing of this entire book project,” he notes, “if 15 years down the road someone — I hope more than one — says, ‘I thought about priesthood and read Becoming Father Bob. It helped me to understand how to discern the priesthood, and that made all the difference.’”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Becoming Father Bob can be ordered at SignoPress.com.