In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, vocation director Msgr. James Forsen has no problem giving a talk about the priesthood to a group of students. However, he knows that the same talk given by a seminarian is more appealing to the audience.
It’s just one of the things he has realized since he initiated an archdiocese-wide adopt-a-seminarian program a few years ago.
“One of the things I’ve come to realize is that the greatest vocation directors or promoters are our seminarians,” shares Msgr. Forsen. “Their testimony makes a real connection.”
Spiritual Fan Club
In the first year of the program, seven or eight seminarians were adopted in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Hundreds of cards with the seminarians’ background information were sent out to 20 or so parishes that were interested in taking up the call to provide spiritual support.
Criterion: The seminarians were well established in their formation. Target audience: Parishes that did not already have a young man in formation.
This past year, the whole process of adoption was made more user-friendly on the archdiocese’s vocations website (LAVocations.org). The website outlines what the program is all about, lists vocation prayers, and suggests parish activities to promote vocations.
“Some of the parishes have really gotten involved in the program,” Msgr. Forsen says, citing the example of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Monrovia, Calif.
“The youth minister there really got busy. Each classroom there adopted a seminarian and were regularly praying for them and sending letters back and forth,” he said. “The seminarians even came out and visited the classes. It was really a positive response.”
One of those seminarians, who was adopted by seventh-graders, is now Father Brian Nunes, an associate pastor at Mary Star of the Sea Parish in San Pedro, Calif.
“It was great to feel supported and connected to the kids,” Father Nunes shares. “In their letters to me, some said that they themselves were thinking about a vocation; others asked what my favorite food was. And then I went out and gave a talk to their religion classes.”
At the end of the 2008 school year, just after his ordination, Father Nunes was able to celebrate Mass for the students.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is not alone. A number of dioceses and groups have started similar programs as a way to support priestly vocations.
Not Far From Home
In the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., Father Burke Masters inherited a well-established seminarian adoption program when he came on board as vocation director several years ago. The program included a number of schools in the diocese that adopted a future priest.
“They become pen pals for the year, exchanging letters and communication with the seminarian,” said Father Masters. “I always encourage the guys to then go visit the parish or school when they come home from seminary.”
This year, Joliet has 24 men studying for the priesthood at a number of seminaries across the country and around the world. Father Masters says the diocesan program keeps the seminarians in contact with their home diocese and gives them a spiritual boost during their sometimes strenuous life of studies.
“The seminarians tell me that they really like to get these letters and packages,” he said. “One of the seminarians told me that it helped him to focus on why he was here. He felt that he was being trained to be of service to the people back home in the diocese.”
Another source of vocation support in the Joliet Diocese is the Serra Club. Each year, Father Masters supplies local clubs with a roster of current seminarians, and they then initiate friendships with the future priests.
Since 1935, the Serrans have been praying for and promoting the priesthood and religious vocations. Named after Franciscan missionary Blessed Junipero Serra, the founder of a number of missions throughout California, the Serrans have grown from an informal meeting of four men to a global association of more than 19,000 individuals in 36 countries.
In the Minneapolis area, Judy Mankowske has been a Serran for more than 12 years. Her club adopted a seminarian a little over 10 years ago. That seminarian is now Father Paul Jarvis, pastor at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Chaska, Minn., in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
Besides praying, the club sent cards of encouragement and sometimes baked goods to seminarian Jarvis. He was also a regular dinner guest at Serrans’ homes. In turn, Jarvis spoke to the Serra Club about his faith journey and life as a seminarian.
Human Face on Vocations
Such encouragement is invaluable to future priests.
Pope Benedict XVI, who will conclude the Year for Priests during an international gathering of priests June 9-11, said in a recent general audience: “Be aware of the great gift that priests are for the Church and for the world. Through their ministry, the Lord continues to save men and women, to make himself present, to sanctify. Give thanks to God and, above all, remain close to your priests with your prayers and support, especially in moments of difficulty, that they may increasingly become shepherds according to God’s heart.”
St. John Vianney, who served in a small parish in post-revolution France and whom the Holy Father has declared the patron of all priests, sums up the priesthood’s place in the Church so well: “Without the sacrament of holy orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest — always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest. … After God, the priest is everything! … Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.”
At Mary Star of the Sea, Father Nunes has been so impressed with his own experience in the Los Angeles archdiocesan adoption program that he hopes to get his parishioners, especially students, more involved.
“This program puts a very human face on the need for vocations,” he said. “As well, it helps keep the idea of priesthood alive for them as a viable consideration for their future. Without that kind of interaction, I think that it would be easy for priesthood to get buried behind all the other types of career options that bombard young people these days.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from Green Bay, Wisconsin.