Four mothers in Omaha, Neb., have hit a grand slam for vocations and the priests in their archdiocese. They’ve brought an ever-popular hobby into the Catholic major leagues with their St. John Vianney Priesthood Cards.
Instead of sports figures, the priests who work in the Omaha Archdiocese grace each colorful card, which come in eight-card packs.
The idea came from motherly intuition, of sorts.
“We know kids and what they like and thought this was the best way to reach the kids to promote vocations,” says Diane Anderson. Collectively, the four moms have 26 young children, including 17 boys.
The cards are a way “to introduce the priests in our archdiocese, the men behind the collar — ordinary men who have answered an extraordinary call,” adds Melia Vankat.
Lori Mellender, another of the moms, describes kids’ typical reaction: “A priest comes to say Mass and the kids get all excited and say, ‘I have his card!’”
In addition to making the priests better known to the kids, the moms hope to encourage prayers for the priests.
On every point, they’ve hit a home run.
Last February, the mothers attended a trivia night at their Omaha parish, St. Peter Church. While there, a nun mentioned to them that no layperson had done anything to commemorate the Year for Priests. So the four-mom team brainstormed to come up with the trading-card idea.
On their own, they took it from the minors to the majors, raising money for the project, designing the cards themselves, and finding a printer in Denver.
Catholic bookstores in the archdiocese carry the card packs, which sell for $1 each. A limited quantity of boxed “Collector Sets” are also available, with all 121 priests who participated, which is more than half of all the priests who are working or retired in the archdiocese.
Behind the Collar
“We contacted each of the priests in the archdiocese with the questions for the ‘Sacramental Stats!’” Vankat says. “We struggled with the design of the card, [wanting] to uphold the dignity of the priesthood.”
Uphold it they did, while at the same time showcasing fun facts about the priests, from their date of birth, the parish they grew up in and their ordination date and seminary, to their favorite saints, prayers, meals and hobbies. “Did You Know” includes insightful information, such as how one priest came by train from New York to Nebraska as a 9-month-old orphan to be adopted.
Before reading his trading card, few people knew that Father James Novotny, pastor of Holy Family Church in Lindsay and a scoutmaster, had faced down a 400-pound black bear on a camping trip.
Father Novotny thinks the teaching aspect of the cards is so valuable for kids.
“They look at these pictures and the priest comes alive,” he says, because they’re getting to know their priest and also pray for the priest. “That’s what’s phenomenal.”
“When people have those cards in front of them,” Anderson says, “they think, Yes, I want to pray for this priest. On a basic level, with the personal information shared, you’re more likely to pray for them.”
Mellender’s daughters love to collect the cards and pray for the priests regularly, often with the Rosary.
The children of Cathy Hula, the other mom on the card-making team, also enjoy selecting cards and the corresponding priests to pray for.
The moms never anticipated how many adults would also collect the cards, using them as prayer reminders.
To further encourage this goal, each pack has a header card picturing St. John Vianney, patron of priests, and includes a prayer for priests composed by Omaha Archbishop George Lucas.
Good Role Models
The cards are proving fruitful in terms of promoting vocations.
“We’ve had more than one young boy come up to tell us he wants to be a priest, and the card prompted that conversation,” Anderson says. “We recognized you need to start talking to the kids about their vocations when they’re young. They think of being firefighters and baseball players, but if we’re not talking to them about the priesthood when they’re young, when they’re teens it’s too far off the radar. It should be part of the natural conversation now so it’s not a foreign idea.”
Father Ryan Lewis, pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Omaha, says the parish’s children are excited to tell him they have his card or are trying to get it. This age group of kids is “inherently open to the possibility of the priesthood.”
“This is another tool to fertilize the seeds already there at a time kids are open to it anyway,” he says. “Getting them introduced to priests beyond priests assigned to their parish opens a whole new world.”
Some of the mothers’ own sons are interested in the priesthood.
Brian Hula, 15, says, “The priesthood cards give a great look into the life of a priest as just an ordinary person besides his sacred vocation. It is really neat to feel a connection to a priest like this. Collecting the cards has encouraged prayer for priests and, more importantly, thinking about my own vocation.”
His mother adds that Brian is “reading about these men who have these adventuresome hobbies and seeing this is a great vocation. He’s open to God’s call. This has opened his eyes to the life of a priest — to see it in an ordinary way versus just seeing him at the pulpit.”
Mellender’s teenage son Zachary has thought about the priesthood since he was 5, and she is pleased he and others see priests as role models.
“A priest,” she says, “is a great role model for our boys, more than a football player.” These cards help them see priests “as their heroes.”
“I had priests for heroes before I was a priest,” Father Lewis recalls. “I looked up to a priest. It’s among the reasons why I considered priesthood for myself. These women are brilliant using the card image. It’s a wonderful, creative, unique tool that encourages that.”
Supporting Future Priests
The proceeds raise money for the archdiocesan seminarian fund. Since July, thousands of packs sold have raised $15,000 for the seminary fund. The moms have even organized swap meets and bingo sessions where the prizes are the trading cards.
Another printing is scheduled for 2012, with cards to include new facts and feature more priests. Fifteen priests have contacted the moms wanting to participate in the next set of cards. Seminarians who will be ordained by then can also be included in the next round.
The trading cards aren’t just a local phenomenon. Several other dioceses have expressed interest in the idea. By the end of January 2011, the moms hope to complete a how-to manual to make this project easily achievable for others.
They hope to see the same fruits of vocations and prayers for priests go nationwide.
That’s a definite possibility. As Father Novotny says, the cards have “caught the imaginations of the kids.”
Register staff writer
Joseph Pronechen is based
in Trumbull, Connecticut.