After searching for more than a decade for a comprehensive guide for men thinking about the priesthood, Father Brett Brannen decided to write one himself. To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood was published this year.
Ordained in 1991 for the Diocese of Savannah, Ga., Father Brannen has been vice rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., since 2005. He spoke to Register correspondent Stephen Vincent.
When did you hear the call to priesthood, and how did you respond?
Growing up in Statesboro, Ga., a small town near Savannah, I can remember hearing Jesus speak to me — at least in my heart — many times as a child.
I found myself very attracted to him and inexplicably attracted to the priesthood.
My pastors were good priests, and they set positive, joyful examples. In high school, I played football, basketball, baseball and ran track. I also dated quite a bit, worked on the farm, and did a lot of hunting and fishing. Yet I was enough attracted to the priesthood that my pastor brought me to see Bishop Raymond Lessard when I was a senior in high school.
I ultimately decided to begin the pre-med program at the University of Georgia, became an EMT and worked in a hospital. However, seeing people die made me realize even more that God was calling me to be a doctor of souls and not a doctor of bodies.
In college, I continued to date, hoping to fall in love with that perfect Catholic girl, which I had told Jesus would be a sign that I was called to marriage. I also went to daily Mass and Bible studies.
In my senior year, I knew that I had to give seminary a try. I was sent to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in 1984, and, even though I loved the seminary, I had a lot of discernment struggles. I left the seminary after first theology, worked for a few years, and then decided to go back. Bishop Lessard graciously agreed to accept me back, and then I changed my mind before it was time to go.
Before the end of that same semester, I asked him to take me back again.
I am very grateful that he was so patient with me. In hindsight, I believe that God permitted and orchestrated all of these discernment difficulties because he was preparing me to help other men discern priesthood.
Do you think more men are being called today than are responding?
Pope Benedict said that “nothing can replace the ministry of priests at the heart of the Church.”
Since the priesthood is absolutely essential in the Catholic faith, there is no question that God is calling a sufficient number of men to be priests. So, it is clear that some are not responding.
Because priesthood is such a radical commitment and it requires celibacy, it can be very intimidating for a young man when he first begins to feel an attraction.
Most young men today, even Catholic men who grew up in the Church and attended parochial schools, simply do not have enough information to know whether or not they are called to become a priest.
How can a man discern a call to something that he does not know? No information or bad information leads to a bad decision. This is why I wrote To Save a Thousand Souls.
How was Father Benedict Groeschel involved?
I started writing, taking a lot of information from the many vocation retreats I had given through the years, endeavoring to complete one chapter per month in 2008-09.
By the summer, I was frustrated with the project and not sure if I should continue. On June 1 of that summer (my anniversary of ordination), I received a call from Father Benedict Groeschel. He said, “Father Brannen, I am reading your book, and I think it is excellent — just what the Church needs right now in this Year for Priests. How can I help you bring it to completion?” I was shocked because I had never sent the manuscript to him in the first place. What he was reading was actually a transcript of a vocation retreat that I had preached some years before.
Nonetheless, I saw this phone call as a confirmation that I should finish it.
The book was published in March of the Year for Priests. God orchestrated all of this.
You mention stages of discernment. How does that work?
I think that most people have no idea what is involved, both in discerning a vocation to diocesan priesthood and seminary priestly formation.
People are amazed to learn the diverse ways which Jesus uses to attract men to priesthood while always respecting individual freedom. I have included many real-life stories in the book about men with whom I have worked through the years, and vocation stories are always interesting. Many people do not know that going to seminary is not a final decision to become a priest.
Going to seminary is only the fourth stage of the seven stages of discernment, which are described in the book.
It is true that some men are called by God to go to seminary who are not being called to become priests.
Primarily because of Pastores Dabo Vobis (the apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II on priesthood and priestly formation), I believe that seminary formation is better today than it has ever been in the history of the Church. When people learn what seminarians go through during the six- to eight-year process, they are impressed. It is a great time to go to seminary.
How are you distributing the book?
Vianney Vocations, which published the book, is a brand-new company begun by Sam Alzheimer, formerly a seminarian for the Diocese of Savannah and formerly a vice president of Catholic Stewardship Consultants.
The company exists to help vocation directors and their dioceses form a diocesan culture of vocations and to recruit more seminarians.
The Holy Spirit brought us together at the perfect time, and Mr. Alzheimer took on the editing and publishing of this book as a special project since it so clearly applies to the mission of his company.
The book was written specifically to aid vocation directors, and they help young men. Thanks to some generous donors, we were able to send a free copy of the book to every bishop and vocation director in the U.S. and Canada, and many of these vocation directors have ordered multiple copies for their candidates.
We are still trying to obtain funds to send copies to every seminarian in the U.S., to every Catholic campus ministry and to every perpetual adoration chapel. These are the target audiences where we think the books will get into the hands of young men who are discerning (or who should be discerning). We have sent out the first printing of 5,000 copies and are doing a second printing now. The book can be ordered directly from the Vianney Vocations website (VianneyVocations.com).
Tell me about the book’s take on celibacy.
The chapter is titled “Celibacy, Chastity, Charity and Cheerfulness,” and it is one of the longest and most important in the book.
It begins by describing sexual integration, something to which every person is called regardless of vocation, and it emphasizes that neither marriage nor priesthood are cures for sexual disintegration.
Learning to love people as God loves people and to never consent to use another person in any way is an essential Christian virtue — and every man must depend on God’s grace and also struggle to attain it.
Every man who enters the seminary enters with an incomplete sexual integration, but he must be moving in the right direction.
I try to make this very practical in the book by giving examples of different men at different places in this process and describe which ones are ready to begin seminary and which ones are not. The chapter deals with sexual impurity, especially masturbation, very directly, and it answers questions like “Should a man date before he enters seminary?” and “Can a man go to seminary if he has been sexually active in the past?”
Finally, there are seven pages discussing same-sex attraction and whether a man who has SSA can still become a priest. The 2005 Vatican instruction on this issue is reviewed in detail.
Though celibacy is a tough discernment for a young man, priests are by and large extremely happy and joyful. Contrary to the message of the media, celibate priests are some of the happiest men in the world.
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.