The number of men responding to calls to the priesthood in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., has steadily increased every year since 1985 — the year the late Bishop John Keating named him vocations director. He shared the secrets of his success with Register staff writer Brian McGuire.

McGuire: You've said that the strength of the Arlington Diocese's vocations program owes much to the efforts of three successive bishops. What have they done that's made a difference?

Father Gould: Well, our current bishop and his two predecessors each focused on a unique aspect of calling men to the priest-hood. Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, the first of the three, for instance, focused on “the mission.” He used to say to the guys, “the secret to the priesthood in Arlington is the ability to get Jesus Christ across the Potomac River to Washington on Monday morning.”

What does that mean?

That means in your homilies on Sunday mornings, in all your teaching and preaching, in all your programs such as adult education, make sure you give people an expression of your vocation as a priest. That worked well for him, because Catholic education was very important to him. He saw the complement between Catholic education and vocations.

Bishop John Keating was next.

Yes, and he focused on the theme of “men.” The key there is, you look for men who have docility and also initiative. Where Bishop Welsh wanted to synthesize the academic, social and spiritual dimensions of the diocese, Bishop Keating was looking for men who demonstrated prayer, generosity, hard work and sacrifice. He made it clear that he needed men who were able to listen to the Word of God expressed in the Church and lived out in the priest-hood.

And what about the current ordinary, Bishop Paul S. Loverde?

He's new here, just six months [into his appointment]. He expresses “the mystery” of vocations. He talks to the parents and says they must pray for vocations, but not from someone else's family — from their own family.

So there you have it — the mission, the men and the mystery. Those three themes have defined our vocations program.

Another of Bishop Loverde's key phrases is one he addresses to parents: “God will always reward you for your generosity.” The reward may be a daughter or son who goes off to priest-hood or religious life, or it may be a heart that's just open to the will of God.

What are some of the difficulties you've had finding vocations?

I visit the families and tell them what my parents never found out. What's involved in the vocation program, what will happen in the next five or six years.

The toughest is the young lad who is a convert, who is from a family who doesn't understand the Church in the first place, let alone the priesthood. One woman looked across the table at me and said, “We really don't know why you came here tonight. “ She wasn't wild about me being there. The boy was a convert and the parents were still Protestant.

What made you go to his house?

I visit every family for the candidates that are applying for seminary.

You go to help the parents understand?

Yes, I'm doing it because no one ever came to talk to my parents. They didn't have a clue what I was doing and I didn't have much more. And then I give every one of them my telephone numbers including my private line. And I tell them they can call me at three in the morning if they want. In 15 years, I have had a couple of calls at three in the morning.

What tends to concern parents?

It could be anything: health, academics, a schedule they fear might be too demanding for their son.

Are most parents encouraging of their sons'interest in the priesthood?

Yes, most times they are. Other times you hope they come around. Five years later that Protestant mother, though she never became Catholic, made the vestments for her son's ordination.

Do you ever see a vocation in someone who doesn't see one in himself?

We're very careful not to take candidates where [someone else] has told them they have a vocation. More often than not, it is the other kid in the class, not the [obvious] one.

Here's another family story. The oldest of seven sons. All home schooled. He went off to Christendom College. Now he is going to the seminary. They all met me just bug-eyed like I came from another planet. Like, what is going to happen now? The kids were so enthused but they just couldn't believe that their brother was going to the seminary to be a priest. Now that oldest son is the associate with me at the parish here.

Are most vocations the result of a lifelong discernment process?

I think most guys thought of it when they were young. I think it is difficult for the older candidate to go to the seminary, because his idiosyncrasies are locked in place. It's the same in marriage. In marriage, if you get married before 30, you are a couple; you're a team. You're more malleable when you're younger. So the people who say it's better to wait until you're older usually miss the point that the formation is easier for younger men.

What's another interesting vocation you've had to help along?

One young man was shot by a sniper as a newspaper boy when he was 12. He wasn't supposed to walk again. He came in to see me on his two canes and we weren't sure we could take this candidate because of his health concerns. The Pope made a statement that those with physical infirmities display the cross of Christ more credibly. And because of that statement from the Pope, we accepted that candidate. Now he is one of our terrific young priests in the diocese, Father Dennis Donahue.

What fundamental things should a diocese do if it want to increase vocations?

It has to have four groups working together: the bishop, the priests, the religious and the laity. When you separate those groups from each other, the temptation is for the priests and religious to blame the lay people for not giving their sons. The lay people, in turn, complain that the priests and religious don't give a credible witness — because lay people tend to be businessmen in their orientation. If you have something to sell, people invest in it. If you don't, don't look for my son. The key to success in Arlington has been that all four have been together in their enthusiasm for vocations and the key to success is the Poor Clares, because it is the spiritual before the social and academic.

Was getting the Poor Clares into the diocese motivated by that very idea?

I think so. I think Bishop Welsh had the design before him to synthesize the academic, social and spiritual dimensions of the parishioners. It's no great surprise because he was a seminary rector and that is the ideal for seminary candidates. They should synthesize the academic, social and spiritual. And that's what “Sister Mary Holy-Card” used to do to you in the first grade. She gave you holy cards, she put you together. You learn your prayers together. You learn how to tie your shoes together. You play together. Academic, social, spiritual synthesis is the key. You do it collectively as bishops, priests, religious and lay people.

What does that synthesis look like, day to day, in the diocese of Arlington?

You look for the number of people going to Mass, Confession, Eucharistic devotions or adult education. You look for the interest in Catholic education in the school system or the CCD programs.

How do you concretely go about getting vocations in the diocese ?

It's the priests of the parish that really push. They might meet a guy who is an altar boy, someone in the confessional, someone in college. If you want the real unsung heroes of vocations, it's the guy in the parish, the guy in the trench. Guys like me are bureaucrats. We'll go bless your pet rock. But the real vocation directors don't sit in my office. They are the priests doing the job out there, living the life and talking about it to whomever will listen. They deserve the credit more than anyone else.