6 American Bishops Talk About Their Vocations
Interviews with Bishop Robert McManus, Bishop Ronald Gainer, Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Bishop David Konderla, Bishop Andrew Cozzens and Bishop Earl Boyea.
In the past year I have spoken to six diocesan bishops about their vocations to the priesthood and how their dioceses are doing for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Here are their responses:
Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
As an only child, my parents were hoping for grandchildren. However, when I told my mom I was going to seminary, she was fine with it. But it was much harder for my father. I only saw him cry two times in his life: when his mother died, and when I told him I wanted to go to the seminary. He wanted me to be an engineer. It took him a while to adjust to the decision, but he eventually accepted it.
… [The Diocese of Harrisburg] could be doing better [for vocations to the priesthood], but not so bad in comparison to other dioceses. We have 19 seminarians in various stages of formation. We use two seminaries, including my alma mater, St. Charles Borromeo and Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, from which many of our seminarians have graduated. We are replacing those who leave active ministry. And I’m happy with the formation programs in both seminaries.
That said, we need to be aggressive and invite more young men to consider a vocation to the priesthood. That is my modus operandi. We can’t sit and be quiet and expect young men to come. In our diocese, we have our Quo Vadis Days for young men ages 15 to 25 at Mount St. Mary’s over the summer, which allows them to discern their vocation. It draws between 40 to 60 young men, and our vocations director keeps in touch with the participants. We have Fiat Days for women to discern the religious life as well, with women from religious communities coming to make presentations. That’s also a summer program, and draws about 25 women.
Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota
In first grade, a priest came to my classroom. He was an off-the-boat Irish monsignor. He invited me into the hallway, where I had my first confession. I also had my first Communion a year early. He was turning age 70 and retiring, and wanted me to serve Mass for him.
He stayed close to my family, and it wasn’t long before I wanted to be a priest like Monsignor. He was a great example to me. He had a house in the mountains near Lake Granby, where he enjoyed his retirement.
He was the archbishop’s troubleshooter. He’d work nine months of the year. If there was a problem in the archdiocese, the archbishop would send him in to calm things down. Then during three summer months, he’d fish. I and another young man would serve Mass for him and fish every day; I went away from that relationship wanting to be a priest. He was a very holy man.
… As far as vocations, we have six seminarians, with another two entering seminary for us in the upcoming year. That is a good number for a small diocese. We also have young women going to religious life, although since we have no growing religious communities in Crookston, our young women must leave the diocese to join communities. We hope to convince more religious communities to come to the diocese.
Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts
[In my youth,] the priests were our heroes. But the sisters were really the best vocation directors. One time when I was in eighth grade, one of the sisters came to my class. She told the girls to go to recess, and told the boys to stay in their seats.
She told us boys that becoming a priest was not only a good thing, but the best thing. I was a kid of 13, and I believed her then, as I believe her now.
… I [ordained] seven to the priesthood in June. We have 25 seminarians, with three more young men coming in as first-year college seminarians. If we can keep ordaining four or five a year, we’ll be in good shape. We’ve been doing very well for vocations as compared to other New England dioceses.
Some of our seminarians are international seminarians, from South America and Africa, which has been a great blessing to the diocese. However, we need to attract more American vocations to the priesthood. We have a very fine vocations director, Father Donato Infante, who has been doing a wonderful job of promoting vocations. I also ask all of my priests to pray for vocations at their Sunday Masses, and I tell each of them that they should see themselves as vocations directors and promote vocations among those they know. That message has resonated with them.
Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, Colorado
[The archbishop had an interest in the priesthood while he was in elementary school, but upon graduating from high school chose to pursue a career in medicine instead. He entered the University of Colorado as a pre-med student. However, in his third year of college, he again thought about the priesthood. He decided, “I really need to go test this out.” Upon graduation, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado. And, after six months, he said, “It became really clear to me that the Lord was calling me to the priesthood.”]
[On vocations in Denver:] We have been blessed. In the years I have been archbishop, we have been ordaining classes of three to eight to the priesthood. We have between 50 and 60 seminarians, and have been as high as 70. We definitely need new priests; I have opened two new parishes because of population growth. Whereas parishes in years past had two, three or four parochial vicars, they are now fortunate to have one or two. Many parishes have one priest only.
As far as religious life, we’ve had men enter the Disciples of Jesus and Mary, the Jesuits and the Capuchins, who are present in the archdiocese. Our young women have been entering the Sisters of Life, the Nashville Dominicans, the Religious Sisters of Mercy, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Benedictine Contemplative Nuns of the Abbey of St. Walburga. The Benedictines are a cloistered community, and they spend their lives praying, farming and ranching.
Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa, Oklahoma
I was not interested in going to college. In 10th grade, I participated in a cooperative education program in which you work half a day and go to school half a day. It prepares you to work in a trade. I worked in the veterinarian toxicology lab at Texas A&M. I continued there two years after high school, then took a night job at a machine shop. I was so enthralled with the machine shop that I quit my day job and went to work as a machinist. Age 20 to 25 I worked in the shop, managed it and was part owner. I could see with some clarity what that track in life was going to look like for me. I would buy out my partner, own and operate my own shop, and work as a machinist.
At the same time, I was volunteering at my parish. I had a good friendship with my pastor, and he asked me at age 20 if I thought about becoming a priest. I told him no, that I had no interest, and that I was working at a machine shop. But just as I could see what my life would be working at the machine shop, I began to see through the parish what my life would be like if I took the path of the priesthood. I began to weigh the two options.
At age 23, I experienced a much deeper conversion to being a disciple of Christ. Serving the Lord became a more important part of my life. By age 24, I thought seminary might be a good path for me. I went to a “come and see” weekend at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, where I felt a tremendous sense of peace. I applied, sold my share in the machinist shop, and entered as a freshman at age 25.
While in the seminary, I became interested in Trappist monasticism. I had been on some discernment retreats, and thought about entering the monastery. However, their primary vocation is being a monk, with the priesthood secondary. If I were to enter, I might not be ordained a priest. That knowledge helped clarify for me what my real vocation was. I felt called to living and serving as a priest. At age 35, I was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Austin.
… We have 17 seminarians, and ordained three to the priesthood this year. We accepted six new seminarians for the fall class. Our numbers our healthy; we’re always looking for men who are called to the priesthood. If a man is called to the priesthood, that will make him happier than anything else he can do in the world.
Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan
From the second grade I knew I wanted to be a priest. I loved the Church, and I loved the sacraments. My reasons deepened over the years.
I told my parents I wanted to go to the high school seminary, but they initially told me they could not afford the tuition. But my father was working for Pontiac Motors at the time, and received a $6,000 bonus for a suggestion he made to the company. He came home and told me, “You can go to the seminary.”
… [Our relatively large number of vocations to the priesthood is an] undeserved grace. We don’t deserve it, but God has graced us with it. We do have our young priests promoting vocations and full time chaplains at each of our four diocesan high schools, as well as wonderful vocations directors. But, in the end, it is still an undeserved grace.