It Takes One to Recruit One
Father David Nuss was well on his way to getting a doctorate in systematic theology a few years ago when his bishop summoned him to a meeting.
The 38-year-old priest fully expected he would be called home from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and assigned to a parish, possibly with teaching duties at a nearby college. Having spent four rewarding years as associate pastor of St. Mary's Parish in Sandusky, Ohio, following his 1993 ordination, he figured parish ministry was a logical next step.
So when Bishop James Hoffman told Father Nuss he wanted him to become the vocations director for the Toledo Diocese, the younger priest countered: “Bishop, I need to tell you that several priests come to mind who are much better suited to this.”
Bishop Hoffman's response was matter-of-fact. “You're going to be the vocations director,” he said.
Despite that rather tenuous beginning, the Adrian, Mich., native and self-described jock has joyfully embraced his duties in the two years since he joined the diocese's vocations staff. In that time, he has seen a dozen men go into the seminary from the 19-county diocese in northwest Ohio. Nine of those entered last fall, constituting the largest class the diocese has seen in more than 20 years.
Father Nuss hasn't stopped there. He has revamped the vocations Web site for the diocese (www.toledovocations. com) as part of a recruitment campaign he launched last December with catchy phrases such as “Altar Your Life,” “Savior Life” and “Do You Have Collar ID?”
The campaign's advertising, Father Nuss said, is designed to direct people to the Web site, which offers information on the priesthood and consecrated life, ideas for nurturing vocations in the family and lesson plans for teachers and catechists. Father Nuss developed the campaign with the help of Catholic marketing and public-relations professionals who donated tens of thousands of dollars in in-kind services. Their goal: help Father Nuss present the prospect of high-fidelity priesthood — without compromising on the true nature of the vocation — to 18- to 22-year-olds reared on slick media images and quick-hit sound bites.
He said he has undertaken the vocations assignment with enthusiasm because “It's all about obedience. … It's wholeheartedly investing yourself in what you've been told to do.”
Still, Father Nuss considers parish ministry the ultimate challenge. “You talk about needing to be sharp,” he says. “You explain God to a kindergarten class and to parents and to nursing-home people in the same day and do it intelligently and passionately.”
Father Nuss first heard the call to priesthood while he was enrolled in an honors pre-med program at the University of Toledo, where, from all appearances, he was thriving intellectually and socially. Besides being a leader in student government and a member of the prestigious Blue Key honor society, he was attending Mass regularly and had a circle of Catholic friends who shared his love for the Church. After graduation, he hoped to go to medical school and become a pediatrician.
“On the surface, it looked like all of the pieces were perfectly in place and coming together,” he says. “But inside, I was hungering for something more.”
At first he thought the Holy Spirit might be asking him to take more ownership of his faith in Christ and his participation in the Church. “In a short period of time,” he recalls, “it occurred to me that it was really a calling to consider seriously priestly life and ministry.”
Help was as close as his own family. As Father Nuss likes to say, religious life is in his DNA. He counts among his relatives two priests, one of whom was the former bishop of Guatemala, and two religious sisters.
He contacted the man he considers “the family priest,” his great-uncle, Father Rolland Glass, now a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Father Glass helped his nephew find a program where he could simultaneously pursue his undergraduate studies and discern his vocation.
Father Glass says he had long thought Father Nuss would make a good priest. He recalls especially his nephew expressing an interest in his breviary as a 10-year-old. Upon learning what the book was, Father Glass says the boy responded, “Oh, you learn a lot about the Bible from it.”
However, during his boyhood, most of which was spent in Wisconsin, Father Nuss said being a priest was not necessarily on his mind. “I grew up thinking I wanted to lead the Green Bay Packers back to glory,” he said. To this day, he remains a devoted Packers fan and a single-share stockholder in the team.
Father Glass, who enjoys an ongoing rivalry with his nephew over who is the better cribbage player, says he thinks one of Father Nuss' many gifts as a priest is his ability to put people at ease, even though he possesses a superior intellect.
“He has such a down-to-earth approach to people,” Father Glass adds, “that you wouldn't figure he has as great a mind as he has in ordinary conversation.”
While at Mount St. Mary's Seminary of the West in Cincinnati, Father Nuss earned master of divinity and master of theology degrees before beginning doctoral studies at Catholic University. He currently holds a licentiate in theology but has yet to write his doctoral dissertation.
Father Nuss decided to base his studies on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who is known as the Pope's theologian, because, he says, “Beyond the brilliance of his mind, Father von Balthasar was the first theologian I had ever read who expressed God's activity in time in a manner that corresponded so closely with my own experience. He understands the proper posture for studying theology — indeed the daily starting point for all who dare to follow Christ Jesus — is on one's knees.”
Father Nuss, who begins and ends each day with a half-hour of Eucharistic adoration and also has morning prayer daily with two other priests, says, “The most important part of my job is being a man of prayer and being faithful to the Church in that regard. I can't come in here in the morning if I haven't first been on my knees in the rectory.”
Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.