Shaking Bushes

Team Vianney contributes to the success of a large Midwestern college seminary. By Barb Ernster

St. John Vianney College Seminary in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is experiencing its largest enrollment since the seminary was established in 1968.

St. Paul and Minneapolis is now the No. 1 diocese in the United States for the most college seminarians. This year, 154 men from 29 different dioceses are enrolled at St. John Vianney; 35 of them are from the archdiocese.

One of the primary ways that the men are learning about the seminary is through Team Vianney, a vocation outreach program for high schoolers that Father William Baer, the seminary’s president and rector, started eight years ago with just four young men.

Today it attracts 120 participants, half of whom attend the first Thursday of the month meetings regularly.

The young men participate with the college seminarians in a Marian procession at the six o’clock Angelus, followed by a spiritual talk about the faith, Benediction, Mass and a pizza social. Some come with their pastor, as part of a group, or with their father.

Father John Klockeman, director of Team Vianney, said roughly 50% of the men from the archdiocese who entered St. John Vianney in the last couple of years have come through the outreach program.

“What makes it so successful is we meet the high school youth culture where they’re at — and talk quite frankly about the Catholic faith,” said Father Klockeman, who is also spiritual director and formation adviser at the seminary. “They love it. A lot of high school men think it’s incredibly cool to hang out with college-age men. That’s key.”

Team Vianney, which is named for the patron of parish priests, St. John Vianney, also helps them realize that they’re not the only ones who may be hearing God calling them to priesthood.

“They get to Team Vianney and see 40 or 50 guys who also feel called to priesthood or want to do some sort of leadership and they’re empowered by that,” said Father Klockeman. “Now they’re part of a whole cadre of men who are called and it’s very intoxicating. They want to be part of something that gives them vision.”

When Anthony Fink was invited by his pastor to a Team Vianney evening while a freshman in high school, he didn’t think much of it. But after the first night he was hooked, and continued to attend throughout high school. Now in his second year in seminary, Fink, 19, thought about what kept him coming back, even before he was actively thinking about the priesthood.

“I was very surprised that the guys were so friendly and they made me want to come back for more,” he said. “At Team Vianney, I really noticed what they call a fraternity of brothers, and admired the fatherly manhood portrayed through the men. I knew it was a place where I could grow in my faith even if I didn’t become a priest.”

‘Winning Team’

Fink’s experience of Team Vianney is exactly what Father Baer envisioned when he started the program.

“Young men, by their nature, want to join a winning team,” he said. “When they see other men their age who are regular guys and serious about their Catholic faith and the priesthood, it builds up their own faith and dedication. They look up to college seminarians as good role models.”

Isaac Huss, a senior seminarian at St. John Vianney and a Team Vianney captain, agrees with that notion. He believes you have to give men something they can get excited about or they’re not going to be interested.

“I think it’s a problem of our evangelization efforts that we’re not doing enough to attract men. And I don’t think it does anybody any good to ignore the issues that are holding us back,” he said. “Father Baer has a great genius for inspiring young men and he has put that in the veins of Team Vianney, creating a male fraternity that men can be comfortable with. I think we’re seeing the fruits of that.”

Huss said there are widespread misconceptions that the priesthood is for weird religious types who can’t do anything else. “It’s really for the best and the brightest, which is what our Lord deserves,” he said “If we want powerful, positive results for our Church, we need good men who are skilled, creative, talented, heroic men. That’s who we want to pursue.”

‘Vocation to Fatherhood’

First-year seminarian Tim Rasmussen experienced Team Vianney in a very powerful way while a sophomore in high school. His pastor from St. Michael’s parish in Stillwater, Minn., told him he might be a candidate for priesthood and invited him to attend.

“What I saw was a big group of Catholic men on fire for Christ and the Church and witnessing in public, which is not something you see very often. That blew me away,” said Rasmussen. “The Mass was beautiful and it was amazing to see a massive group of men who are willing to give their entire lives for Christ. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. There was something there that was mysterious and great.”

He said he has come to understand the priesthood as an authentic idea of manhood — that of being a father and conveying that message is part of Team Vianney’s mission.

“Within every man’s heart is a vocation to fatherhood, whether in priesthood or marriage. Team Vianney specifically seeks to help men understand that,” Rasmussen said. “The man who embodied true greatness was Pope John Paul II, especially in his last days of life. The world saw him as weak, but in his weakness how powerfully strong he was inside. That’s true fatherhood. That’s what Team Vianney is really trying to do.”

Father Klockeman said to the best of his knowledge, Team Vianney is the largest vocation recruitment/leadership program for high school men in the United States, and it’s growing.

When he inherited the program in 2003, he took Team Vianney to key parishes in the diocese. Once a semester, a group of seminarians host a Team Vianney event at a parish, often in tandem with a women’s vocation outreach program called Theotokos, operated by the Vocations Office. At one parish, more than 300 young men and women attended and stayed for Mass. Out of 150 men at the event, 70 of them said they were interested in the possibility of priesthood.

Seminarians are also doing apostolic outreach at parishes and high schools, and two seminarians are planning to take the program format back to their dioceses in Superior, Wis., and Biloxi, Miss.

Ironically, no seminarians are coming from the Catholic high schools in the archdiocese, where Father Klockeman said it is difficult to promote vocations. Still, he believes the numbers will continue to increase. If every parish in the archdiocese had at least one or two men in the discernment process, there would be 219 to 438 men in the seminary system.

“That’s not unrealistic,” he said. “Archbishop [Harry] Flynn always says the vocations are out there, you just have to shake the bushes.”

Barb Ernster writes from

Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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