A ‘Culture of Vocations’ Brings Vitality to Saginaw Diocese

SAGINAW, Mich. — Seminarian Rich Budd, 25, knows exactly how to reach Bishop Robert Carlson if he has any questions or concerns.

“On my cell phone — on speed dial — is the bishop’s cell phone number,” said Budd. “And there’s definitely been nights where I’ve had to call him.”

He noted that seminarians elsewhere are unsure if their bishop is as accessible.

“We have a real personal relationship,” Budd. “Not every seminarian has that gift.”

Budd is one of 19 men from the Diocese of Saginaw who are discerning a call to the priesthood. That’s a big increase from just three years ago, and given Bishop Carlson’s emphasis, that comes as no surprise to Budd.

“He’s said from Day 1 that he wants to create a ‘Culture of Vocations,’” the seminarian said. “It starts with the bishop, but it goes all the way down the line. We all have to be ‘vocation aware.’”

Bishop Carlson recently became chairman of the U.S. Bishops Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry. He had been chairman-elect for a year, familiarizing himself with the job.

But he already had a reputation as being a bishop with a successful approach to vocations. When he became bishop of Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1995, the average age of priests in the diocese was 60. When he was appointed to Saginaw in 2005, that age had dropped to 48.6. By then, Sioux Falls had 25 seminarians, while Saginaw, with about the same number of Catholics at 135,000, had four.

When he was installed in Saginaw, he announced that he would “personally work to build up the priesthood” in the diocese and named himself director of vocations. That action convinces young men that vocations are a top priority, said seminarian Ben Moll.

“Bishop Carlson is very outgoing in supporting vocations,” said Moll, 27. “He goes out to search for young people to consider a vocation.”

According to Bishop Carlson, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is crucial to the vocation of the priesthood.

“We must abide in Christ if we are to bear fruit. This means that we must be holy,” said Bishop Carlson. “Without personal holiness it will be possible to hold the office, but the fruitfulness of the ministry will be compromised.”

Operation Andrew

Bishop Carlson has inaugurated a program to invite young men to consider the priesthood. Named after the first apostle that Jesus called, Operation Andrew holds dinners to allow young men a chance to discuss vocations with the bishop over dinner.

“We ask a priest to host a dinner. And we ask other priests in the area to invite any young men who are interested in attending,” said Mark Graveline, associate director of vocations for the diocese.

There have been three such dinners this year, one in the college town of Mount Pleasant, one in Midland and another in Saginaw. The diocese plans 12 such dinners for 2007.

The diocese is also rolling out Operation Myriam Dinners where nuns will meet with young women who are also considering a vocation.

And if interest in an area is really high, they will make sure to keep the dinner to a manageable size.

“We’ll probably have two in Bay City,” said Graveline. “We don’t want to go over 20 people because you want to have a conversation at the table.

“Guys just jump at the opportunity to have dinner with the bishop,” he said. “When Andrew said, ‘What are you all about?’ Jesus said, ‘Well, why don’t you come and see?”

Moll thinks these dinners will be helpful to fostering vocations. The bishop “doesn’t just say he’s in favor of vocations. He goes out there and recruits. He puts on dinners, gives out packets with detailed information and makes himself available,” said Moll. “He really puts a lot of effort into it.”

Prayer and Prompting

For years, Chris Coman, 33, fought the call to the priesthood. He even attended Franciscan University of Steubenville to get a master of theology degree in hopes it would stave off a vocation.

“I had battled it. I had a deep calling but it was something I didn’t want to do,” said Coman, who is now a seminarian for the Diocese of Saginaw.

Eucharistic adoration allowed Coman the opportunity to consider the vocation without any fear.

“When you talk to the Lord, it starts to change your mindset,” said Coman.

Parishes interested in vocations should provide ample opportunity for Eucharistic adoration, he said.

Coman said the other important element in fostering vocations is a strong prayerful presence in families.

“The family is the root of vocations. Holy families raise holy kids. Holy kids are going to discover their vocation,” said Coman.

Moll agreed. When others in his community frowned on the priesthood, his family’s prayer life encouraged him to discern a vocation to the priesthood.

“Pray with your kids. It shows that prayer is a priority and that God is a priority,” said Moll, who is studying at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

In addition to prayer, young men must be asked, Moll said.

“Remember to pray for vocations and encourage young men to think about it. If no one says anything, it’s harder for a person to realize it’s an option,” said Moll.

One way the diocese is making it easier for boys to consider a vocation when they become older is for them to visit with seminarians when they are in fifth and sixth grade.

“We have a group of fathers who bring their sons down to the seminary and encourage them to consider the priesthood,” said Budd. “It lets them know that this is acceptable.”

Far from feeling pressured, the boys like discovering the life of a seminarian, said Budd.

“They love it. We show them where we work out and we show them our big chapel. We show them where we eat. And then they go back and tell everybody, ‘We got to meet seminarians,’” said Budd.

Graveline said the visits have been beneficial for everyone involved.

“It’s something when the father sees how normal they are. And it’s something for a (boy) to see his dad feel comfortable with this.”

Perhaps those most affected are the fathers, Graveline said.

“They’re our biggest advocates,” he said. “They become good friends of the seminarians and they invite them back to their parishes.”

Joshua Mercer writes from

Petoskey, Michigan.