DOUGLASTON — When 17-year-old Anthony Longo walks through the doors at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, Queens, he feels instantly at home.
A senior at Cathedral Prep School and Seminary, Longo is one of a handful of young men who attended Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio’s annual vocations retreat at the Immaculate Conception seminary, March 6-8.
“It’s like walking into open arms, and I’m always very happy to be here,” Longo said. “In prayer, I feel this sense of belonging, like I’m really supposed to be here. And I’m surrounded by my brothers… I’m glad I get to enjoy this experience with them.”
The majority of the retreatants were students from Cathedral Prep, now the last remaining Catholic seminary high school in the United States.
“I’ve been thinking about joining the priesthood since I was 11 years old,” said Longo. “I knew the Bishop’s retreat was the perfect environment to really discern. The Bishop spoke to us about what it means to be a priest in the church, what it truthfully represents. He said it’s a representation of Christ for the community — it’s not a split decision. You don’t just say you want to be a priest; you definitely have to discern, and it takes years to make that decision, if you’re truly happy. I came here because I want to make sure it’s the right decision for me.”
Bishop DiMarzio told The Tablet that more diocesan priests are needed, and the retreat is “a great time for [participants] to ask questions face to face, and to really discern the call.”
At a Mass in the crypt chapel on March 7, concelebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto, Bishop DiMarzio reminded everyone there that the Lord calls them to holiness in the same way he called St. Matthew the Apostle, a sinner and tax collector, to be one of his disciples.
“It’s important to recognize that the call we get from the Lord also demands a response,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “Discernment only happens when we are fully engaged in prayer with the Lord, in the Eucharist. Whatever reason the Lord called you here, be here now. This is a golden opportunity to make some decisions that will affect the rest of your life. When you accept your vocation and know you’re ready, you have to act on it.”
Father Chris Bethge, the incoming diocesan vocations director, said that the retreat is usually held during the first weekend of Lent. It’s also a prime opportunity for the young men to have a rare, close encounter with the Bishop.
Along with talks, reconciliation, prayer, spiritual direction and social activities throughout the weekend, the young men were invited to have a one-on-one Q&A with the Bishop, an opportunity for them to ask deep questions about the vocation.
“One of the scariest parts of the priesthood is that it’s permanent. In our culture today, people are afraid of commitment,” Father Bethge said. “So the questions these young men begin to ask are like, ‘Can I do this forever?” Am I ‘good enough’ to do this? How do I know if God is really calling me, and that I’ll be good at it?’ But God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called. If He calls you, He’s going to give you the strength to do it.”
“A vocation is a call from God. But it’s not a loud voice, not a cellphone, but a sense of interior peace, knowing that you are where you’re supposed to be.”
Father Sean Suckiel, pastor at Holy Family parish, Fresh Meadows, and the outgoing vocations director of the Brooklyn Diocese, said that there have been 97 vocations in the diocese since Bishop DiMarzio was installed in 2003.
“It’s for those who are seriously discerning the next step,” Father Suckiel said. “The group this year is actually among the youngest we’ve ever had.”
The vocations retreat proves effective for the discerning young men, many of whom come from different backgrounds throughout the Brooklyn Diocese. Some of them, like 19-year-old seminarian Joseph Siano, even come back to help.
Siano, who attends St. Helen’s, Howard Beach, credits his parish priests and the Bishop’s retreat for inspiring him to enter the seminary two years ago.
“We need good diocesan priests to be present in the community, to be good influencers and to get people, both youth and adults, integrated in the faith. I’ve had priests who were very influential in my life, and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”