HUNTINGTON, N.Y. — As his eyes scanned the room in the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York, Bishop Robert Brennan realized he was looking for a few good men.
The occasion was a weekend-long vocation retreat — Bishop Brennan’s second since taking the helm of the diocese — during which he was once again seeking to determine if any of these 27 attendees might be seriously considering a calling to the priesthood.
While the Feb. 25 event was the latest recruitment effort aimed at filling a shortage of priests in the diocese, Bishop Brennan noted that, in actuality, only a few who attend these retreats will enter the seminary.
“The theme I’m using this year is ‘Friendship with Christ,’ and that’s true for every Christian,” he said during a break in discussions with the “discerners,” who came from Catholic high schools or parishes in the diocese to attend. “And this kind of an experience can help somebody to extend that experience and know Jesus even better.
“If they choose the priesthood is not for them, hopefully, these guys will be bringing families to the Church, teaching religion to their kids, and doing great work in the community,” he said.
In fact, the event was an opportunity to help the discerners forge deeper relationships with Jesus Christ in whatever life paths they choose — the priesthood, the diaconate, or Church members who are single or married.
Bishop Brennan and Father Chris Bethge, vocations director for the Diocese of Brooklyn, held a panel discussion with seven seminarians from the Cathedral Seminary House of Formation at Douglaston, Queens, and St. Joseph’s Seminary and College at Dunwoodie, Yonkers.
Two of the panelists, Father Bethge noted, were discerners at the first bishop’s retreat that he helped organize three years ago.
Aidan Birth of South Ozone Park, Queens, will graduate in May from Douglaston and hopes to complete his formation at Dunwoodie. John Bulatao of Richmond Hill, Queens, just started his studies at Douglaston.
During a break, Bulatao shared how his parents, immigrants from the Philippines, raised him in the Church — a foundation designed to build his legacy of faith. He has volunteered as an altar server, sacristan, and youth group leader at Holy Child Jesus Parish in Richmond Hill.
“It felt fulfilling, and it felt comfortable,” Bulatao said. “I felt safe. Every time I served Mass, it was such an honor. It was never a chore to do. It was always exciting.”
As a sacristan, he began to realize that for a priest, celebrating Mass and managing a parish is like operating “a huge machine.” So now he aspires to that task — serving people and bringing the love of Jesus to them.
Birth’s family attends Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in South Ozone Park. He fielded a question from a discerner who asked how to deal with temptation.
He responded that temptation persists before and during the seminary and even into the priesthood. Bishop Brennan and Father Bethge added examples of when Jesus was tempted, like in the desert and even on the cross.
Birth said the best defense was prayer, faith in the sacraments, and seeking support from fellow seminarians, clergy, and loved ones.
Chris Galan Acevedo shared how he will graduate from Coney Island Prep, a charter school, this spring. He plans to enter college to major in political science while considering how he will serve God and the Church. Like many of the discerners, he is active in his parish. He is an altar server and sacristan at Sts. Simon and Jude Parish in Gravesend, Brooklyn.
“Maybe God is calling me to become a priest, a deacon, or maybe married life,” he said. “But, definitely, this experience has deepened my faith and showed me how to be a better man, or in my case, a better young adult.”
Father Bethge described the diverse backgrounds of the discerners — some from Catholic high schools, others from charter schools, and some from public schools.
Yet all have the common thread of being loved by God, who knows each of their hearts, Father Bethge said. He noted it was the same with the original 12 Apostles, who were judged to be misfits by the society of their time.
“People were expecting Jesus to choose the holy ones, to choose the priests of the temple, the Pharisees and the Sadducees,” Father Bethge said. “But Jesus chose the ones people least expected, and he made them into something greater by being with them. So let us walk this journey. Let us open our eyes, not only to what we expect but to what truly is — Jesus here with us.”
Bishop Brennan said that despite the worldwide priest shortage, he still gains hope from his interactions with teens and young adults in the parishes, including those not considering vocations.
He added that he met many young people with a missionary spirit who see themselves as playing a missionary role in the world, the workplace, and the community.
“A lot of the guys on this retreat, for example, are altar servers and sacristans. They’re not just going through the motions,” Bishop Brennan said. “They’re honorable people, and they know their stuff. When I started the retreat, I could tell they were very much at home with what we were doing.
“That’s what gives me hope.”