My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The work of recruiting vocations for the priesthood and religious life is a never-ending task. One method that our Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens has found to be very rewarding is to have an annual retreat for discerners. This began when now-Bishop Kevin Sweeney was our director of vocations and was continued by Father Kevin Abels, Father Sean Suckiel, and now Father Christopher Bethge. These men had one mission: to recruit. Once the discerners enter the seminary, their role and responsibility as director of vocations was transferred and given to the director of seminarians. This practice seems to work very well.
This year’s retreat just last month was perhaps the most successful, at least by number, during my tenure. There were 42 who attended the retreat; 30 juniors and seniors in high school, seven who were college-age, and five who are post-college and have already entered the workforce. Usually, the retreat is held at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, however, due to the pandemic, the retreat was held at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, as there was a greater opportunity to meet while always keeping the protocols of social distancing. It is held from Friday night to early Sunday afternoon and provides the retreatants a chance to meet directly with me as Bishop, and for them to hear important talks regarding the identity of a priest, as well as other issues. There is also a time for a question and answer period which is always most invigorating, and I look forward to leading this retreat every year.
The retreat is very important as it does allow those who might be thinking along the same lines of a vocation to be together. Peer pressure has always been a major issue in recruitment. The vocation to the priesthood and religious life is a very personal matter. It is not something that is easily shared with others. When one can be with others who might be thinking along the same lines, it is a lot easier to ask questions and to feel more comfortable doing so. My famous example of how one defines a vocation is that it is like a toothache. It comes and it goes. If you do not pull the tooth, or have it filled, the ache will always come back to haunt you. Because if God is calling you, He will not leave you alone until you give an answer to Him: yes or no. This seems to resonate very well with young discerners since they too try to put the calling aside to not make a decision. The retreat time is an opportunity when decisions can be made.
As I mentioned, during the retreat there is an opportunity for each to individually talk with me. Unfortunately, this year with so many discerners I was only able to speak personally with over half of the retreatants; not everyone, but all who wanted to speak with me were able to have a 10-minute talk. During that time, they can express themselves. This younger generation, I have found, is adept at being very honest in expressing themselves with their doubts and yet also their quest for faith. It is the youth who are always ready and able to sacrifice if they understand the cause or the reason for the sacrifice. And this is so important.
During the retreat days, we celebrate the Eucharist, there is a penance service, we recite the Liturgy of the Hours, and provide a time for private prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. These are all the elements so necessary for vocation discernment. We help the young men find their way through the difficulty of making vocational decisions.
Father Chris Bethge, our current vocation director, also is a teacher of religion at the Cathedral Preparatory School and Seminary. Because of his presence, there was a good number of the Prep students participating in this year’s retreat. They know him, trust him, and his invitation to join the retreat meant a lot to them. This is the first year we have been able to have a priest on faculty with this responsibility. I am also very grateful to Father James Kuroly for his ministry as Rector-President, and pastoral guide at the Prep. He also has fostered that spirit of discernment with the students. All we are asking these young men to do is consider. I use an analogy that is very foreign to their understanding when I say, “We will not Shanghai you.” Immediately they look at me in a strange way. I then explain the idiom of this term which was a way of saying that sailors were swept off the streets for ships and forced into service. This is not what vocation recruitment is about. Also explaining the long road to priesthood gives them some ease, recognizing that no quick decisions need to be made and that there is plenty of time to discern if they are on the right road or not.
One of the difficulties, obviously, we face today is that families are smaller than they have been in the past. And parents are not as willing to encourage their children to follow the priesthood or religious life. Some for the idea that they will not have grandchildren, yet others because they are fearful of the current scandal in the Church. There are, indeed, many reasons why parents can be hesitant to support a vocation for their child. There are extreme cases, and I have experienced them when seminarians who go to the seminary are not welcomed home again. We have had to find rectories that would allow the seminarian to stay with them on holidays and during vacation times. These are rare cases, however. For the most part, I always ask the discerner, “What do your parents think about your becoming a priest?” Most would say that as long as I am happy, they are OK with it. This is the sign of a good parent; the happiness and contentment of their children truly are what motivates good parents to be supportive of their children’s desire to follow a good vocation.
During the tenure of then-Father Kevin Sweeney as vocation director, the Diocese conducted a survey of 1700 juniors and seniors in high schools, and men and women of college age, regarding their understanding of vocations. A series of questions were developed trying to find what variables might influence or deter them from accepting a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. The results were somewhat surprising because the variable that had the most value was that “no one ever asked me.” Truly, this was a deterrent for vocational recruitment. We need to ask, in God’s name as God gives the vocation, and we only prompt the person and help each person to develop that vocation. How important it is that we make sure that young people have the opportunity to respond to God’s call, and do everything we can to facilitate their discernment.
One of the concerns people have is that the sexual abuse crisis will frighten young people away from the priesthood. In their questioning and in their understanding, we have found that they are children of their own generation. They are much wiser in many ways regarding the world’s satiation and the issue of sexuality than previous generations. They see this in perspective and are not afraid of the commitment to celibacy which we discuss during the retreat. However, their frank and easy-going ways allow them to be more open and not afraid to ask the important questions regarding human sexuality, which can deter some from considering a life of total commitment to God in the celibate life.
I promise to pray for all who joined us on the retreat this year, that their discernment process will bring them to a good decision regarding God’s will for them. Please join me as these young men put out into the deep recesses of understanding their desire for a priestly or religious life. Let us pray for them, that God’s will for them will become manifested in good time.
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