What Went Right?

Author: Michael F. Flach


by Michael F. Flach

God has been very good to us," said Father James R. Gould, vocations director for the Arlington diocese for the past 10 years. "We've been very blessed." He is speaking, of course, about the abundance of vocations to the priesthood in the Arlington diocese, an abundance that has the vocations directors of many religious orders, dioceses, and even the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, asking for his secrets.

Arlington Bishop John R. Keating will ordain 10 men to the priesthood on May 20, a record number for the 20 year-old diocese, and an unusually high number for a diocese with only 275,000 total Catholics. The diocese currently has 42 seminarians in formation. Following the May ordination, nearly 60 percent of the 126 active diocesan clergy will have been ordained by Bishop Keating since he was installed as Arlington's second bishop in August 1983. "You get a chance to see the future," he said. "These guys who are getting ordained in 1995 will retire in 2045. When they retire, they will be the examples for the priests of the 22nd century."

Among the 188 dioceses across the United States, this small Virginia diocese ranks among the top 20 in the number of seminarians, according to the 1994 Official Catholic Directory. Large archdioceses such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia tend to dominate the list, but Arlington-with only 60 parishes spread across 21 counties of Northern Virginia-fares well against dioceses its own size.

Of those 60 parishes, only 42 are now staffed by diocesan priests. "We'll ordain 22 men in the next 14 months," Father Gould pointed out. "The real problem will be finding 22 beds for them."

Control of admissions

Some critics argue that Arlington accepts candidates that other dioceses reject. Father Gould responds to this charge with two points. "The perception is that Arlington-and all traditional dioceses-will take anyone," he said. "The reality is that only six out of 42 seminarians (studying for Arlington) are from outside the Northern Virginia area.

"The perception I get is that men are being denied places (in seminary formation) because vocations directors or vocations teams are keeping them out because of their traditional views," Father Gould adds. "The so-called vocations shortage may be more artificial than we realize. There are some vocations directors keeping good candidates out. When questioned about the ordination of women or married clergy, if the candidates answer in support of the Church, they are often rejected."

"Much time and effort is spent evaluating the seminary formation programs," Father Gould points out. "Maybe we should look at the step before that, to the office or person that recommends them to go into the formation programs."

"Neither the bishops, nor the people, know who comes to the door and is turned away," he observes. "The hidden component in this equation is the bridge between the candidates and the formation program."

Bishop Keating's recent decision to maintain the diocesan policy allowing only male altar servers makes Arlington one of only two US dioceses with such a policy. (The other is Lincoln, Nebraska. It is interesting to note that Lincoln, too, is enjoying a boom in priestly vocations; with only 82,000 registered Catholics, that diocese has 44 seminarians in formation.) The bishop has come under direct personal attack by local members of Call to Action (CTA), a national organization that promotes, among other things, the ordination of women and married clergy.

CTA members are now leading a boycott against the bishop's annual $3.5 million fundraising campaign. That effort will have a substantial impact on the question of vocations, since more than $700,000 of the diocesan budget is earmarked annually for seminary education.

"One of the top priorities of the Diocese of Arlington is to identify and nurture potential vocations to the priesthood, and it is a special gift of God that our corps of diocesan priests has grown over 50 percent in the past decade," said the diocesan chancellor, Father Robert J. Rippy, in a November letter to priests explaining the diocesan policy on altar servers. "One of the best expressions-and reinforcements-of an early inclination to the priesthood is often found in a young boy's voluntary offer to assist the priest at the altar, where the possibility of a role-model scenario is clearly present." He added: "Perhaps that might explain why over 85 percent of our priests formerly were altar servers."

The vocations program

In his first year as vocations director, Father Gould told the Arlington Priests' Council that he was hoping each year to see ten new seminarians studying for the diocese. Using that figure as a standard, the diocese has since had ten successful years. Arlington usually sends eight to 12 new candidates to seminaries each year, reaching a high of 24 a few years ago. Nine men entered the seminary last fall to study at one of three institutions: Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Maryland; St. Charles Borromeo in Overbrook, Pennsylvania; or the North American College in Rome. Eight of these men are local products.

Those nine men represent the "finalists" from a group of 54 who began the application process. "That's not counting other inquiries, people calling for information," Father Gould cautions. "I sat down and talked with 54 people who were interested in studying for this diocese."

When Father Gould began his vocational duties, he anticipated that 50 percent of all new seminarians would make it through to ordination. In the decade since that time, the percentage has grown closer to 85, including those who have followed their calling into the priesthood through various religious orders.

When interviewing potential candidates, Father Gould stresses four key ingredients that are essential for future priests: prayer, hard work, generosity, and sacrifice. "If you have a priest or religious who doesn't pray, basically what you have is a glorified social worker," he said. "We don't need priests who are lazy. They're difficult to work with and we don't need them in the pulpits or the classrooms."

"This is a demanding society we live in," he explains. "The people have a right to know what we're going to give them-our minds and hearts in the sacramental service of the Church. They have a right to know what we're giving up-marriage, families, and economic wealth- and all the temptations of the Lord in the desert."

Why here?

Arlington's success in producing young priests, at a time when so many other American dioceses are struggling, raises an obvious question. What is this diocese doing right?

Local priests offer a variety of answers. Some say it is unwavering allegiance to the Holy Father and Church teaching on the part of Arlington clergy and laity. Others pinpoint parish-level efforts, such as perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Still others talk of the individual efforts by many diocesan priests who extend themselves to help young men and women remain open to the Lord's will.

"It's the guidance and example of the bishop, priests, deacons, and religious of the diocese, complemented by the great encouragement of the lay people," Father Gould believes. "They all reflect the family of faith which is alive and well in Northern Virginia."

One ingredient Father Gould is always quick to mention is the power of prayer. "A big factor is the prayers and intentions of the Poor Clares and of the St. Therese Vocations Society," he said. The Poor Clares, a cloistered order of women who regularly pray for the strength of the priesthood, have been a strong presence in this diocese since 1977; the St. Therese Society was established in 1992.

"Initiative means everything,"

Father Gould said. "I tell that to all the seminarians. If you have an idea, we'll see if we can run with it. The St. Therese Society was a good idea. It's worked out very well."

The St. Therese Society is comprised of people who, like the group's namesake, St. Therese of Lisieux, have made a commitment to pray for priestly and religious vocations. Members have pledged to offer daily prayers for diocesan vocations and for the priests currently serving in Arlington, and to make a Holy Hour each week for increased vocations. The society has quickly grown to almost 300 members, with new members joining at a rate of two per week.

The local prayer campaign reflects Pope John Paul II's recent request for Catholics throughout the world to set aside a day each year to pray for their priests. In his 1995 Holy Thursday letter to the world's priests, the Pope suggested that the feast of the Sacred Heart, which falls on June 23 this year, should be the time when most dioceses mark the "Day for the Sanctification of Priests." "I express my hope that this day will help priests to live in ever greater conformity to the heart of the Good Shepherd," the Pontiff wrote, in the letter released by the Vatican April 7.

A steady campaign

In addition to the quiet campaign of prayer, the vocations office has several well- established public programs to promote interest in religious life. For instance, in March the annual vocations retreats held for both men and women. Both retreats attracted record numbers: 34 men and 22 women.

All third- and fourth-year seminarians receive summer assignments- ranging from parish work, to ministry to the poor, to studying Spanish in Mexico City or at the diocesan mission in the Dominican Republic-that bring them into close contact with youngsters who might be interested in a priestly vocation. The annual Altar Boys' Picnic is a popular event, at which the young boys spend an afternoon fishing, swimming, and playing softball with diocesan priests and seminarians. Another youth- oriented event is the annual Eighth Grade Vocations Mass celebrated by Bishop Keating. This is usually followed by a program that introduces the youths to various religious orders.

Father Gould is always on the lookout for new ideas to promote vocations and to encourage interest in the priesthood. This year, he hopes to begin a program he calls the Vianney Club. A follow-up to the vocations retreat, it will be a support group for men interested in the priesthood. Another annual event is the Mass of Thanksgiving for parents who have sons or daughters in religious life. It is a special time for the diocese to say "thanks" for the example, encouragement, sacrifice, and love that parents exhibit to their children.

Although he prefers to distribute the credit among others, much of Arlington's success can be attributed to the example of Father Gould. A native of Des Moines, Iowa, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh on May 9,1981. Father Gould is a tireless promoter of religious life, who often visits Catholic grade schools or neighboring parishes when not attending to the pastoral needs of his own parish, St. Agnes, in Arlington. "I'll go to anybody who'll listen to me talk," he admits.

Concerned that most children do not know what a priest actually does, Father Gould once told the Washington Post that he offers "slice-of-life stories" in the classroom. He often singles out an individual boy and talks about what his day might be like if he were a parish priest, a prison chaplain, or a schoolteacher.

Before he gets to the boys, however, Father Gould talks to the girls. He describes the variety of work available for nuns, as inner-city social workers, foreign missionaries, and contemplatives. Those words must be having an effect. The number of women from the Arlington diocese who have entered religious life over the past 10 years is remarkable. Most have entered three communities: the Poor Clares, the Daughters of St. Paul, or the Dominican Sisters of Nashville. By no small coincidence, these three are the most "traditional" communities of women religious in the diocese.

The Poor Clares and the Daughters of St. Paul were invited to the diocese by Bishop Welsh. Mother Miriam reports that 11 women have entered her monastery in Alexandria since the Poor Clares first arrived there in 1977. Eight of the entries are from the Arlington diocese. The Daughters of St. Paul recently doubled the size of their Media and Book Center in the heart of fashionable Old Town, Alexandria. Sister Joan Paula said 10 local women have joined the community since it arrived in the diocese in 1982.

Late vocations

Arlington recently instituted a rule that it would not accept new seminarians over the age of 35. But like other American dioceses, it has attracted its share of "late vocations." These men are often college graduates who have spent several years in secular careers.

Among the men scheduled for ordination in May is Mark Moretti, a former State Department security officer, who at the age of 36 is completing his seminary studies at Mount St. Mary's. "It took me about 15 years to make up my mind," said Moretti, who served as a bodyguard to former secretaries of state Edmund Muskie, Alexander Haig, and George Schultz. "But that call from God was always there."

When he entered the seminary four years ago, Moretti said he had expected to be one of the older students. Instead, he said, "I'm more or less in the middle of the pack," studying with men whose ages range from early twenties well into the forties.

Two diocesan priests-Father Jerome Daly and Father John Cregan-were recently appointed pastors. Both had entered the seminary after distinguished careers in the US military. Others have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and IBM before entering religious life. "I was not thinking at all about being a priest at Notre Dame," reports Father Jack Riley, recalling his undergraduate years in South Bend. "I was totally immersed in watching and making movies."

Riley graduated in 1983 with a degree in motion-picture production and direction. After graduation, he took a job in McLean, with a company that did film and video production for the Church. There he met Father Gould, who was serving as associate pastor at nearby St. John Church. "His life as an associate pastor caught my attention," Riley said. "He was really happy."

Father Kevin Gallagher, Riley's friend at Notre Dame who was ordained for the Arlington diocese in 1987, recalls how he hoped his friend might pursue the priesthood, but he didn't actively push him into it. "I knew Jack was living in the Arlington area and there were plenty of good priests who could influence him," Father Gallagher said. When Riley stopped by Gallagher's seminary dorm in 1986 to announce his decision to become a priest, Gallagher was watching a Notre Dame football game. He got the news from a note on his door. "I was the only one surprised at the news," Father Gallagher said. Once again, the two Notre Dame graduates found themselves classmates, this time for a year at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary before Gallagher was ordained.

Christendom and CREDO

Christendom College, in Front Royal, Virginia, also has become a hotbed of priestly vocations. At least six graduates have been ordained: Fathers Francis Peffley, Carroll Oubre, Kevin Walsh, Mike Taylor, Thomas Vander Woude, and Denis Donahue. Two others will be ordained in 1995: Vincent Bork to the priesthood and Matthew Zuberbueler to the diaconate.

Christendom, with its strong commitment to orthodox Catholic instruction, attracts students from across the country who are serious about their faith. Once at the Front Royal campus, they are exposed to the natural beauty of the Virginia countryside, as well as the dedication and loyalty of the diocesan clergy.

"Spiritually, the daily Mass and rosary at Christendom strengthened my spiritual life and provided me the discipline which has served me well," Father Peffley said. "The priests at Christendom were excellent examples of the priesthood and helped inspire me in my vocation."

"Words cannot express the impact that four years at Christendom College had on my own priestly vocation," Father Oubre recounts. "Although the college supports every type of state of life, as one discerning a call to priesthood, I felt a growing and strengthening of the vocation during my study there."

Father Donahue, who is originally from Michigan, spent three semesters at Christendom studying theology before he entered the seminary. "There are probably other young men throughout the United States currently in the same position I was in 10 years ago: having a vocation to the priesthood yet lacking the proper understanding and conviction to make the commitment." he said. "In my own life, this spiritual vacuum was filled by attending Christendom College."

Father Cornelius O'Brien, pastor of one of the largest parishes in the diocese, has served as chaplain at Christendom for many years. Father O'Brien is one of the co-founders of CREDO, an international society of Catholic priests dedicated to the faithful English translation of the liturgy. The native of Ireland has become a mentor to many younger diocesan priests, including Father Gould. These two form the core of a group of priests who meet every Thursday to fish, philosophize, and encourage each other in their priestly vocation.

Starting at home

When Father Gould visits local churches, he tells parishioners that "the real vocations directors live at home." Parents are the best source of encouragement for any young person to become a priest or nun, he insists. One common thread among local families with religious vocations is that the children are exposed to priests and religious at an early age.

Tom and Mary Ellen Vander Woude drove their family 30 miles from their home in Manassas to St. Michael Church in Annandale once a week- because of that parish's Holy Hour on

Wednesday evenings and because of the growing friendship between Father Jerome Fasano, a young associate pastor, and the Vander Woude's seven sons. Father Fasano is now pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Great Falls. The Vander Woude's oldest son, Tom, is the associate pastor.

Bob and Gerri Laird, members of St. Lawrence Parish in Alexandria, also credit the influence of priests and religious in developing religious vocations in their two oldest children. Robby Laird now is studying to be a Dominican priest after first entering the seminary for the Arlington diocese. Cindy Laird is in her second year of formation with the Daughters of St. Paul in Boston. The Lairds, who both work for the diocesan Office for Family Life, frequently invite priests to their home for dinner.

"We've always left the door open," Bob says. "We exposed our children to religious vocations, but we never pushed them." The Lairds would make subtle hints, however. Robby thought he would become a physics teacher, like his father had been, while attending high school. "I told him to go into a field where there was a shortage," Bob said. "Of course, I was thinking 'priesthood,' but I left it at that."

"Most boys grow up today without really knowing a priest," said Dave Pollard, a member of St. Ambrose Parish in Annandale. "They see priests at Mass, but that's it. They're not as active in Catholic youth activities so they don't spend time around priests." Dave and his wife Ilse, both converts to the faith, have two sons who entered religious life. Father Marcus Pollard, who completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is associate pastor at St. John the Evangelist Parish in nearby Warrenton. Chris, who graduated from the University of Chicago, is now studying for the Arlington diocese at the North American College in Rome.

The Pollards, like the Vander Woudes, remember Father Fasano's encouragement, which they believe was partially responsible for keeping their sons open to a religious vocation. "I don't know what parents can do to encourage a vocation," Dave said. "I think if I had encouraged my sons, they would have rejected it. So much of it is in the hands of the Lord. Maybe the best you can do is pray for your kids to follow God's will."

Michael F. Flach is editor and general manager of the Arlington Catholic Herald. Also contributing to this report were Paul Miller and A.M. Pacia.

This article appeared in the May 1995 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061. Published monthly except bimonthly August/September at $39.95 per year.