Fr. Gregory Ihm, vocations director for the Diocese of Madison, was the keynote speaker at the 2017 Fall Conference. Fr. Ihm discussed vocations to the priesthood and religious life — his personal story, experiences as the vocations director and more — and he also emphasized the mystery and sacredness of the liturgy. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Despite the wintry weather driving conditions, St. Joseph’s Church in Rice Lake was brimming for the Diocese of Superior’s 55th Annual Fall Conference on Oct. 27.

This year’s theme was, “Here I am, Lord.” Bishop James P. Powers concelebrated the Mass with 12 priests, including the keynote speaker, Fr. Gregory Ihm, vocations director for the Diocese of Madison.

The homily was preached by Fr. John Anderson, pastor in New Richmond and Erin Prairie. He engaged the audience with a personal story about roundabouts.

“There are moments we’re going around in circles, when we have lost some of the vision,” he said.

Referring back to the first reading, Samuel’s call from the Old Testament, Fr. Anderson used the roundabout image to explain that sometimes the going in circles and the challenges are placed in our path to help us hear the call again.

The call, he said, comes through prayer and through others. “Samuel knew to listen to the call of God because Eli told him so,” he said. “We are charged, challenged and called to be those through whom others are called.”

Conceding that listening to the voice of God “sometimes takes us out of our comfort zones and into a new place,” Fr. Anderson thanked those present for their service. He concluded, “I challenge you to newness, to be open to the call again today.”

Following Mass, Fr. Ihm began his keynote address with the Angelus prayer, which comprised the outline for his talk.

Fr. Ihm grew up on a dairy farm in a committed Catholic family. He said of his parents, “The faith directed and guided their choices.” Into his teenage years, young Fr. Ihm encountered God in the nature surrounding the farm and was aided by his older siblings’ good examples and group of friends.

At a TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) retreat the summer before his senior year of high school, he had a very powerful experience of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. “A presence that demanded a response — the surrender of my own desires, dreams, hopes,” as he explained it. “When we hear God’s call, it needs to be accepted and acted on.”

Fr. Ihm emphasized one cannot discern the priesthood, or religious life, apart from living the life. He said, “My discernment happened for the eight years following the call I heard.” Making a parallel with the vocation to marriage, Fr. Ihm iterated it is hard to discern one’s future spouse outside of a relationship.

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived of the Holy Spirit. Fr. Ihm stressed the importance of acknowledging God takes the initiative, seeking a relationship with each person, finding them wherever they are: “We can be quick to say: who, me? No, send someone more qualified.”

Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to Your Word. Fr. Ihm addressed various things that can keep one from God and from being present to Him with one’s whole person. He stressed the necessity of daily contact with God.

“If we have more to do, then we need to pray more. How does our schedule reflect our presence to the Lord?” Returning his reflection to Mary, he pointed out that it was her docility and total yes to God’s plan, even when not fully understood, that allowed Mary to be such a fruitful instrument in God’s hands.

The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. Fr. Ihm challenged listeners to commit to receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation monthly and to a regular examination of conscience.

He emphasized one’s own relationship with God and example will be what makes the difference in ministry. “No program is going to transform people’s hearts,” he said. “They are only as good as those who run them. Love those you serve and teach with the heart of Jesus Christ.”

Speaking on how and where to find more vocations to the priesthood and religious life, Fr. Ihm encouraged everyone to simply ask the question, “Have you ever thought of being a priest/sister?” He acknowledged how countercultural giving one’s yes to God is – even just to the discernment process – and the importance of being bold in inviting and supporting young people in their openness to God’s call.

“We have to do the liturgy well,” he continued. “Christ makes himself present through the Holy Liturgy; looking at the Eucharist, we see the heart of the Father poured out for us. We need to awaken a desire for the supernatural and for mystery,” which happens through the rituals of the Mass.

Fr. Ihm ended his session by giving the audience a chance to ask questions; one listener asked about the Extraordinary Form, or the Latin Mass. It is not the only way to reverently celebrate the Mass, Fr. Ihm commented, but in his experience, young people are drawn to the mystery of the tradition and are interested in the Latin Mass.

He answered another question by acknowledging a resurgence in vocations to the religious life will definitely be founded on a high standard and upholding of the sacrament of marriage.

“If, as a kid, I see my parents’ sacrifices to live a faith-filled life, that builds up my own faith and the importance I give to it,” he added.

“Ritual is powerful,” Fr. Ihm responded to another question on the liturgy. “Do the liturgy well, do it beautifully. Ritual launches us into the mystery, even made visible when incense is used.”

He encouraged the audience to “pray before you pray,” with a heart ready to receive. When the priest experiences the open and hungry hearts of his congregation, he responds with his own increased fervor, Fr. Ihm explained.

In response to his own question, “Do you want to know who the best vocations directors are?”

“Parents of priests,” he concluded.