The courage to encourage

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Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Fr. David Neuschwander was asked about the importance of praying for vocations.

While he by no means discouraged prayer, he responded, “If I would encourage something, I would encourage people to encourage any men in their parish that they see who seem to have an inspiring faith.”

His message was echoed by another member of the diocesan vocations team, Chris Newkirk.

“Have no doubt in the power of prayer,” she said, but she admitted she’s never heard of any stories where a young man felt called to the priesthood because of the vocations prayer said during Mass.

“But I do believe that as we continue to pray for vocations collectively as a diocese, that God is at work in calling and directing hearts to where they will best use their gifts in the church and in the world,” she added.

Fr. Neuschwander spelled out his call for people to have the courage to encourage vocations.

It has been his experience that when parishioners notice a young person among them stand out for the vibrancy of their faith, they come directly to the priest.

Have you seen so and so, they will ask, and wonder if the young person might have a calling from God.

“Don’t go tell the priest,” Fr. Neuschwander said, “Go to him directly. Thank him (or her) and the families for their example and inspiration.”

Encourage any young person in their faith, he advocated.

“It’s not often that they get acknowledged for their faith life,” he said, adding that a maturing life of faith “creates a better disposition to hear a call.”

Referring again to the diocesan prayer for vocations, the priest noted that in large part, its purpose is to empower people to encourage vocations.

To him, human Interaction and encouragement from the community is worth a million prayers.

“We can ask for vocations, and ask and ask,” he said, “But it’s not someone else’s job.”

Fr. Neuschwander also noted that building that general rapport with young people can lead to asking someone if they have ever thought about the priesthood or religious life.

He recognizes the regional culture historically “is not to be too direct,” but again encouraged people who notice and identify faithful and service-minded youths to find the courage to go directly to praise and fortify them.

The power of encounters

As for what opportunities encourage and develop young people’s faith, Fr. Neuschwander noted, “Extreme Faith Camp does a fantastic job of bringing our youth to a real experience of Jesus Christ and the power of the sacraments.”

“We’re all called to holiness,” he said, iterating the invitation to follow Jesus is meant for all, with some receiving the call to follow him more closely through a life of dedication to God and the church.

St. Andrew dinners – although suspended due to the pandemic – have proven to be an effective means of gathering young men to grow in openness to a process of discernment. Possibly even more important, the dinners bring together parents with a session dedicated to educating them about what seminary is and what it isn’t.

“I know that a lot of vocation directors say that the biggest block to a vocation is parents,” Fr. Neuschwander said.

During his own time in discernment and formation, he remembers some classmates whose parents actively discouraged their vocation and were unsupportive.

What he remembers most was how entirely different – in both personalities and interests – the seminarians were.

There were “no common denominators, no one profile” of the kinds of men God calls.

Chris Newkirk encourages parishes to continue communicating the universal call to holiness and a general understanding of discernment of God’s call to all different vocations and ministries.

“Discernment is about truly and deeply understanding where God is calling each person,” she said.

Regarding priestly vocations, she said there is continued evaluation of the man’s suitability for priesthood “at all stages and in all areas” and stressed that parishes need to continue developing a culture of discernment.

“Just like in the Acts of the Apostles, they are first and foremost called forth from their local communities because they are recognized to have the charisms and basic understanding of priestly ministry and service,” Newkirk stated. She observed there are differences in how invitation and discernment looks between rural and urban settings.

As she visits parishes, Newkirk encourages them to establish vocations committees. In parish religious education programs and diocesan Catholic schools, a vocations curriculum is presented in the seventh grade, and the Office of Vocations has continued to provide increasing resources for families to understand the discernment process.

There are “Come and See” weekends, during which a dozen young men have visited seminaries accompanied by Diocese of Superior priests and some of their own fathers as chaperones.

“And don’t forget the everyday opportunities,” Fr Neuschwander said. Serving in Mass ministries, greeting the priest, spending time together, inviting them over for dinner – all these, he said, “increase the opportunities to have encounters with the Lord.”

While the focus of the vocations team in the Diocese of Superior is currently on younger vocations, vocations director Fr. Tom Thompson affirmed they are open to second-career priests, noting the two most recent ordinations, Fr. Rich Rhinehart and Fr. Joe Stefancin.

“But the principle is not to admit anyone beyond age 45,” Fr. Thompson said, “Because the cost of formation versus the time serving presents a challenge.”

He added there have been international inquiries to study for the priesthood with this diocese; however, due also to cost, they have not accepted them. It has been more cost-effective to bring already ordained priests who are coming recommended by their bishop, and with some pastoral experience, to serve parishioners’ needs.

Vocational brand

The latest project of the vocations team, Called North, has had its importance heightened under the COVID-19 circumstances.

With a website, Instagram and Facebook pages, Called North is “our business card,” as Fr. Adam Laski described. He noted available resources are being added and updated as the team hones in on what it looks like to discern a vocation for the Diocese of Superior.

Of Called North, Newkirk said, “It is our intent to provide a portal for priestly vocations that will help support young men on their initial discernment journey, understand the process and ‘meet’ the priests and vocations team.”

Newkirk noted the videos and testimonies shared by diocesan priests highlight the joy of the priesthood and seek to engage young men by giving them the opportunity to connect with what the diocesan priesthood looks like.

Virtual connections have also been made through an initiative spurred on by the pandemic shutdown.
Fr. Patrick McConnell, with the help of seminarian Isaiah Schick, “hatched an idea that would not have happened without coronavirus,” Fr. Laski shared.

While he was quarantining in late spring in Medford, one of the local young men who is openly discerning was also home from college studying remotely. He was able to join the priests and seminarian occasionally for night prayer and other interactions. It prompted the small group to expand their invitation to build relationships and support one another through weekly online video calls, something that all have found enriching and beneficial.

These gatherings have become a staple relationship-building tool as well as a means of ongoing discernment. Fr. Laski will be accompanying two discerners from this group on an upcoming visit to St. Francis de Sales seminary in Milwaukee.

“It’s a great thing for people to know,” Fr. Laski said. “We’ve got young men who are regularly connected in and are discerning and are open.”

For more information, visit callednorth.org and find them on Facebook and Instagram as Called North.

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