Catholic Herald staff
“Prepare Ye the Way” was the theme of a professional development day with presenter Fr. David Neuschwander Oct. 8 in Hayward.
Speaking to parish and catechetical leaders, the priest, who is also a member of the diocesan vocations team, spoke on how to prepare the way for young people to be open to God’s call.
The universal vocation to “perfection”
While the event had a focus on the priesthood and religious vocations ahead of National Vocations Awareness Week (the first week of November), Fr. Neuschwander’s starting point was “what we all are called to.”
“The universal vocation, the universal call for everyone, is to holiness – or love, or being the best version of ourselves, or prayer and discipleship. Whatever you want to call it, we are all called to relationship with God,” he said.
Commenting on Jesus’ call in Scripture to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Fr. Neuschwander clarified the Greek term used and how some of the meaning gets lost in translation.
It does not mean “perfect” in the sense of flawless, rather that “something could do what it was supposed to do,” he said, and gave the example of a hammer that can pound in a nail.
“They would say that’s a perfect hammer. It doesn’t matter if it just came off the shelf at the store, or if it’s the hammer lying in the 5 gallon bucket under my dad’s workbench that’s kind of rusted and has all sorts of nicks in it and a sticky handle, a little plaster and a little paint. That hammer is just as perfect as the other one if they can both put in a nail.”
God isn’t looking for people who don’t ever make mistakes, but people who respond to the call he is asking of them and fulfill that as best they can and in relationship with him – that is being perfect, the priest affirmed.
Priesthood and the seminary process
From that starting point, there is the question of the path to which some are called. The speaker’s second point transitioned into understanding the seminary and seminary life.
“There are lots of misconceptions out there about what seminary is and what seminary life is like, even amongst so many of our faithful, holy people,” he said.
Fr. Neuschwander explains the seminary with the analogy that seminary “is like dating God; a training and trial period.”
He shared his personal experience of so many asking when he knew he was going to become a priest, assuming it was before he ever even entered the seminary. His response is that he didn’t know he was for sure going to become a priest until the day of his ordination to the transitional diaconate.
Another distinction the priest makes is between college and graduate seminary. Formerly known as minor and major seminary, clarification is needed as the minor denotation often included high school seminary, which is now almost non-existent.
Adding some numbers to the conversation, Fr. Neuschwander shared the statistic that only one-third of men move on from college seminary to the graduate stage.
“Our rector always said the sign of a healthy seminary is lots of guys coming in and lots of guys going out – that’s the point. To find where God’s call (is) and we rejoice when they find that – whatever it might be,” he added.
The focus of college seminary, in Neuschwander’s estimation, is on the discernment of the call, whereas the focus of graduate seminary becomes, “I think this is what God is calling me to; how do I become the best priest possible?” He clarified that a number of men still discern out at this stage.
In other words, college seminary aims to form solid Catholic men in the virtues, spirituality and holiness, and graduate seminary aims to form and equip those men feeling God has called them for the priesthood.
One other track addressed was the pre-theology program the presenter explains as the “in-between” for men who have a four-year degree or are older and need a year or two of human and spiritual formation before being admitted to the major or graduate seminary.
Through each stage, four pillars of formation are intentionally pursued: intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and human. There are monthly meetings with an advisor with the goal of the men being formed in a balanced and holistic life.
Laying the foundations
To start, Fr. Neuschwander noted that for any man who expresses an interest in the priesthood and approaches a vocations team member, the required first question will be, “Is this man living an intentional life of prayer and discipleship?”
When people ask the priest what they can do to help foster vocations and openness, he said, “The No. 1 thing I tell people is to encourage young people – in this case young men – just encourage them in the faith.
“When you see them at church and all the ladies say, ‘It’s so great to see Johnny up there, and he’s so prayerful,’ go up and tell him.”
Rather than talk about the young people’s involvement, share it with them and let them know the impression their practice of the faith is making. “That’s so encouraging for a young person to hear,” Fr. Neuschwander affirms.
In his own story, it was a number of random people over time who directly approached and asked him about the priesthood that led him to seriously question it.
“It is hard for people to reach out … but that’s our call as a church,” he said, underlining the importance for adults to try and get comfortable interacting with and getting to know the young people in their parishes.
“If we can’t reach out to somebody who’s with us at church, how on earth are we ever going to do what Jesus did and reach out to somebody who’s not (at church)?” Fr. Neuschwander questioned.
He noted that encouragement doesn’t have to specifically or only be directed to a dedicated vocation, but the more encouraged young people are in in their faith, the more accepted they feel in the Church community, the closer to God they will grow and “the more they will hear God’s call.”
After the point about encouragement, Fr. Neuschwander added how important it is, and was for him, “to see other people living out their vocations well.
“I am inspired to be a better priest when I see a husband or wife, mom or dad, live that vocation out well,” he stated.
“To live out their own faith intentionally, and to share that faith is extremely encouraging for young people to see … and can lead to them wanting to follow God’s call, whatever that is, in their own life.”
Third, he addressed someone’s concern of not knowing what to say or how to relate the message and engage young people in the realm of vocations: Point them to helpful resources, such as the recently released – and continually improving – diocesan vocation website, CalledNorth.org. The site includes information and some links and contact information for the Vocations Office is available for further inquiry.
Encouraging youth to venture down “the rabbit hole of YouTube,” where they can encounter many great Catholic speakers, priests and nuns, he says can also be helpful.
Blocks or fears on the path of discerning a priestly or religious vocation was another aspect Fr. Neuschwander presented on at the professional development day.
“No. 1 block,” he said, “is parents, because they don’t understand what that process looks like and they’re often afraid of it.
“Sadly, some of the first people a young person is willing to open up to raise immediate objections to the thought of priesthood or religious life.”
Fear of commitment and celibacy were also talked about as obstacles.
Experiences and encounters
Twenty-two young men have participated in diocesan-sponsored visits to either college or graduate seminaries in the last 12 months.
“So far every, single, one has been extremely appreciative of the experience,” he said, adding that it shattered so many misconceptions they had – about seminarians and seminary life.
“They have all walked away very encouraged by the experience – even if they don’t feel called. The experience of the faith lived out together in community with a bunch of other young men their age, open to God’s call, has been encouraging for all of them to be willing to be open to whatever that call of God is and to seek holiness in their lives now.”
Those personal experiences will have a ripple effect with their parents and other adults in the parish, and they can attest that the focus wasn’t a pressure for them to join.
From his most recent visit, with seven young men, to the college seminary at St. Mary’s University in Winona, three insights stood out to Fr. Neuschwander.
One, that the seminary was not separate from the university campus. Immaculate Heart of Mary is on campus, a major is studied and classes and meals are shared with other university students. They were surprised the seminary wasn’t removed from the university.
Second was that seminarians were normal.
“In the back of people’s mind … they all have to be a little weird,” Fr. Neuschwander noted. The young men saw that seminarians were athletic and had a variety of interests.
Lastly, “they all shared how encouraging it is to be with a bunch of young men their age seeking holiness, seeking God. Being able to pray together, play sports together, just spend time together and how encouraged they felt in their faith,” he said.
Fr. Neuschwander added that this leads to their own desire to live out their faith well and in a supportive environment.
The priest acknowledged “the formation for our youth going on in the diocese is just phenomenal;” the youngest ages are formed through Totus Tuus on the diocesan level. Extreme Faith Camp is available for middle school students, and Discipleship weekends, among other opportunities, are open to high school students. These experiences also offer youths exposure to others open to God’s call and encounters with young priests or religious.
Called North – callednorth.org – is the Diocese’s premier resource for priestly vocational discernment.
Dates for future seminary visits are available as well as tabs with information on the call, the seminarian, the priest, the process and the Diocese of Superior.