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Friday, November 16, 2007

Vocations Increase in the Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph

Originally published in The Catholic Key, Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph

Investment in Vocations Pays Off Big
By Jack Smith Catholic Key Editor

In recent years, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has poured considerable financial, human and spiritual resources into efforts to encourage priestly vocations. And it hasn't been money down the drain.

In the 2003/2004 seminary school year, the diocese had nine seminarians. For 2007/2008, already 24 men are studying for the diocesan priesthood and there are good indications another three will join that number in January, according to Keith Jiron, director of the Office of Vocations.

Money and effort alone can't effect vocations to the priesthood, Jiron explained, "God calls men interiorly." But in 15 years of working in vocation discernment, including some time in the seminary himself, Jiron said, "Every single vocation I know of has always been invited - by a priest, religious or other lay person ... so God's call also speaks through others."

Sending out lots of little calls and building up a "culture of vocations" required beefing up the Vocations Office. While traditionally headed by a priest who also had parish responsibilities, in 2005 Bishop Robert Finn made part-time associate director Father Steve Cook a full-time vocations director without other pastoral responsibilities. Father Cook, who was originally appointed to the office by Bishop Raymond J. Boland, is described by Jiron as "a young dynamic priest on fire for vocations." Several seminarians who spoke with The Key also credit Father Cook's dynamism and openness with encouraging their entry into seminary.

Openness and being approachable are essential attitudes for a modern vocations office, Jiron said, especially as the demographic of aspirants is changing. "Ten years ago a lot more men were entering older," Jiron said, "Today the trend has swung largely to guys right out of high school or who've had some college.

"Young guys are ready to step up sooner," Jiron said, "They're a different breed. They're the JPII generation." In an increasingly relativistic and secular culture, young men inspired by the likes of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa are "wanting to do something great. Wanting to do something better than their role models in society are showing," Jiron said.

While striving for quality candidates, the vocations office still has "wide open arms" to young men on fire for Christ who believe they may have a vocation to the priesthood, but given their age, may not be as certain as older candidates often are, Jiron explained. "The place to test a vocation is in the seminary," Jiron said, "not in a culture where you're not supported. If there are seeds of a vocation, it's going to be stifled in the world."

Planting seeds must start young and involve the whole community, including the bishop, priests, parents, schools and other church ministries, Jiron said. In dioceses where there is a strong culture of vocations, Jiron said, "it's a totally normal part of the culture that if you're a Catholic man you should seriously consider priesthood at some point."

Other ministries involved in building up that culture include ministry to young adults. "The diocese has invested heavily in young adult ministry," Jiron said, "We wanted to build up a lot of places where we could go fishing for these guys."

Having young priests and seminarians involved in activities like the Young Adult Mass, Catholic Challenge Sport and Theology on Tap. Young men can see that "they talk, they breathe, just like me. But they're in the seminary," Jiron said. "Success builds on success," he said, "The more seminarians we have and the more visible they are, the more other young men can see themselves doing it.

"If these guys are longing to do something great, the more models they have the better." And according to Jiron, "The number one best example to get vocations is the bishop. Bishop Finn makes vocations a super-priority. He preaches it. He's very relational. He knows the men who are discerning whether they have a vocation and he treats a potential vocation with respect. He's very personal and sincere." Bishop Finn spends time with each of the young men who attend the numerous vocation events held throughout the year.

The pastors have also been extremely instrumental in increasing vocations to the diocesan priesthood, Jiron said. One example is through their participation in Project Andrew which began in 2004. The program is named for the Apostle Andrew, who brought Peter to Jesus.
Pastors in 2004 and in years since have been asked to bring men who may have the seeds of a vocation to the Project Andrew event. The pastors collectively have been successful in bringing up to 40 men to these events, where a priest and a seminarian give their vocation stories followed by Mass celebrated by Bishop Finn. The event ends with other seminarians, priests and Bishop Finn enjoying fellowship and pizza.

At these events, Bishop Finn encourages the men to be open to a possible vocation and follows up with an invitation to a "Come and See" weekend at the seminary or a priesthood discernment retreat, Jiron explained.

The diocese also sponsors a number of events aimed at fostering a culture of vocations among the youth as well. These events include a 5th Grade Vocation Day and 6th to 8th grade boys camp that's "just a totally fun day of competitive team sports, but the team leaders are seminarians and the day includes Mass," Jiron said.

The 5th Grade Vocation Day includes small group discussions with a priest or sister and a talk with Bishop Finn, followed by Mass, vocation games and lunch. At the end of the day Bishop Finn hands out cards for the children to bring home and discuss with their parents. Any child who thinks they may have a vocation is asked to send the cards back to Bishop Finn who promises to personally pray for each of them.

"Hit them at 11 and 11," is a motto for such an approach, Jiron said. "You plant a seed when they're 11 and pray that seed takes hold when it's time to start thinking in 11th Grade about what to do after high school."

It's very rewarding to be benefiting now with the fruit of many vocations, Jiron explained, "But you have to plant new tree."

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