From The Star Ledger
BY Peggy McGlone
Thomas Quinn was working as an oncology nurse at Hackensack Medical Center when Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at Giants Stadium in 1995.
John Carlos DeSousa was a funeral director in Elizabeth who left work early that rainy October day to attend Mass with almost 83,000 others.
Joe Mancini was working part time as a youth minister in his home parish, also in Elizabeth, during the last papal visit.
All three men say John Paul's presence was a crucial milepost in their journey to becoming Roman Catholic priests.
"It confirmed what I felt at the time ... confirmed in me what I felt God was calling me to do," said Mancini about the Mass at Giants Stadium.
One of the greatest challenges for the American Catholic Church is recruiting the next generation of priests.
While no statistics are available to document the connection between papal visits and subsequent vocations, the Newark Archdiocese said it saw an increase in candidates for the priesthood after John Paul's visit 12 years ago.
In addition, many candidates entering the seminary say their decision to enter the priesthood was motivated in part by attending a papal Mass or having an audience with the pope.
Pope Benedict XVI will meet with hundreds of seminarians and other youth today in St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. Those involved in soliciting vocations are hopeful his influence will match that of his predecessor.
"I think it can change lives, change spiritual lives. It could produce enough fervor or zeal that someone on the fence can be pushed over," said Monsignor Thomas Nydegger, vice rector and director of formation at Immaculate Conception Seminary in South Orange of the pope's visit.
Sometimes that push can be immediate, as was the case with Mancini, who entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in South Orange within a year of John Paul II's visit. But for Quinn, John Paul's influence played out in his life over the years.
Quinn's connection to John Paul dates back to 1979 and the new pontiff's first American visit, when he celebrated Mass in Boston for more than 100,000.
Quinn, who describes the Boston Mass as a "joyful, epic event," wasn't able to attend the 1995 Giants Stadium celebration. But he remembers looking out the window that afternoon and seeing the Meadowlands lit up in the distance.
"I was taking care of my patients, but I was aware that the Holy Father was celebrating Mass," he said.
The next week, a colleague who attended the event brought Quinn the program, which featured a prayer for vocations on the back cover.
"I remember looking at that and saying, oh, yeah, I'm definitely going to consider that," said Quinn, 51, who was ordained in May 2005, almost 10 years after John Paul's visit.
"I wasn't looking for a sign, clouds parting or something extraordinary happening," said Quinn, now parochial vicar at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ridgewood. "It's not razzle-dazzle. It's the whisper of God in your own soul."
Nydegger described many of the students at Immaculate Conception Seminary as "John Paul II seminarians" who grew up during the papacy of a highly visible and well-traveled pontiff.
"Definitely John Paul influenced many of the seminarians and young priests we have," said Stephen Saffron, 29, who is in his third year at Immaculate Conception and on track for a 2009 ordination. "I don't know if it was just his visit to New Jersey, but in general his entire pontificate influenced (us). It was the clarity of his message."
DeSousa was so inspired by the papal Mass at Giants Stadium that he traveled to Toronto for World Youth Day. He said he was amazed by the enthusiasm of the other young Catholics he met.
"That was significant for me," he said. "Seeing the energy, the love. Everyone felt the same."
"What John Paul did ... for the younger members of the church is to make us aware of what it is, how much it has to offer and how much the church needs us," he said.
DeSousa and Saffron will be at the seminary event today with the pope. Saffron said the event, coming a month before he is ordained a deacon, is an important step toward his ordination next year.
"It's exciting. I'm meeting him a the beginning of my ministry, I'm looking forward to listening to what he has to say," he said.
Benedict will conclude his first trip to the United States with a Mass at Yankee Stadium tomorrow, an event Mancini, a die-hard Mets fan, will attend.
"I hope others who are in the situation I was in 1995 might find in Benedict's visit some of the same confirmation," said Mancini, who was ordained in 2001 and is executive director of youth and young adult ministries for the Archdiocese of Newark. "We need to be in presence of God. And the pope can make that real for us."
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