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Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Promoting call to the priesthood"

Albany Diocese sending men considering life as priests to papal event

From Albany Times Union
By MARC PARRY, Staff writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

GREEN ISLAND -- The young men who live in this house love the Yankees and Giants. They've stocked the refrigerator with a case of Molson Golden. They rib each other about their Irish culinary skills.
Brian Kennedy, 25, gets needled as a pretty good Italian cook "for an Irish guy."

"Usually Irish guys just burn things," jokes Brian Slezak, 24.

This Green Island home next to the Hudson River might be a small college dorm. It isn't. The block-shaped, red-brick building is a former Catholic rectory. And the men who live here are all preparing for the priesthood.

Saturday, the vocation to which these men feel called will come under an international spotlight as Pope Benedict XVI rallies young people and seminarians at an event in Yonkers. The pontiff is expected to encourage vocations during the appearance. Catholic dioceses across New York are using the Pope's visit to promote the priesthood.

In Albany, the official making that pitch is the Rev. James Walsh. The 51-year-old priest, a former Mazda RX7-driving engineer who nearly married twice, is the public face of clerical recruiting in the 14-county diocese. Walsh keeps typed lists of collar prospects in an office decorated with Notre Dame and Giants football helmets. He also runs the St. Isaac Jogues House of Discernment in Green Island, where priests-to-be live before entering seminary.

Walsh is taking more than a dozen "discerners," men considering the priesthood, to a weekend retreat structured around the Pope's New York appearances. About 85 discerners from across the state will gather at a Long Island seminary to talk about the priesthood. "It's an opportunity for these guys to see that there are other talented and gifted guys who are thinking about this -- that they're not in isolation," Walsh said.

The shortage of men thinking about the priesthood is a problem in the Albany Diocese, as it is elsewhere. About 411 priests were available for liturgies in 1980, including priests from religious orders like the Franciscans and "active retired priests."

Today, about 145 priests are available for full-time parish ministry service in the 165-parish diocese. Jack Manning, director of pastoral planning, projects it will fall to 95 by 2015.

Walsh describes two obstacles as "killers" that depress the numbers of new priests.

One, a culture he feels defines success in material, not spiritual, terms. And two, families are smaller, which can leave parents less supportive of their children pursuing the priesthood.

Add to that the fear discerners can feel when they consider the permanence of priestly vows. Some speak of a tug they might wrestle with for years before mustering the courage to become priests.

Rendell Torres, a seminarian now doing an internship-style "pastoral year" at Blessed Sacrament Church in Albany, came to it only after giving up a career as an RPI professor.

The Berkeley-educated 36-year-old had envisioned the benchmarks of professional success: tenure, research funding, publishing, attracting lots of students, becoming well-known. He didn't find them very exciting.

Though his parents were supportive, his mother feared he'd be lonely and find the priesthood difficult, especially after the clergy sex abuse scandal.

"She knew it was hard to be a priest publicly -- that people might look down just because you have a collar on," Torres said.

In 2002, still just considering the idea, Torres traveled to Toronto to see John Paul II. He found unexpected inspiration in a homily that encouraged young men to pursue the priesthood. "Do not be afraid to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross!" the Pope said. "At difficult moments in the church's life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent."

Slezak speaks in similar terms of helping a church that "needs good men to pick up the task."

The Rotterdam Junction resident got on Walsh's radar as a high school student at Bishop Gibbons in Schenectady. Walsh invited him to discernment meetings after someone in the school suggested the teen as a possible candidate. But by the time he got to the College of Saint Rose, Slezak began to doubt the church. He dated and drank like a typical college student. He also delved into a deeper study of Catholicism.

The result was a complete turnaround. While friends abandoned the church, Slezak fell in love with it. In January, he began to "take some time off" from a two-year relationship with a woman.

Now he's discerning whether he is called to the priesthood or marriage. He prays the rosary and tries to attend daily Mass, where he sticks out both for being young and 6 foot 3 inches tall. He maintains a perpetual conversation with God, turning the car radio off to talk with him on the way to his job as a substitute teacher in the Scotia-Glenville district. He speaks of having one set of "secular friends" and another of discerners, seminarians and priests.

To his mother's surprise, he is 95 percent sure he wants to become one himself.

"I've always wanted to be part of something greater than myself, something awesome," he said. "I see the church as something real, something timeless."

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