Jennifer Miller
Jennifer Miller
Freelance Writer
May 8, 2019 // Local

How to raise a priest: Clergy recall mothers’ influence on vocations

Jennifer Miller
Jennifer Miller
Freelance Writer

In May, the month of Mary, mothers are honored and thanked. A few of the priests of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and the Congregation of Holy Cross reflected on their mothers’ care recently, and they especially remembered their influence as they discerned a calling from God to serve His people as an ordained priest.

A common denominator resounded through the priests’ lives growing up: the gift of prayer. Not like a clashing cymbal or noisy gong, but filled with love, the prayers of their mothers supported and interceded for their sons. Like St. Monica, whose prayers shaped St. Augustine, the mothers daily offered their sons back to God.

Father Neil Wack, CSC, his older brother, Kevin Wack, his younger brother, Bishop William Wack, CSC, and their mother, Alice Wack.

“The best way my mom contributed to my vocation was the way she has contributed to all of our vocations in our family, and that’s through prayer. I think she took literally what St. Paul exhorted, ‘pray ceaselessly,’ Father Neil Wack, CSC, director of the Office for Vocations of Congregation of the Holy Cross, shared about his mother, Alice.

“When we were growing up, she tried to keep track of where everyone was and what they were doing, so she could keep us in mind and in prayer. … If anything, that’s only increased over time. Now she can look on technology and see where we are and keep lifting us up to the Lord.”

“Of course, we all prayed the family rosary each day growing up, and that example of my mom and my dad in prayer helped me to build my relationship with God on a foundation that was begun in the family home,” Father Wack said. “Both of my parents let us know early on that no matter what our vocation ended up being, as long as it was done with the Lord, we could not go wrong.”

Father Nathan O’Halloran, SJ, and his mother, Mary Ann, enjoy a home game at the new University of Notre Dame football stadium last year. Father O’Halloran is a doctoral candidate of systematic theology.

The importance of listening to God’s call and following it, to do God’s will, was also vital to the priesthood of Father Nathan O’Halloran, SJ, Doctoral Candidate of Theology, University of Notre Dame.

“Where would I be in my vocation without the help and guidance of my mom? She and my dad dedicated all of us at birth to the Lord. They took us to a chapel on the way home from delivery to dedicate our lives to the service of God before the Blessed Sacrament. There was never anything more important to my mom than that all of her children served the Lord. This is the first and most important gift she gave me after the gift of life,” Father O’Halloran said of his mother, Mary Ann.

“She would remind us constantly: “I don’t care what you do with your life, how much money you make or don’t make. I just want you to serve the Lord.” We knew she meant it because that was what she was doing with her life as a full-time missionary. My mom never mentioned anything to me about being a priest, and for that I am grateful. She knew that it was not her job to encourage me to be a priest. That was up to priests and others, and if I had heard it from her, I might have felt pressured in some way. Her job was to raise a son who loved the Lord, and she put all her efforts in that direction. She gave me the gift of a morning prayer time. She would send us all outside every morning for 15 minutes to pray in silence. Of course, a lot of that wasn’t prayer for a while, but a lot of it was, and it would eventually become the bedrock of my own prayer habits to this day.

“She was a powerful prayer support throughout my formation as a Jesuit, and I can remember specifically the day that I received the call approving me to be ordained a priest,” Father O’Halloran said. “I was at home on The Lord’s Ranch in Vado, New Mexico, at the time, visiting my family. I got the call in the evening and ran home from the guesthouse I was staying in. As soon as I told my mom and dad, my mom broke into tears. It was a wonderful moment of joy.”

Father O’Halloran remembers her influence in his spiritual life to this day.

“A few days before my diaconate ordination, I had a dream of driving in a car with her. She told me we needed to pull over for gas, but I told her we had plenty. Suddenly we came to a huge canyon right in the middle of the highway, and we had to take a long dirt road around the canyon. Now the gas situation was dire; I should have listened to her. I have often taken that dream to prayer. I know it came from the Lord, and I know that he spoke through my mom to remind me never to let up on my life of prayer. Unless I am grounded in the love of the Lord, I cannot make this journey. She passed on to me a deep love for the Lord, and a love for prayer, and I know that it is her prayers that sustain me to this day.”

The daily journey, praying to God as a family, was also essential to the calling of Father Kevin Russeau, CSC, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, South Bend. The oldest of four children, he grew up in St. Joseph Parish in Erie, Michigan, in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“My pastor preached about families encouraging vocations when I was young and he challenged families to make some kind of commitment. Our family (parents) decided to pray a rosary a day. We added this rosary after grace before supper. Once a month or so, my parents would ask us kids if we remembered why we prayed the rosary. One of us would answer that it was for religious vocations. That allowed my dad to say “your mother and I would be proud if God is calling any of you to the priesthood or religious life. We pray every day that you discover your vocation and live your life for God whether that be as a priest, nun, married or single person.” Then we’d go back to eating.” Father Russeau shared with a smile.

The nourishment of their sons, in physical and spiritual ways, was on many mother’s minds. Growing up near Fort Wayne, Father David Ruppert, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption, Decatur, reminisced, “My mother worried about me as I was praying about going to seminary. She worried about the busyness and loneliness of priesthood. She told, ‘You’re just a boy with your whole life ahead of you; maybe you should take more time.’ I said, ‘Mom, I’m 35 years old!’ But as she learned more about ordination to the priesthood and the life of a priest, she reconsidered.

“There is a tradition for the parents of a priest. There is a small white cloth: That cloth is given to the priest’s mother to be buried with. For the priest’s father, the stole that he wears for hearing his first confession is given to him for his burial. My mom and dad have instructions for their funerals to be buried with these. My mom will have the cloth used to wipe my hands in her own hands, and my dad will hold the stole from my first reconciliation. And it is their hope that at the resurrection they can show these to Jesus and say, ‘Look, we gave you our son to continue your priesthood.’”

When Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades first visited every parish and school after being installed in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in 2010, he spoke of supporting and increasing vocations. He asked the young men to consider vocations to the priesthood, as well as to the parents, to pray and encourage their children.

There are many ways to support and foster vocations in one’s children for today’s mothers. Daily prayer combined with fasting, as described in Holy Scripture, remains the most efficacious method. Living one’s baptismal call to Catholic life faithfully is also vital, as children are led by example. Preaching the Good News with lives filled with daily love speaks more than hundreds of wise words.

“I’d say make sure they pray as a family regularly and talk about the different ways that God might be calling them, Father Wack offered. “A reminder about just sitting and listening to God would be a good thing as well, though admittedly that’s pretty tough for little ones.”

Simply seeing and meeting religious men and woman can be helpful as well.

“I believe allowing children get to know a priest in order to see that priests are normal people with normal lives is a way to promote priestly and religious vocations,” said Father Ruppert. “Inviting a priest over for a dinner or dessert or game of cards is a good way to introduce children to priesthood outside of the Church and Mass.”

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