A vocation to the religious life always springs from something – some outside influence or seemingly random remark that another person makes can help a young man to discern his calling to the priesthood. Retreats, World Youth Day events, and even the presence of parish priests and religious sisters can impact the spiritual lives of young men and women who desire to give their lives to God and others by extension. Several priests from within the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend shared stories of those who influenced their vocations throughout their younger years, echoing into their lives of service today.
Growing up at St. Peter Parish in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was generally expected that all young guys would be asked to consider the seminary. In addition, my Catholic family would have presented the idea to me, with the exception of my father, who would have preferred his only son to provide him with grandchildren. Dad got his wish as many people call me “Father”. There were of course two young priests who were influential in keeping the idea of seminary alive for me. They were Father Joseph Emanual and Father Robert Yaste. I still think of them occasionally in my old age. I realize that this story will be of little inspiration or have the ability to plant seeds of priestly ministry. It is however my story and I thank our good God every day for the priesthood.
As I think back to my early years, I feel very blessed to have been a parishioner at St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend. While there, I encountered such wonderful men and women of faith, including Bishop Joseph Crowley, Msgr. Bill Lester, Bishop John Sheets, Bishop John D’Arcy, Father Tom Shoemaker, and Msgr. Mike Heintz. Seeing these wonderful bishops and priests inspired me to love God and neighbor. Additionally, the writings of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, helped me to be open to God’s call. I really felt the urge at a young age, but it rekindled again I think in part due to the prayers from the special “Year of the Priests in 2009”. I additionally went on a pilgrimage, where I had the opportunity to experience God’s love and hear his voice, absent from the distractions of a busy life and world. I would be remiss if I did not also include the urging of my grandparents Claire and Georgina Fitzmaurice and John and Edna Bunch. Both sets of grandparents were special people who encouraged me to always follow God and to be open to His call.
There are many people, family, friends, and priests that encouraged me in my discernment process, and I am grateful for them all, but I will recount one story here.
It was the summer before entering college, and I found myself participating in the World Youth Day celebrations in 2011. While on this pilgrimage, the diocese made a stop for a few days in Lourdes, France. One evening, a couple of priests and my high school classmate Spenser St. Louis decided to take a walk down to the famous grotto. It was a beautiful evening. Spenser (now Father Spenser) was ready to begin his first year in the seminary while I had never even given one iota of a thought to being a priest. I was just on this pilgrimage for the experience. While we were walking, I can’t even remember the conversation we were having with these two priests, but at one point, someone joked about me becoming a priest. While we were all laughing at the joke that was said, one of the priests, Father Tony Steinacker, stopped laughing and said, “No seriously, you should be a priest.”
That was the first time I remember somebody intentionally inviting the thought of being a priest into my mind and heart. Honestly, at the time, I remember laughing it off and taking no notice of it, but looking back, together with the whole experience of World Youth Day, that was a moment of grace. Now that I am a priest, I think of how powerful just a simple invitation can be. Who knows, maybe there are some young men who just need to hear another person say, “I think you should be a priest.” God wants to work through us, and these simple words could be exactly what is needed to let God begin that work of instilling a vocation in our hearts.
Here is one story that helped me on the road to priesthood:
When I was getting more serious about my Catholic faith, I started making a conscious effort to pray every day. Before this, I was faithful to Sunday Mass, but I can’t say that I was faithfully praying every day. As I was getting into this habit, a friend shared with me his experience of Confession as being an important part of his prayer life. At this time, I think I had been away from Confession for about two years. So, I was a little bit worried about going to Confession because I had been away. Still, I could feel God calling me to experience His mercy in this sacrament. So, I went into Confession. I confessed my sins, including the fact that I had been away from Confession for two years. I was afraid that the priest was going to yell at me or something. Instead, he was kind, warm, and compassionate. He encouraged me to continue my newly formed habit of daily prayer, gave me a penance, and gave me absolution. This Confession was a wonderful experience for me. One of the reasons I felt myself wanting to become a Catholic priest was so that I could provide experiences like that for other people. I hope and pray that anyone who comes to Confession with me will find God’s love and mercy.
Many people have had an impact on my call to the priesthood, even my call to the Catholic Church. Going back to college and attending the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, I was introduced to the love of Christ through many friends. Working at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Wayne furthered that desire to share Christ with others, particularly the youth. Wild opportunities like World Youth Day 2011 or a pilgrimage to Emmitsburg, Maryland (two years before I’d enter seminary) continued to present God’s desire for me to come to Him.
Discernment was always happening, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. All those people encouraged me by carrying Christ within themselves. There were countless moments, and reflecting on them makes it much easier and clearer to see them.
I thank everyone who I’ve ever met or has ever prayed for vocations. Thank you for being Christ for me!
While the witness of the Holy Cross brothers and priests at my high school in New York City caused me to begin considering religious life, it was the joyful witness of a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn who sparked my desire to become a priest. As chaplain at a sports camp I attended the summer before my junior year, he made liturgy and prayer come alive for me, and I eventually decided that I would like to do the same for others as he did for me. I am so grateful for the joint witness of those Holy Cross religious and this diocesan priest who led me to the priesthood in the Congregation of Holy Cross.
When I was young — now many years ago — our parish priests were seemingly much less visible than priests today (we hope they are more visible today, anyway). We primarily saw them at Mass on Sunday and in Confession; oftentimes weekly or at least every other week when we’d be marched over from grade school. If I was out on my bicycle with a friend in the neighborhood (as all churches and sisters and priests lived “in the neighborhood” back then), I might see Father going from church to rectory or vice versa and maybe sisters, always in twos, out for a walk after dinner. But it was how it was, and we had tremendous regard for priests and sisters in those days, as I pray we still do today.
So, how does this bear witness to my vocational call to the priesthood, the question asked and story to share? Well, let’s set the stage a little. . .
In my grade school days, we had eight sisters teaching in the school and eight lay teachers; yes 16 classrooms, no teacher aids, and classrooms then averaged 49-52 students per room. I realized long after, in fact on the day of my first Mass, that our (then) principal in school six of my eight years, a Holy Cross Sister was at most 25 years old, as principal AND teaching eighth grade!
I don’t think a week ever went by in all eight years of grade school that Sister didn’t manage to speak to our future vocation in life. One was always encouraged to be someone in life who brought good to the community: a doctor, a nurse, a fireman, policeman — you get the picture — it wasn’t about how much you were going to make, but about what you did for people through life, beyond yourself. Of course, in that list of possibilities, always at the top was to consider being a priest or religious. The seed was planted from young on, and frankly, by sisters who taught in our grade school. They too, in those days, had true and meaningful vocations, as they lived pretty meagerly compared (often) to Father’s life in the rectory, or Monsignor’s life, if in a larger and more affluent parish. Even in the new convent finally built in my home parish, the sisters’ bedrooms were truly small cells with a single bed and a closet that could no more than hold the two habits they may have had and maybe one other outfit if ever the occasion came along to need it.
Back to how my vocation came along. Sister Dorothea was our principal and the eighth-grade teacher in my years in grade school. She planted the seeds for the most part that stayed in my heart. She also showed great concern for me and my well-being — my mother had died by my age of seven — and I was an only child living with my father who worked by day, of course, and was prone to drink in the evening. Sister must have had some awareness. She kept an eye out for me, encouraged, taught, mothered me to some degree, gave me certain responsibilities at school or even to sit at the convent and do my schoolwork while maybe waiting for the plumber to show up. She was a shining example to me of what a caring religious was all about. My vocation surely came from her example more than any other. It stuck with me and while it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I went to the seminary, the vocation and its meaning came from her seeds planted very early on. When I had my first Mass as a priest, she was there, still Dorothea, and was proud to see the fruits of her encouragement, I’m sure. I asked her at that time (I was 31 then) how old she was. She said, “52”, and I smiled, and in the same voice she used while teacher and principal, she asked, “And what is so amusing about 52, John?” My response as I ducked for cover was, “Gee, I thought you were at least that old when I had you in grade school!” She said, “You may not get to say your second Mass, John”, as we both laughed. Long story I suppose, not the usual role model expected, maybe, but bless those dedicated sisters of those days and the great amount of good they did for the Church! Their good works surely went with them as they now have a very special place in heaven.
As a teenager, I had an excellent pastor who was not only intelligent, but had a missionary zeal. He understood the Church as being universal and he knew that he was comfortable in his native Colombia. However, he wanted to bring hope to the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico after a hurricane devastated the east coast in the late 1980s. He eventually served most of his priestly ministry outside of his native country and became “all things for all people” to those he was called to serve. He was my pastor for 14 years and had a great love for consecrated life. Although he was a diocesan priest, he wanted religious sisters to serve the parishioners of different age groups. We had three convents of three different congregations. One group served single mothers and their babies and preschoolers; another group served children within the catechetical program, the youth, and did foreign missions; the last group worked with the elderly and homebound. All this to say that my pastor and the religious sisters had a great impact on the way I live my faith and the way I appreciate the life of the Church. They all accompanied me directly and indirectly, along with the lay faithful of my parish. I can say that I am indebted to them, and it is thanks to their witness and encouragement that I am a priest of Jesus Christ!
The person who helped me most in my vocation would have to be Nate Proulx. He was the leader of St. Vincent de Paul Life Teen program when I was in high school. He helped me discover my vocation by first helping me to discover who Christ was. I am very grateful for his constant dedication to serve the youth by always leading Bible study on Wednesdays and helping out on Sundays at Life Night. I think what really helped me to encounter Christ was his witness of joy in the Lord. God worked through Nate to help me encounter Jesus, which radically opened my life to the possibility of a vocation dedicated to Christ and His Church. Thank you, Nate, for guiding me to Jesus and laying the foundations for the priesthood!
A priest must have his head screwed on straight, and a heart for love of the Lord. My uncle is Father Greg Holicky (a retired priest of the Diocese of Gary), and my earliest memories of him were of a man who knew everything, a mind that never forgot a single fact, and had placed itself entirely at the service of the Church. A truly beautiful mind. And I remember thinking, “A priest has to be smart.” A priest was smart. That was key to the identity. A priest placed the power of his very mind at the service of the Almighty. That was inspiring. I wanted to be similar. I wanted to perfect the higher powers of my human nature and make of it an offering to the One who had given me whatever I had.
But I wouldn’t have moved on so noble an idea without the heart of my father, Bob Felicichia. My priesthood is a spiritual fatherhood. And I learned what a good father was by watching my dad raise me and my sisters. His heart holds love, formed by the Word of God. And my dad’s heart shone upon his children. To be a good priest, you must be a good father (isn’t that what they call us). I have a great one. I model my mind (to the best of my ability) on that of my Uncle Greg. And I model my heart on my dad. To know and to love. I still strive to know as my uncle, and to love like my dad. The good of my priesthood is inspired by those two men. Any imperfection is my fault alone.
When I was in high school, I definitely heard from a few people that I would be a good priest. I definitely remember one young priest saying that our family, having four sons, could give the Church one or two priests. While I quickly brushed it aside verbally, it did indeed plant a seed in my heart that slowly grew into an awareness of God’s calling me to give my life in this way.
However, another important part for me listening to that call was the support from the rest of the Catholic community. My family’s love for their faith, as well as their respect for and appreciation of our parish priests, was very important to me feeling open to that vocation for myself. But even if I didn’t have them, I would have had the generous support of my youth group (adults and peers), my college buddies, and my mentors who had given me advice over those years of discernment. In college, my buddies threw a surprise farewell party for me and Father Chris Lapp, which meant a lot to me and I’m sure to him too. I also remember old girlfriends being happy for me – a sign of a good dating relationship, I wager! But seriously, the support of fellow Catholics was essential, particularly their manifest appreciation for their parish priests.
As a more private person, I was shyer about sharing my vocational discernment with others. When I did open up to certain people, I needed, and received, affirmation and support from those individuals. Given the space to make a free choice was essential, and I am grateful for all those who helped me along that path to seminary and priesthood.
I think one of the most important pieces of vocational discernment is simply being open to however the Lord might be calling you. We all would love God to whisper (loudly and clearly) into our ears and He says, “Thomas, I want you to be a priest!” But that’s not typically how He speaks. He very often speaks THROUGH others. By listening to how someone might be speaking about you, whether by a simple compliment, an affirmation, a word of direction or correction, that could actually be the Lord’s words being spoken through another. This is certainly the case with me. I always point to a few sources of my vocation to the priesthood; my solid Catholic family, being homeschooled and having regular prayer time as a family, my high school youth group, the priests at my parish, and finally the voices of many people who simply said, “You know what, you could be a great priest.” Simple words like that eventually made me consider the possibility of priesthood more seriously. We can’t always see what others might; for my case, they saw how God was working in me better than I could. While not every word spoken to you is going to be a direct message from God, it is worth listening to the voices of good, holy people in your community that simply want the best for you and for the Church. Be open. Be receptive to the Lord’s words, however unique, however scary, however crazy. God does crazy good things with crazy people who are willing to follow Him!
I grew up on the Polish and Hungarian west side of South Bend and attended Holy Family Catholic Parish. For the first 20 years of my life, our church was in the basement of our school. Msgr. Bernard Galic was the pastor of my youth. He was there when I received First Communion, Confirmation (by Bishop Sheets), and he was our pastor even when I was ordained and then had my first Mass, which was in the new church built just after the year 2000. I remember Msgr. Galic always shaking hands after Mass, and when I shook his hand, I always had a strong sense that the priest represents Christ.
In my youth, my family discovered the alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Medjugorje. This sparked a love of Mary in my life. I’ve read a lot of books and articles on Medjugorje, and when I read these in my youth, it made me think of being a priest in this same Eucharistic and Marian spirit.
When I was in middle school, I remember Denis Nolan coming to my parish to talk to the youth about Mary. He was the first layman I had ever heard talk with such passion and articulation for Jesus and Mary. I remember thinking at that moment that if I ever were to be a priest, I’d want to be like him. He wasn’t even a priest!
In many ways, I have never sought God. I was just put in the presence of so many good Catholics, and to me the Church’s thought and teachings all made sense. In my youth, I did not have a desire to be a priest even though I loved the Catholic faith and the theology of the priesthood. But God is the potter, and we are simply the clay. He was working.
I remember sitting in math class at Saint Joseph High School thinking that the best thing I could do with my life would be to give my life to the Church. Near the end of high school, I went on a couple of weekend retreats that were inspiring. I desired to have that kind of joy in my heart and to share the Christian faith in an authentic and life-giving way.
I discovered Franciscan University in Steubenville because Chris Derda (now Father Chris Derda in the Diocese of Kalamazoo) put together a caravan to a weekend conference for youth. I later applied to Steubenville because I wanted this kind of joy and articulation of the faith. It was there that my desire for priesthood grew, and doubts started to fade. Having all the young men around me who were learning the faith and were open to being priests made me realize that as a priest, I would not be lonely. I also found the philosophical and theological studies fascinating, which broke the barrier of me thinking that studies needed to become a priest would be too long.
Studying St. John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made me want to be a priest, to be like them and to share their thoughts. I was in seminary when Ratzinger was elected pope and it was a major moment of vocation confirmation for me.
My mom and dad are the foundation of my vocation … good people with lively faith. They loved their family, their work, their parish, and their Christian friendships and retreats. I had a great childhood on the west side of South Bend, but I think it all would have been different had they not learned about the Blessed Virgin Mary and not started a weekly Sunday evening rosary prayer group with their friends and families.
Praised be Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!
My own vocation story is rather unremarkable, but there were several important individuals who made a profound difference (though probably without realizing it at the time). I grew up at St. Thomas Parish and Grade School in Elkhart. As a child, I would often pray in church before school started. I was in awe of the priests who were at the parish in my childhood: Msgr. Bill Lester, Father Donald Muldoon, and Father Bill Hodde. I saw something in them that I desired. I would often see them in church praying and I found that very edifying (or perhaps as a child, simply mysterious). When I was in high school at Marian, Father Bill Schooler was the chaplain, and he also had a profound impact on me – in God’s providence, I am now privileged to live with him and assist him at St Pius X when I am home from seminary. During my high school years – and I cannot recall precisely when or what prompted me – I started walking to church (we only lived several blocks from St. Thomas) each evening for the 5:15 Mass. Daily Mass became a feature of my life during high school. Being formed by the rhythm of the Church’s liturgy was also a pivotal feature of my vocation story.
In the end, nothing remarkable – no visions, locutions, no radical reversion or conversion – just the slow, steady workings of grace accomplished by God through chosen instruments whose priesthood was being lived out with fidelity, zeal, and joy.
After high school, I began working full-time at a local grocery store. After a few months, I was made the Assistant Manager of the Produce Department and got to meet and work with many wonderful people. While stocking the shelves and replenishing the displays, I had the opportunity to interact with many customers and I developed a good rapport with them.
This went on for about five years. Then, during one of my evaluations, a member of upper management requested that I participate in a management seminar, as they wanted me to become an Assistant Manager of one of their stores. I thought that this was a great opportunity and something I would be interested in, because again, I enjoyed working with everyone and they saw me as a faithful and loyal employee.
About the same time, a frequent customer whom I interacted with on occasion, came up to me and said, “You look rather happy”, to which I responded, “Thank you, I am! I was just asked to be in a special training program for future management.” Their facial reaction seemed rather puzzled, and they replied, “So you’re not going to become a priest?” My reaction was probably even more puzzled as I responded, “A priest? Where did you get the idea that I was going to become a priest?” As the conversation went on, she explained how all the qualities, characteristics, work ethic, etc. that she saw me demonstrate here at the store would help to make me a good priest also. That interaction caused me to seek out my parish priest, Father Bill Kummer, who said, “I think you would make a great priest too, and you might just be the only priest who knows the difference between a turnip and a rutabaga!”
Obviously, more conversations had to take place, but it was through one person’s insight that planted the “seed” that helped to grow my vocation to the priesthood.
Life is a mystery, and my call to be a priest has been a great gift to me. My parents instilled in me my faith and the need to seek out one’s call. My uncle, Father Don Isenbarger, was a great example. He loved his people and did a great job of being around even though there were a lot of nieces and nephews. When I was at Purdue, ultimately ending up with a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering, the priests on campus were outstanding examples and gave me some great counsel, particularly Father Theodore Rothrock and Father Richard J. Wiesenberger as I discerned entering the seminary after my engineering coursework was finished.
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