Vocations: Discerning the call to priesthood as a family

By Emily Hurlimann
Guest Columnist

Our son told us on Christmas night in 2013 that he was going to finish his freshman year at Texas A&M, but that he was also going to apply to the diocese as a seminarian, with the hope to enter seminary in the fall of 2014. Jakob didn’t ask us if it was OK for him to do this, or what we thought about this plan; rather it was more like a conviction he shared with us that night. Applying to be a seminarian was what God was calling him to do at that time as he continued the discernment journey he had been on over the past five or so years. The journey continues to this day as Jakob just recently began his senior year at St. Joseph Seminary College (affectionately known as St. Ben’s) in St. Benedict, Louisiana. 
Although the announcement was kind of a surprise, we knew this was something he’d been praying about and learning about for years. Jakob had attended multiple vocations programs over the years: Project Andrew, a day of prayer and learning for middle and high school youth who want to learn more about the vocation of priesthood; Quo Vadis, a weekend retreat for high school men discerning their vocation; monthly Discernment Dinners (separate gatherings for high schoolers, and for college-aged men and older) to meet with priests, and other men discerning a vocation to the priesthood, for prayer, food and fellowship; and the Heart of Jesus Men’s Discernment Retreat. That last one tipped the scale. Jakob attended the retreat the weekend before Christmas, and by Christmas night, the seed that had been planted many years ago, and nurtured by so many along the way, had established strong enough roots that it was time to let it grow.
Jakob didn’t come to us saying that he was going to be a priest; he came to us saying that he wanted to enter the seminary so he could more actively learn and discern if this was what God was truly calling him to do. He was, and remains, open to following God’s direction along this journey which may lead to priesthood, or which may lead to him discerning out of the seminary and living his adult life as a more fully formed and educated Catholic, single or married, man.
As his parents, we were thrilled, proud, a bit worried, along with a whole host of other emotions. My husband Dan, an engineer, admittedly was practical in his first thoughts. “Wouldn’t it be better to go ahead and get that engineering degree first and then go on to seminary?” But the comments of a table mate at his Thursday morning men’s group offered a helpful reminder: “When Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would bear the Son of God, she didn’t say ‘well, let me think about it’ or ‘maybe next year’ or ‘I’m not ready for this’ ... she said ‘yes.’” And at that point Dan realized that Jakob responded to God’s call with the same faith, which was a good thing. Together we have read some good books about discerning a vocation to the priesthood and continue to pray daily for his discernment.
My perspective is a bit different than Dan’s. I remember being very happy for Jakob and affirmed in the job we had done as parents, and grateful for all the many people along the way who had helped form his faith –– his family and extended family, the Catholic school communities of Holy Family and St. Dominic Savio, and most especially our parish family of St. Vincent de Paul. The priests, deacons and seminarians and many parishioners past and present actively supported Jakob, and his brother Thomas, as well as so many other young women and men, to grow up to be the people of faith they are today. 
But I also have somewhat of an insider’s view of the world of vocations as an employee of the diocese –– specifically as coordinator of the diocesan Office of Ethics and Integrity in Ministry. In my role I have frequent interactions with many of the wonderful priests we have in our diocese. I am privileged that at times they have shared with me both the joys of their priesthood as well as some of the challenges they experience in interactions with their parishioners, brother priests and other aspects of their priesthood. From my professional perspective, when priests (or anyone, for that matter) are in a good state of health –– physically, emotionally and spiritually –– then my office is less likely to have to help address issues or problems. So I now have both a professional and a personal reason to more actively support good formation of our seminarians and our priests. 
As the parents of a seminarian, we now realize the importance of praying daily for our seminarians and our priests. We pray for our seminarians who have said “yes” to God’s call to discern a vocation to priesthood, which is a daily discernment along a very long road (often a seven or eight year process). They need a lot of prayers, as do their families as we learn to support our sons in their formation. We must also pray for our priests; thanking God that these men answered the call to the priesthood and for their dedication to their ministry. We strive to thank them in person, too –– by recognizing ordination anniversaries, celebrating Priesthood Sunday (Oct. 30 this year), when a particular homily stirs our hearts or when a parish program nourishes us.
We are blessed to have a good number of vocations in our diocese –– 44 men in formation for the priesthood for the diocese this year and approximately 48 women and men from the Diocese of Austin are in formation in religious orders throughout the country. 
How can parents help encourage vocations in our homes? Probably the simplest thing we did in our family is get to know the priests and the seminarians who served at our parish over the years. Either over a meal or at parish events, we spent some time learning about their families, their vocation journeys and what they enjoy doing in their free time. We also spoke to our boys about considering the priesthood as an option when talking about “career opportunities.” And we prayed for vocations as a family. 
Our church needs many holy men and women to be open to God’s call to serve as priests, women religious, brothers and deacons –– and I believe God is calling all of us to help support vocations throughout our diocese. If you know a young (or not so young) man or woman who might make a good priest or religious sister or brother, share that with them. Many seminarians include in their stories the fact that others pointed out their vocation to them before they perhaps recognized it themselves, and how much that encouraged them. If your child comes to you expressing a desire to explore a vocation, I encourage you to listen to them and seek support and information from the diocesan Vocation Office. 
We realized early on that this journey is not about what we want for Jakob’s future, nor is it even about what Jakob wants for his future. As many a current priest will attest to, this call to discern a vocation to the priesthood is about what God wants for Jakob’s future. And so we continue to pray for wisdom and grace to hear that call clearly.
For more information about vocations in Diocese of Austin, visit www.austinvocations.com or call (512) 949-2430.