Seminary’s Older Vocations Boom
New Priests Reflect on Serving the Church After Leaving Worldly Professions
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, the population of Catholics in the United States has risen by more than 18 million during the last 40 years. As a result, there is an increasing need for priests to serve the faithful of our Church.
Blessed John XXIII National Seminary, located in Weston, Mass., is a unique institution helping to meet this need. Named after the soon-to-be canonized Holy Father who died 50 years ago, it was founded in 1964 by Cardinal Richard Cushing with the encouragement and explicit blessing of Pope Paul VI. It is the only seminary in the United States preparing men 30 to 60 years of age that is also administered by diocesan priests.
A recent survey of new priests — 500 men were ordained this year — from CARA noted that the median age of the 2013 ordination class is 32, a slight increase from last year. The youngest to be ordained was 23, while the oldest was 69.
During the seminary’s almost 50-year history, 600 of its alumni have served in more than 140 dioceses and religious orders. Their current seminarians represent 31 dioceses and four religious orders throughout the United States and beyond.
By offering a unique preparation program to these mature seminarians, Blessed John XXIII is expanding the number of potential candidates for priesthood.
"These accomplished seminarians have already contributed to their communities through a secular profession," says Father William Palardy, rector of Blessed John XXIII. "They come to the seminary from various backgrounds, such as law, medicine, business, education, sales, finance, social work and both government and military service. The diversity of life experiences shared by these mature candidates enriches both the seminary community and their future ministries in the Church."
"The upcoming canonization of our patron, Blessed John XXIII, is something that we expected at some time in the near future, but we are especially pleased that he will be declared a saint during our 50th year as a seminary under his patronage," adds Father Palardy. "After his canonization, whenever that will be, our seminary will change its name to either Pope St. John XXIII or St. John XXIII. We have not yet made a final determination about which title will be more appropriate."
The Class of 2013 is representative of the diversity of men who come to the seminary to answer God’s call. The class included men originally from Syria, Haiti, Cuba and Vietnam and from a variety of career backgrounds, including a pediatrician, pilot, accountant, Department of Natural Resources adviser, teacher, counselor and two monks.
Before entering the seminary, Father Ronald Cattany — who was ordained on May 18 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver — spent 35 years as an advisor to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. During that time, he’d been a mineral, energy and natural resources adviser to four Colorado governors and was the lead negotiator in some of the biggest environmental cleanup cases in the state’s history.
As fulfilling at that was, it still wasn’t enough. He wanted to serve the Church. Upon applying to the Archdiocese of Denver’s Permanent Diaconate Program, the administrator queried him about a possible vocation to the priesthood.
"For some reason," Father Cattany said, "my answer was an immediate, ‘Yes,’ but with the qualification that I did not think it was an option in my life. With that ‘Yes,’ the Lord began to prepare the way."
To help his discernment process, he shadowed another Blessed John XXIII National Seminary graduate, Father Frank Garcia. During their six hours together, priest-to-be Cattany showered Father Garcia with questions, searching for a reason not to enter the seminary. Finally, the priest responded, "Just do it!" And he did.
Father Cattany believes his decision was confirmed by an inspiration from the Blessed Virgin Mary. While on a visit to a church, he observed a family baptism. As the baby was consecrated to Mary at her altar, he had the inner conviction that the Blessed Mother was delivering him to her Son, which he took as symbolic of his call to the priesthood.
His decision received mixed responses from family and friends: "Some were thrilled, some neutral, and some tried to talk me out of it, sometimes insinuating very hurtful things. You see, everyone has their perception of our role in their life. But, in the end, it is between you and God, so your faith in God’s perfect plan for your life must be absolute, your trust in the Lord unfailing and your reliance on the Blessed Mother unending."
The Blessed John XXIII National Seminary offers a balanced program of priestly formation in an environment specifically suited for the adult learner. The curriculum of theological studies is designed to nurture what is central to our Catholic faith and Tradition in an integrated human, spiritual and pastoral formation program. The seminary offers both a four-year master’s of divinity program and a one-year pre-theology program. The optional pre-theology program is a preparatory program for candidates whose bishops or religious superiors deem it appropriate.
Father Tom Schmitt, a Blessed John XXIII alumnus and dean of seminarians at the seminary, explained the challenges of being an over-30 seminarian.
"One immediate challenge could be hitting the books again after having been out of the academic sphere for a while. For men who have been married and have children, even those securely on their own, there can be family concerns. In some cases, health issues come into play," he said.
On the other hand, older vocations to the priesthood have advantages, according to Father Schmitt. "There is a proven track record of men having responded to a call later in life," he said, "bringing wisdom, talents and unique experience to the priesthood. In the life of virtue, spiritual life and ministerial knowledge needed, they show a zeal and motivation to work very hard at formation. This enables them to respond fully."
Father Michael Fragoso — who was ordained on May 25 at the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral in Metuchen, N.J. — had a successful pediatric practice and a happy 31-year marriage in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., when his wife, Carmen, died as a result of complications caused by Hodgkin’s disease. The couple has one son, Michael Andrew. Carmen’s death ushered Michael into a period of reflection prompted by the daily Mass Psalms, which he felt held a significant message for him: He should discern a vocation to the priesthood, which was echoed by a number of people in his life. A discussion with the vocations director of his diocese put him on track to the priesthood.
The next step was to tell his son of his decision. He traveled to Washington, where Michael Andrew lived and worked, and arranged to have dinner with him at a restaurant. Anxious to share his news, the father blurted it out just after they’d greeted each other.
"He was quiet while he processed it, and then he congratulated me, and we hugged again," the new priest recalled. Then the son shared some vocation news of his own: "It was well into the dinner when he asked me if I could give him advice on how to buy an engagement ring."
Subsequently, future-priest Fragoso sold his house and gave away most of his belongings. Father Fragoso’s choice of Blessed John XXIII National Seminary was dependent mostly on the advice of his bishop, Bishop Paul Bootkoski.
He felt blessed by the choice because he discovered a genuine brotherhood among the seminarians.
"Blessed John XXIII was founded for men like me, men who were in the world and discerned the call of God later in life. Our needs and outlook are different from that of our younger brothers: wisdom and cunning vs. youth and agility," said Father Fragoso, who now serves as parochial vicar at St. Philip and St. James Church in Phillipsburg, N.J.
Father Cattany — parochial vicar at Light of the World Roman Catholic Church in Littleton, Colo. — feels blessed by "an intimate relationship with the Lord in the sacrifice of the holy Mass, an active role in the formation for and dispensing of the sacraments and a life of prayer centered in Christ under the mantle of the Blessed Mother."
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.