Happy to be Priests: A Vocations Story

By Roy J. Horner

EMMITSBURG, Md. - As I stood on the sidelines watching the two priests play basketball with my three sons and a dozen other boys in Mount St. Mary Seminary’s old fieldhouse, my brain lit up like a cerebral scoreboard.

Maybe it was the prompting of the Holy Spirit. And I’m certain there was a dash of inspiration from P.T. Barnum, one of the greatest promoters in the history of promotions. But I began to think: ‘If Serra Club International ever awarded the equivalent of an Oscar for best supporting role, a pair of candidates could be found right here at this historic seminary.’

The scene that unfolded on that cold Saturday night in the basketball-crazy month of March would have warmed the vocation-promoting hearts of the Serrans.

Fathers Peter Ryan and John Lombardi wore their Roman collars and black clerical garb as they exuberantly dribbled, shot and passed the ball with their youthful and equally exuberant teammates. Through the words, actions and facial expressions of these two energetic and heads-up priests, the boys witnessed a genuine and infectious joy for the priesthood.

For me as a Catholic husband and father who also works in the Catholic press, the entire evening was a wholesome and refreshing development in this current secular news cycle of sensational dispatches about the priesthood. Activities got underway in one of the seminary’s reading lounges with prayers and a blessing from Fathers Ryan and Lombardi. A pizza buffet followed.

After the food was served, the boys settled into the overstuffed chairs and sofas or occupied spots on the floor for an unrehearsed but highly effective vocations presentation and faith-sharing session. Next up was the chapel for adoration and prayer.

The evening continued with several spirited rounds of basketball in the fieldhouse. Some of the dads joined in the action. Father Lombardi was out to use up every ounce of strength he could muster. He even challenged the boys to several foot races up and down the court.

When the basketball games and races were over, Father Ryan, a Jesuit and professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, stated that the purpose of the entire evening was to promote vocations to the priesthood.

The boys ranged in age from about 7 to 16. They hailed from nearby towns and hamlets in the northern portion of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the southern region of the Diocese of Harrisburg.

Pool of Priestly Candidates Prospects look bright for vocations from this pool of young Catholic males. Each boy is an altar server or server-in-training at the chapel at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. The grotto is located on the hill overlooking the seminary. The boys take turns at Masses assisting Father Lombardi, the shrine chaplain and a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"The main point that I wanted to convey is that our vocations are lifelong things," said Father Ryan, a priest of almost 16 years. "All of these kids already have a vocation right now. They’re called to live lives of good deeds as students, as sons, as brothers, as Christians in general."

"If they do what they’re supposed to do day by day and pray, gradually God is going to help them see what their gifts are and what the needs are out there," Father Ryan added. "And he’s going to unfold their vocations. Everyone has a vocation to a life of service. If these boys are open and they think of their lives in that way, then if God is calling them to the priesthood they’re going to be able to see that. They’ll be open to it already."

Father Lombardi, who was ordained in 1988, informally schedules the Saturday gatherings for the shrine chapel’s altar servers throughout the year. The priests who participate give of their time and devote all of their attention to the boys.

During the March gathering my sons Wally, Francis and Gordon, and the other boys, responded with smiles and grins to Fathers Ryan and Lombardi. The boys earnestly posed pertinent questions and eagerly answered the priests’ trivia questions. Discussion points touched on a range of Catholic subjects, from the saints to the sacraments.

"I do want to hold [these gatherings] more often because the kids had a lot of fun," Father Lombardi said as he cooled down following the basketball games. "They learned from Father Ryan and they learned about the priesthood. They learned that you can be spiritual and serious, and have fun, too, as a priest."

When the discussion smoothly dovetailed into the subject of the priesthood, both priests became energized, speaking gently but with conviction. The priesthood bond they shared was evident in the way in which together they instinctively promoted the priestly vocation and worked off each other’s comments with apparent ease.

Father Ryan told the boys that when they serve Mass, they are "close to Jesus." If the question of a future vocation to the priesthood ever comes to mind, have faith and perseverance, he advised.

"Well, it’s a question to think about," he said. "There’s no rush. It is a wonderful thing to be able to bring Jesus to other people, and that is what a priest is able to do. A priest makes all the benefits, all the good that Jesus did available."

He encouraged the boys to lead holy lives, ground themselves in a routine of prayer and to seek God’s will in all things. He said that "gradually God will unfold" the specific vocation he is calling each one of them to individually.

The discussion took other theological and spiritual twists and turns. As a Jesuit, Father Ryan asked the boys questions about his congregation’s founder, St. Ignatius. He also talked about the path that the saint took toward a life of service to Christ and the Gospel. "He was so on fire for the Lord," Father Ryan said.

The boys came up with their own questions or provided answers to trivia questions about saints, sacraments and Church teachings.

St. Joan of Arc’s name came up. "If you listen to God and are open to what he says, you’ll find your vocation," Father Ryan said in a follow-up response.

Joyous Observations Throughout the evening, Fathers Ryan and Lombardi dished out doses of vocational encouragement to the boys. Who knows what sort of ideas they planted in the boys’ minds night. I have faith that some day - in some parish or mission outpost somewhere - more than one priest will fondly remember that 2003 March night at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary as an important point on his path to the priesthood.

Two weeks after the fact, I pressed my 14-year-old son Wally for his observations about the night he and the other boys prayed and played together with Fathers Ryan and Lombardi.

He also offered an observation about these two priests, who are engaged in their own full-court press for the benefit of vocations to the priesthood.

"They are happy," Wally answered. "They are happy to be priests."

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