By Rosemarie Morrisette, Special to The Catholic Virginian
There was excitement in the air as seminarians and their parents gathered August 11 for the annual seminarians’ Mass and lunch at the Diocese of Richmond’s Pastoral Center.
The traditional event reflects the Diocese’s strong emphasis on the importance of parents in the lives of seminarians and the critical role they play in nurturing their sons as they journey toward priesthood.
Msgr. Mark Lane, Vicar General, celebrated the Mass, with newly ordained Deacon John Baab assisting. Fr. Michael Boehling, Vicar for Vocations, delivered the homily.
The event marked the beginning of a new year of study and assignments for the 31 seminarians who are currently in various stages of priestly formation in the Diocese of Richmond. It took place before Bishop DiLorenzo’s passing on Aug. 16, while he was hospitalized at St. Mary’s.
The bonds of family and the camaraderie among seminarians were evident at the gathering –those present seemed to like one another immensely and were happy to be there.
There is no standard profile for a Diocese of Richmond seminarian, and the young men couldn’t be any more different from one another. One is a former Navy man, another a former teacher, and others are in the early years of college. Some have been educated in Catholic schools, some in public schools, another homeschooled. Both parents are Catholic, or either one parent or both parents are of another faith. They are “cradle Catholics” and the ones who came into the church later in their youth.
Several seminarians and their parents shared stories and thoughts with The Catholic Virginian.
Cheryl Kincaid of Lynchburg recalled the time her son Robert returned home from a retreat with an almost euphoric look on his face. She knew something was going on with him, but “waited until he found where he would be happy.” Then, over lunch one day, he told her he wanted to be a priest. Both she and Robert’s father were happy with the news, as were his three siblings. Robert will enter the Saint John Paul II Seminary and study at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
Like Robert, Samuel Hill will enter the Saint John Paul II Seminary – but his original plan was to be a chemical engineer. He started out at Virginia Tech toward that goal, but a conversion to the Catholic faith brought the priesthood with it.
“I was confirmed in 2014,” explained Sam. “During the process of learning about God, I felt called. For me, everything happened at once.”
Sam’s parents Hugh and Susan, from Bedford, expressed happiness and pride in their son. They believe “God is controlling things, and Sam will be a blessing to many people.”
James “Luke” Fitzgerald, from Arkansas, credits a series of serendipitous events with drawing him to the priesthood. He spent 14 years in the Navy, then, in 2014, hurt his ankle, and couldn’t re-enlist.
While recuperating from ankle surgery for the injury that sidelined him, for example, he accidentally found information on the life of a priest on a newsfeed … and paid attention. It was at that point that he started discerning.
Luke’s late father was especially encouraging. Luke remembered, “He was glad when I went into the Navy and happy when I decided to become a priest.”
Luke will attend the Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, and also study at nearby Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.
Philip Decker, in his third year of seminary, has just entered Second Theology (i.e., his second of four years toward a graduate degree in theology). He attends the Theological College of The Catholic University of America. He has just finished a summer assignment at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Norfolk.
A graduate of the University of South Florida in Tampa, Philip served as the Youth and Young Adult Ministry Coordinator at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Yorktown, his home parish, before becoming a seminarian. During that time, he “grew to know Jesus Christ more deeply” and then discerned God’s call.
Philip’s mother Maria was surprised by his decision to enter the seminary, but his father, now retired from the military, wasn’t. She said it has been a “learning experience.”
Because the family moved a lot while he was growing up, Philip was homeschooled through high school. He has three siblings. Being raised in a military family caused Philip to define his family as home – wherever they were located. He believes God called him to Virginia and the Diocese which he now considers family and home.
Ben Fleser, in his fourth year of seminary, attends St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. He is serving his Pastoral Year in 2017-2018 at St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg.
Like Philip, Ben is from Yorktown and a military family. His home parish is Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Newport News. His father retired from the Army in 2001 in Yorktown, and his parents moved to Tampa in 2012 for his father’s new job and now he sees his parents only a couple of times a year.
Ben attended George Mason University. His college years were challenging ones – with spiritual, intellectual and academic challenges – but, along the way, he grew in faith, developed spiritually, and began thinking about what God was calling him to do, he said.
After college, he worked as a youth minister, and became active in the Young Apostles, a Roman Catholic community of men who inspire young people to live a Christ-like life. Ben recalled, “I was discerning priesthood at this time, but struggled immensely with the call. When I felt I had discerned enough, I moved forward.”
Ben’s parents – his mother is Catholic and his father is Baptist – told him they wanted him to be happy, and were “pretty supportive” when they learned of his decision to become a priest.
“The priesthood has challenges, but graces come through to balance the difficult times,” Ben said. “Humility is all-important in keeping things grounded, and it is found in those moments of grace. Through the challenges, graces come to affirm your decision.”
In his homily, Fr. Boehling recounted his own experience informing his parents of his decision to become a priest. His mother said, “All I want is for you to be happy,” and his father declared, “If you become a priest, I want you to be a good priest. Do good things.” To Fr. Boehling, they “captured happiness and success in a precise way.”
The root of happiness and success is “knowing and loving the Lord,” and true success “comes from giving your life away” – giving yourself over to Him,” Fr. Boehling said.
Parents say, “We want our son to be happy,” but often don’t really know what that means since their son has made a decision to be happy in a life that is profoundly different from what he and they might have expected. It is unfamiliar emotional territory.
Fears and concerns about it tend to lessen or dissipate with familiarity and involvement. By drawing parents into the process, the Diocese helps alleviate them.
Fr. Boehling suggested parents engage with their sons by praying, visiting and observing their son’s life, attending ceremonies and welcoming and supporting his friends. It is important to be in his life.
A seminarian needs those personal connections of family, fellow clergy and close friends who will nurture him and contribute to his well-being, quality of his life and ministry.
“No man is an island entire of itself,” wrote the poet John Donne, and in psychologist A.H. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, “belonging” is critical.
“Seminarians are from families,” Fr. Boehling emphasized. “They come from somewhere!”
Pope Francis makes the same point. Reflecting on priestly ministry and formation in 2015, he described a priest as “a man who is born in a certain human context,” who “starts in the family.” He noted, “Priests have a history. They are not ‘mushrooms’ which sprout up suddenly in the cathedral on the day of their ordination.”
Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo was hospitalized during the Seminarian Mass and luncheon, an event he always enjoyed because it reminded him of his days as a seminarian. Fr. Boehling said the Bishop had told him to “Feed them well,” and he did – with spiritual food, a lovely meal and gifts for them on their way.
Armed with a bag embroidered with the “RVAPriest” logo, stationery, and the book titled “A Priest in the Family” by Fr. Brett A. Brannen, the seminarians set out on the 2017-2018 phase of their journeys.
The Bishop had also instructed Fr. Boehling to tell the seminarians to “Buckle up because it’s a great ride.”