By Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.
In these days leading up to Christmas, it is not unusual to hear the question, “What would you like for Christmas?”
I have a pretty big list – four counties worth! – but, if asked, I would be quick to respond, “more seminarians for the Diocese of Trenton!” That wish was evident on Saturday evening, Dec. 9, when 13 local young men braved the season’s first snowstorm and came to my residence in Princeton for dinner and conversation about the priesthood. The event was an idea put forward by Father Jason Parzynski, chaplain and teacher at Notre Dame Catholic High School in Lawrenceville, to Father Michael Wallack, director of vocations and secretary to the Bishop, in early November.
“I wanted to expand our outreach to a larger group so that more young Catholic men could see that other guys are discerning priesthood,” Father Jason reflected after dinner.
“Such gatherings give the guys a chance to be together and discover that becoming a priest is an option worth considering,” Father Wallack said. “And the Bishop is a pretty good cook, too!”
The young men arrived and introduced themselves to one another, although some of them already knew each other from schools or parishes they are attending. I was amazed at how quickly the conversations began as we went to table. Trays of lasagna disappeared pretty quickly along with chicken and a variety of hoagies and all the fixin’s. After some spirited discussion and lots of laughter, the priests present told their “vocation stories.” Father Michael Hall, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Ewing, and director of worship, joined the group after his evening Mass. Once dinner was over, the group assembled in the living room to watch a brief video on the priesthood, “Fishers of Men,” and share their reactions. The most common thought expressed was clearly, “I didn’t know priests did so much – I thought they just prayed and said Mass and stuff.”
Father Jason said he thought the evening went very well. “The DVD gave the guys a deeper look into priestly life and ministry, and the discussion that followed enabled them to share their thoughts openly, without being self-conscious about the reaction of their peers.”
“It was an added bonus,” Father Jason commented, “to be able to interact informally with the priests and Bishop.”
Father Hall noted, “As a pastor, I was struck by the ease with which they guys asked us questions. It was amazing how surprised they were that priests are just ‘normal guys’ who have heard Christ’s call and have given their lives to him and God’s people.”
The evening contained another fun element as we celebrated Father Jason’s 37th birthday, much to his surprise. Going back to the table and singing “Happy Birthday” around a big cake and candles was a special moment unexpected by most of the group. Some of the moms had sent along Christmas cookies, and they were also devoured pretty quickly!
After the young men left, Father Wallack remarked, “As vocation director, I want to encourage our parish priests and school chaplains to identify and recommend guys who might have an interest in considering the priesthood. They, along with teachers in our schools and parish religious educators and youth ministers, are in the best positions to let us know whom we might contact. Parents, however play the most important role in supporting priestly vocations among their families. The words of St. John Paul II come to mind, ‘Be not afraid.’”