By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA – “Be prepared to be surprised.”
That was part of the message that a Benedictine priest delivered to 10 men of South Carolina who are considering a vocation to the priesthood. Father Jonathan Fassero encouraged the men to try a major seminary as part of their discernment process.
“If the priesthood is a gnawing question that won’t go away, an individual owes it to himself to come forward and give the vocation a chance,” the dynamic priest said. “Go to the seminary not with a lot of answers but with a lot of questions.”
Father Fassero’s Oct. 13 “Thinking of Priesthood” presentation at the Thomas More Center on the campus of the University of South Carolina was offered at the invitation of the Diocese of Charleston’s vocations office and was paid for by a grant from the Lilly Endowment of Indiana. Father Fassero is attached to the St. Meinrad School of Theology in that same state. During the daylong session, Deacon Joe Cahill, diocesan assistant director of Vocations, spoke about the diocese’s application process and financial assistance programs and Sandra and Ed Robinson of Christ Our King parish in Mount Pleasant, who have been married for 35 years, spoke on “What priests mean to me.”
Bradley Greer, a human resources manager who worships at St. Mary in Greenville, was one of the participants. He said that he has been trying for nearly a year to decide if he has a vocation. He also attended a weekend vocations retreat put on by the diocese in June and found both events helpful.
“Both have been very good for me,” Greer said. “It’s hard to discern a vocation; in one way it’s an eternal commitment.”
Gaurav Shroff, pastoral associate to Father Tim Lijewski at the USC parish, agreed that deciding on a religious vocation was “not something you want to jump into.” He said that working with a parish priest was beneficial to the decision-making process.
“You get no rosy images that way. It’s realistic and I love every minute of it,” he said.
Shroff admitted that he has actually decided on priestly formation; his decision is between diocesan priest and an order. Others were further from committing, and Father Fassero knew some of the reasons why.
“The values of the priesthood and the way of life of a priest are counter-cultural,” he said. “The first sign of a vocation is often confusion. I admire their faith and courage in coming here today.”
The Benedictine explained to the men the difference between a college seminary (undergraduate) and a major seminary (four or five years of graduate theology after a baccalaureate), about the privilege of having a personal spiritual director in seminary and about seminary life. He said that the pope’s “universal call to holiness” was the common denominator in determining any lifelong vocation.
“The seminary is a place to ask questions, where the Holy Spirit works and where the church can let you know if you should be a priest. There are no Jell-O molds for priests; the seminary respects individuality. Going to seminary is a sign that you’re giving your vocation a chance. The wonderful education in seminaries fills your mind and stretches your heart. It’s a tremendous opportunity to grow,” he said.
Father Fassero called the seminary decision a “win-win proposition.”
Cahill said that one other way to know if you want to be a priest is to go through the application process for the Diocese of Charleston. It involves a detailed biography, 10 to 12 references and testing by a psychologist before an interview with the vicar for Vocations, Father Dennis Willey. If all that goes well, an applicant is interviewed by the diocesan Vocations Board and, finally, by the prelate of Charleston, Bishop Robert J. Baker. To be accepted, an applicant must successfully pass each step. Shroff called the process “daunting” and “freeing.” Cahill said it takes six to eight months to complete.
The assistant director of Vocations said that there are 18 men in seminary for the Diocese of Charleston today, four of whom are in a college seminary. Seminarians generally take out student loans for their education, which the diocese pays off upon ordination. The Diocese of Charleston will also pay off half of old student loans of up to $40,000. He said the prospects for vocations are looking good.
“We’re going to have a good year next year, thank God,” the permanent deacon said.
Father Fassero said that he would “love to help surface vocations for this diocese because we have alumni here and because this is a mission diocese.” Based on the rapt attention to his presentation, the “Thinking of Priesthood” day was a step in that direction.