Young northeast Nebraska men turning out in numbers to explore the priesthood
May 11, 2023
Despite a culture that’s increasingly hostile to the faith, one that is often drawing young people away from the Church, God is still calling to those open to hearing His voice – and young men are listening.
As evidence, recent “come and see” visits to seminaries drew 29 men, and two Vocations Open House events this spring attracted more than 75, said Archdiocesan Vocations Director Father Scott Schilmoeller.
The vision for these events, whether an open house or a seminary visit, is to help young men hear firsthand the stories of priests and seminarians or show them the seminary environment, to assist them in their discernment with good information, he said.
“For a young man who has taken an interest in where God may be calling him in the future, these are steps he can take to go and see,” Father Schilmoeller said.
‘NOT WHAT I EXPECTED’
Father Schilmoeller said some young men who have taken part in seminary visits have been surprised at what they found, citing reactions such as: “I thought seminary was going to be a place where you pray and read all the time, but it’s not what I expected.”
They find “it’s a fraternal community of normal guys doing normal things … growing in holiness together,” he said.
Luke Gunderson, a graduating senior at Westside High School and member of Christ the King Parish in Omaha, said his seminary visit happened at a low point in his faith life, and the sense of fraternity he experienced was uplifting.
“I was absolutely blown away,” he said. “Meeting the seminarians, how they treated me, and how they made me feel like I was wanted – their kind gestures and attentive listening. I saw that they were really caring.
“The love that I got at the seminary gave me a new perspective on people and how to relate to people,” Gunderson said.
“How it changed my relationship with Christ after leaving the seminary is in (my) seeing Christ in other people more than I expected.”
EXPERIENCING SEMINARY LIFE
During the 2-3 day visits, young men experience the seminary life, including Mass, communal prayer and meals, campus tours, academic classes, sports and conversations with “guys they can relate to,” Father Schilmoeller said.
“It demystifies what a seminary is,” he said, “seeing what they actually do there, meeting seminarians and hearing their stories.”
For some, the visits lead participants to discern more deeply whether they may be called to the priesthood and to consider entering the seminary. Others may decide it’s not for them.
“It’s up to the individual and their relationship with the Lord, and with their spiritual director, over time, to continue discerning. These are just areas and avenues to assist the discernment process,” Father Schilmoeller said.
Gunderson, who has sensed a calling for several years and acknowledges his personal qualities that could be applied to the priesthood, is continuing to discern and is seriously considering the seminary.
And discernment is one of the main aspects of a seminary, Father Schilmoeller said.
“Their attraction or call to the priesthood might be strengthened if they go to seminary; if they’re not called to priesthood, that gets clarified.”
Father Schilmoeller has been leading these visits for several years, including while serving as associate pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk, St. Leonard in Madison, St. Peter in Stanton, and St. Patrick in Battle Creek before becoming vocations director last summer.
“I know God is still calling young people, experiencing the call they’re made for – a relationship with Jesus – and I get to accompany them.”
So far in 2023, he has led three visits to seminaries in the Midwest. In February, high school and college students visited Saint John Vianney College Seminary and Saint Paul Seminary, both in St. Paul, Minnesota. Later trips for college students and men out of college included another visit to Saint Paul Seminary and one to Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.
PERSONAL STORIES SHARED
This year, the Vocations Office also hosted other events to help young men begin discerning whether they may have a vocation – an open house March 26 in Norfolk, which attracted 26 young men, and one on April 16 at the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha, which drew more than 50.
An open house begins with evening prayer and includes sharing a meal and hearing testimonies from priests and seminarians. It culminates in an invitation to take the next step if interested – talking with their pastor, joining a discernment group, reading a book or visiting a seminary – Father Schilmoeller said.
For Eli Reiter, a May graduate of Wayne State College in Wayne, attending seminary visits and an open house has helped him better understand the role of priests as spiritual fathers, the culture’s need for the leadership of those who would serve as fathers, and how he might fill that role.
“Priesthood is a special union with Christ and a spiritual fatherhood,” he said. “Fatherhood in our culture has been ravaged, and people are starving for the leadership of fathers.”
Reiter, a native of Bellwood, Nebraska, and member of St. Peter Parish in Bellwood has been contemplating the priesthood for several years. He has visited seminaries several times and was impressed with the joyful atmosphere and the “outstanding support” provided to seminarians as they discern a possible priestly vocation.
He also attended the March 26 Vocations Open House in Norfolk, where priests shared personal stories of their discernment and offered perspective on the priestly life.
Hearing their stories has helped ease his fears or concerns and confirmed that “the priesthood can be a happy life.”
“The priesthood is a call,” he said, “but it’s not God imposing a call. It’s a call within your heart – an invitation by God to use your gifts to serve others. … There’s no greater call than that.”
“It’s a cooperational desire that’s coming from a heart that is formed by God,” he said.
Father Schilmoeller is encouraged by how young men in the archdiocese are responding to God’s call, given the challenges the Church faces today. A decade ago, there were 32 men in the seminary from the Archdiocese of Omaha. This year there are 22, and no men are being ordained in 2023. The number of priests in the archdiocese is expected to drop by 10% in the next 10 years.
But, he said, reversing the decline in the number of priests will take a team effort – through significant people in the lives of young men helping to cultivate fertile soil for the seeds of a vocation to take root.
Father Schilmoeller emphasized the importance of family members, parish priests, teachers, youth ministers and friends inviting young men who might make good priests to consider the idea of priesthood and attend a vocations event to learn more.
“The most effective invitation is a personal invitation,” he said. “They know the ones to invite because they see something in them.”
“Not all young men that come to these events are going to become priests. God is not calling all of them to be priests, but he’s calling all of them to holiness.”
“I’m seeing those young people experiencing the authenticity of the call that they were made for – to know Jesus and live the vibrant life of the community in the Church – that they really become alive in their faith, and that gives me a lot of hope,” Father Schilmoeller said.
The Vocations Office is planning two retreats and one more seminary visit for later this year to help men begin exploring the idea of priesthood. For more information, call the Vocations Office at 402-558-3100, ext. 3011, or visit omahavocations.org.