Weekend retreat helps young men discern religious calling

John Anderson, a senior at St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown, has known since he was in fifth grade that his spiritual journey would lead him to enter the seminary. This past weekend, he, along with 15 other thinking of religious life, took a major step toward that goal at a discernment retreat held at St. Mary’s Seminary in Roland Park Jan. 18-20.

Anderson, a 17-year-old parishioner of St. Mary in Hagerstown, first heard the calling on a separate retreat with a church group at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg.

“I was sitting in the church next to my dad, and I heard somebody saying my name,” Anderson said. “I turned to my dad, and he said he didn’t say anything. Then I heard it again, and he said, ‘maybe it’s Jesus.’ I continually thought about it after that.”

Years later, Anderson attended a Steubenville conference, where he felt a similar calling that confirmed his decision.

“I had this experience that I thought about the seminary, and my whole entire life came at peace with it,” he said. “And since I made that decision to focus more on the seminary, everything has been falling into place for me.”

Soon after the conference, Anderson contacted Father Steven Roth, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and initiated the process of discernment. After meeting with Anderson and conversing with him several times, Father Roth believed Anderson, like the others attending the weekend retreat, was ready to take the next step.

“We have this weekend to help guys discern seriously the call not even necessarily to priesthood but to whether the Lord is calling them to enter seminary,” Father Roth said. “We only invite the serious discerners who are currently applying or who are very close to making that decision.”

According to Father Roth, those who are discerning attend the retreat to grow closer to God and to help understand whether God is calling them to the priesthood and seminary. They get to know each other, fostering a sense of unity and strength of knowing they are not alone in discerning where God is calling them, Father Roth said.

While many of the discerners were from Maryland, others, such as Roger Mungala, traveled from as far away as The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mungala, who has attended similar retreats through the archdiocese, found the four sessions on discernment particularly relevant to his calling.

“The talks and all of the vocation stories we heard from priests who have already been ordained was a helpful way of also discerning my own call for God,” he said. “It was inspiring and helpful so I can hear and respond.”

Father Roth was optimistic by the number of retreat participants, which was higher than in previous years.

“I think these men see the struggles and burdens the church is facing and are stepping forward and saying, I want to be part of the solution,” he said.

Participants in a discernment retreat pose for a photo with Archbishop William E. Lori Jan. 19 at St. Mary’s Seminary in Roland Park. (Rus VanWestervelt/Special to The Review)

Mungala noted that there are many good priests.

“We pray for the fallen as we continue to do the work of Jesus Christ,” he said. “I can’t stop my vocation for these scandals. I trust God, and he will help me and others to know him.”

Archbishop William E. Lori celebrated a Mass Jan. 19 with those attending the retreat. He shared his own story of discernment, recalling how he attended what he thought would be a “routine” Mass in the Detroit area as a young man until he heard simple words from a parish priest spoken from the heart. They sparked a moment of conversion for him.

“Was I anything like the Christ of the Beatitudes?” asked Archbishop Lori. “Was I poor in spirit, humble, a peacemaker, a lover of holiness, clean of heart, ready to suffer for my faith? Or was I becoming a religious technocrat?”

The archbishop told the participating men  they were present at the retreat because “at various levels, God’s word has already touched your heart and prompted you to discern whether God might be calling you to serve him and his church as a priest.”

As for the unwavering Anderson, he hopes to attend Catholic University and live at St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., in pursuit of his calling, despite the challenges the Catholic Church has faced.

“No priest or seminarian should be discouraged from entering the priesthood because there are other priests doing the wrong thing,” he said. “We should feel empowered to enter the priesthood, because the tides can change with stronger priests.”


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Rus VanWestervelt

Rus VanWestervelt

Rus VanWestervelt, a freelance writer for the Catholic Review, is a lifelong resident of Baltimore, a graduate of both Towson University and Goucher College. He teaches writing at Towson University and in the Howard County Public School System.

Rus is the author of two works of fiction, a collection of Christmas stories and essays, and hundreds of articles on writing, parenting and teaching. Rus lives in Towson with his wife and three children, and is a parishioner of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, where he serves in the Vantage Point program, working with candidates and catechumens interested in being confirmed in the Catholic faith.