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As Ordination Day nears seminarians share their journey

After earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Christendom College in 2011, Matthew J. Rensch was trying to decide whether to enter the seminary or to get a job. "I wasn't clinched in the idea of answering the call [to priesthood] immediately," he said.

So he called the vocations director for the Diocese of Burlington who told him that there is always a logical, sensible reason to delay attending seminary and that answering the call will never make complete sense according to the logic of the world so delay can always be justified. "And so, given that I was thinking about it, he encouraged me to jump in, to take the plunge, to cast out into the deep," he said.

So he did.

Now a transitional deacon, he will be ordained to the priesthood at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Burlington on June 18 along with Deacon Curtis A. Miller.

Seminarian Joseph J. Sanderson will be ordained to the transitional deaconate.

In anticipation of their ordinations, the three men shared some of their thoughts and experiences with Vermont Catholic magazine.

Deacon Miller was born in St. Johnsbury, the younger of the two children of Edward and Judy Miller.

When he was young, the family moved to Colchester where he grew up and attended public schools and Our Lady of Grace Church.

He heard the call to priesthood when he was in high school on a retreat with the opportunity to spend time with the Lord in prayer, especially in Eucharistic adoration. He said yes to the call because he believes it is what God is asking him to do and trusts that He is leading him on the path on which he can best serve Him and the Church and be truly fulfilled.

"In retrospect, I can also see how God was preparing me for this vocation throughout my life," he said. "My parents instilled the importance of the faith in my sister and me from an early age. As an altar server, I was also able to see my pastor's priestly ministry up close in his celebration of the Mass and other sacraments and his other acts of service to God and the people of our parish. My parents, sister, and my parish priests have all been very supportive of me."

After he graduated from high school in 2008, he entered seminary, spending the first four years of seminary formation in Rhode Island at the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence with classes at Providence College; he graduated in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy.

He spent the past four years in formation at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass., and had summer assignments as a custodian at the diocesan offices in South Burlington, helping lead the Totus Tuus summer catechetical program throughout the diocese and at parishes in Castleton, Orwell, Williston, Richmond and Brattleboro.

Deacon Rensch was born in Binghamton, N.Y., one of the six children of William and Margaret Rensch.

The family moved to Vermont when he was five; his home parish is Immaculate Heart of Mary in Williston.

He was homeschooled until 11th grade and then attended Vermont Technical College at the Williston campus for a bridge year. After a year there studying electrical engineering, he went to Christendom College then to seminary at Our Lady of Providence Seminary and North American College in Rome. From 2012-2015 he studied at the Opus Dei University of the Holy Cross, earning a sacred theology bachelor's degree and now at the University of St. Thomas for a Licentiate in moral theology.

During his seminarian summers he worked with at the Diocesan Bishop's Fund Offices, studied Italian at Middlebury College and worked at parishes in Richford, Brattleboro and Barre.

His call to priesthood was influenced by the close relationship of his family to their parish and the former pastor, Father Donald Ravey, and attending daily Mass. "Another key moment was reading C. S. Lewis' 'Mere Christianity' in high school; he was a true witness of Christ to me," Deacon Rensch said. "Then in college the witness of the professors and the continued spiritual life helped to clarify the call."

Sanderson, born in Middlebury, is the son of John and Jennifer Sanderson of Conversion of Saint Paul Church in Orwell. He attended Orwell Village School, Fair Haven Union High School and Providence College. He has completed the spring semester of Third Theology year at St. John's Seminary in Boston.

He had not given serious thought to another vocation. "I have always had a desire to serve and to bring others to Christ," he said. "I have experienced the love and mercy that only comes from God. Now, I wish, and want to give my life, so that all may come to know this love and mercy."

Pope Francis inspires him to get out of his comfort zone and to seek out those who are suffering, lost or estranged from Christ and His Church in any way. "I look the example of the pope and pray for the courage to take up this task," he said.

This summer he will be assigned to parish work in Swanton and Highgate Center.

As he anticipated his ordination to the transitional diaconate, Sanderson experienced feelings of deep peace, certitude and excitement. "However, as acting on and freely choosing any lifelong and life changing choice, I have naturally experienced the full gamut of emotions," he said. "Vermont has always been my home, and I look forward to living my life in service of its people."

Contemplating the influence Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI has had on him, Deacon Miller said the latter helped him understand the beauty of the liturgy and the truths of our faith and how to explain them clearly. "Pope Francis has highlighted the necessity that we seek God's mercy and show that same mercy to others, especially through acts of charity that reveal God's love," he added.

Deacon Rensch has seen popes in person, including the last Angelus of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis. "What has struck me deeply about both is their profound humility," he said. "The humility of Pope Benedict was forcibly displayed in his willingness to resign and retire to a quiet, hidden life, forever relinquishing his desire to teach as a professor. The humility of Pope Francis has been similarly displayed, very notably in his request to us in St. Peter's Square after his election to pray for God's blessing over him. Both popes, then, are fantastic witnesses to the Christian life."

One of Deacon Rensch's favorite saints is St. Francis de Sales, mainly because of his combination of burning missionary zeal with brilliant apologetics. St. Therese of Liseux, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis of Assisi are also favorites.

Deacon Miller identifies with St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, who though he was not as intelligent or talented as other priests brought many souls to know and love God by his personal faithfulness to God and his devoted service to his parishioners.

As a priest, Deacon Miller most looks forward celebrating Mass and reconciling people to God in confession; Deacon Rensch looks forward to offering Mass, celebrating all the sacraments and encouraging or confirming the role that the priest plays as a father. Both deacons hope to emulate the good priests they have known.

Asked to give advice to young men discerning a call to the priesthood, Deacon Miller encouraged them to spend quiet time with God in prayer every day at a regular time – even if only for a few minutes. "Ask Him to reveal to you His plan for your life and ask Him for the grace to be able to respond positively to that plan," he said. "Maintain this relationship by attending Mass every Sunday (or more often), by regular Eucharistic adoration and by seeking God's forgiveness often in confession. Talk to your family and a trusted, holy priest. Have good friends who challenge you to live a holy life. Try to serve others every day, especially by being involved in your parish. If you do all these things, you will more easily be able to hear God's call, whatever vocation He has planned for you, and thus live a truly happy and holy life." Deacon Miller's hobbies include reading – especially American history and literature – and spending time outdoors, hiking and camping.

Deacon Rensch enjoys playing basketball, Irish music on the guitar, listening to musicals, reading and watching movies.

All three men to be ordained expressed gratitude to their families for their support. "I find it hard to imagine how a man can arrive at the altar without serious support from his family," Deacon Rensch said. "They're that crucial."

His advice for those contemplating priesthood: "Pray, seek the Lord. Cast out into the deep."

Article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer.

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