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Pre-priesthood professions

Not every priest went from the family home to the seminary to the rectory. Many pursued other careers before answering God’s call to priesthood.
 
Whether they worked in business, in government jobs, in the medical field, as a contractor or a teacher, for them, it was a major change in lifestyle and in work.
 
For example, Father Dallas St. Peter, pastor of St. Mark Church in Burlington, worked as an actuary, but after two years, he realized he “didn’t want to work behind a desk at a computer” but wanted to work more directly with people.
 
But he didn’t enter the seminary just them. He got involved in education first as a teacher’s assistant in public schools then as a teacher at St. Francis Xavier School in Winooski.
 
While he was teaching, he debated about going back to school for a teaching degree or entering the seminary. “I was ready to go back to school,” he said.
 
He chose the seminary because although he enjoyed teaching, he was drawn to the priesthood.
 
Like Father St. Peter, other priests of the Diocese discerned their call to priesthood while working. They include:
 
Father Karl Hahr
Father Karl Hahr worked for his father, the late Edward Hahr, at Hahr Construction as a contractor in New Jersey and in the St. Johnsbury area. They built houses and commercial buildings.
 
He began working in the business when he was 11 and learned about carpentry, putting in sidewalks and working with steel and concrete.
 
By the time he graduated from Lyndon Institute in 1986, he has worked is way up from laborer to skilled laborer and a few years later worked as a carpenter.
 
“I’m a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none,” said Father Hahr, pastor of All Saints Church in Richford and several other area churches. He has experience in plumbing and electrical work and can operate a crane.
 
The construction work helped to foster his vocation to the priesthood. “The crew I mostly worked with were all good Catholics which made for an atmosphere conducive and supportive of living a good Christian life,” he said.
 
He has done some roofing (which he does not like to do), put in a floor at St. Anthony Church in Sheldon and poured a new cement sidewalk at All Saints with the help of a seminarian. He has done renovations at the rectory, including construction of a chapel; sometimes his brothers (who worked with their father too) or parishioners help him. When the parish office needed a large table, Father Hahr built one; when a friend in Boston needed a tabernacle for a convent, he built one and lined it with marble, adding a carving of the Sacred Heart on the front.
 
“There is something about seeing the result that is satisfying,” he said about working with wood.
 
Through his work as a contractor and carpenter, Father Hahr learned patience and perseverance.
 
Carpentry has always been a part of his life, but though it still is, the priesthood is his focus. “I can’t take on something that takes me away from my ministry,” he said of building projects.
 
Father Chris Micale
Before his ordination, Father Christopher Micale worked in occupational therapy and mental health counseling and as administrator of recruiting for Dartmouth College football. 
 
While at Dartmouth he had a reawakening to the Catholic faith and was asked to consider the possibility of a priestly vocation by his parish priest and another parishioner. “I think I was becoming increasingly unfulfilled over the years with my work experience, and when I was confronted with this possibility, I began to see that the work I had done up to that point was in preparation for serving the Church in a more formal way,” he said.
 
He had been on his own, working and living independently, so living in a house of formation with about 70 other men, praying and sharing meals together would be quite a change. “Then returning to a rigorous academic program after being out of school for years was also quite a challenge,” he said. “This was six-year commitment, a frightening thing for someone who was entering middle age at the time.”
 
He managed the change through prayer and a strong commitment that God had asked him to do this. 
 
Now administrator of St. Thomas Church in Underhill Center and St. Mary of the Assumption in Cambridge, Father Micale’s pre-seminary work required good interpersonal skills and the ability to analyze and integrate through observation of human behavior both physically and psychologically. “The positions I held over the years gave me an understanding of the emotional and physical needs of the human person, his or her development and function,” he said. “This was a perfect foundation for the spiritual work God would ask of me as a priest.”
 
Also, his office administration background was helpful in running a parish. “You start with God's vision and then through the organizational and interpersonal skills the priest can follow through on what Christ wants for His people at the local parish,” he said.  “Every parish has its own identity and its own history within the greater culture. It's a balance in which the priest must express the love of God to the parish and local community especially when difficult decisions must be made.”
 
 
Father Lance Harlow
Father Lance Harlow was a radiologic technologist (X-ray technologist) when his vocation to the priesthood emerged. “God was calling me from a profession to a vocation,” said the rector of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph Co-Cathedral parishes in Burlington. “Generally speaking, a profession is a work one does as a means to fulfill a greater good or lifestyle,” he said, adding that his career as an X-ray technologist was a beautiful profession, and taking care of the sick is a noble end in itself, but my life was empty outside of work.”
 
A vocation, he continued, fulfills the fundamental need a person has for meaning and purpose and appeals irrevocably to the very core of one’s nature, talents and aspirations. “As a calling from God, a vocation enables one to be fulfilled in the will of God which leads one to a recognition of something far greater than happiness; it leads one to peace.”
 
The discernment process from his profession to his vocation was the most difficult
decision he has ever made because he enjoyed my colleagues and worked hard in his profession. “I had to abandon both in an act of faith guided only by the restless search to hear God’s voice.”
 
It took a year of vocational discernment with his pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Windsor.
 
He was the first priest ordained in Vermont by Bishop Kenneth A. Angell.
 
Apart from the changes that occur with maturation over time, Father Harlow said that the most significant change in his life since my professional days has been a marked sense of “gravitas,” feeing the weight of the world. “As an X-ray technologist, I saw a lot of sickness and suffering, but it was within the controlled environment of a radiology exam room or hospital room. As a priest, I confront human suffering on a daily basis, and people look to me to take it away. That is weight.”

--Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
  • Published in Diocesan

Priests pedaling for prayers

After riding bicycles a little more than 340 miles over five days, three young priests of the Diocese of Peoria sailed across the Indiana state line April 28, bringing Priests Pedaling for Prayers to a close.

“It does seem a little surreal,” Father Tom Otto said at journey’s end. “Things like this seem insurmountable when you begin, but maybe like life, you focus on the short-term goals. … That makes it doable. Take one little bit at a time and before you know it, you’ve done something pretty incredible.”

The effort to raise prayers for vocations began April 24 when Father Otto, Father Michael Pica and Father Adam Cesarek dipped their rear tires in the Mississippi River, which marks the border between Iowa and Illinois. They were sent forth with the blessing of students at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in East Moline, who lined both sides of the street outside the school to cheer them on.

Along the way, they stopped to talk with students and parishioners at 15 schools and churches about the need for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, as well as good, holy marriages “from which all vocations come.”

They also celebrated Mass, took part in Holy Hours for vocations, stopped to pray at the Bishops’ Mausoleum in St. Mary’s Cemetery in West Peoria, and visited with people at potluck gatherings, dinners and receptions arranged by the vocation apostolates or Knights of Columbus councils in each area.

At most stops, they received pledge cards from children and adults with promises of prayer, sacrifice and good deeds to support them on the ride and ask God for an increase in vocations.

“What’s been really neat to see is the goodness of the people of our diocese. That’s been, for me, absolutely the most powerful part,” said Father Cesarek, who is parochial vicar at four faith communities in central Illinois.

“The overwhelming support we had from each and every place we went, the joy that each place had and the excitement that they maintained … really invigorated me and gave me an incredible hope for our diocese,” he said.

He said the trio were inspired by the good, holy people they encountered, including the priests of the Diocese of Peoria, many of whom were on hand for their visits and offered them hospitality for the night.

“There were things that surprised us along the way,” said Father Otto, parochial vicar at two parishes and a chaplain for students at Monmouth College. “The fact that every school and every parish did something different for us was a nice surprise.”

The pedaling priests found a drumline waiting for them at Costa Catholic Academy in Galesburg, a parade with students from St. Mary School in Pontiac and St. Paul School in Odell walking or biking with them, and signs, streamers and tunnels of enthusiastic students at others. When they arrived at Schlarman Academy in Danville, near the Indiana border, students were holding a large “Finish Line” banner they had signed.

Father Pica, parochial vicar at three parishes in McLean and DeWitt counties, credits the welcome at the schools with “pumping us up and getting us ready to go, giving us momentum to do the ride.”

That was especially important on April 26, when the priests did their “century” ride — 100 miles in one day. In all, they were on the road for 20 hours and 45 minutes, averaging about 17 miles an hour.

Each priest had a tough day, but it wasn’t the same day so they were able to support and encourage whoever was struggling. They prayed the rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet and caught up with each other when the wind was at their backs and they were able to ride side by side.

“There’s moments of quiet, which is all right, too,” Father Cesarek said. “There are moments of suffering out there. I was kind of keeping in mind particular people, some of the kids in our school who are suffering with cancer, offering that suffering for them.”

They emphasized that they aren’t the only priests willing to suffer and go the extra mile for their people.

“There are so many priests out there who will do anything and everything and they don’t get recognition for it,” Father Pica said. In fact, these men prefer to remain behind the scenes.

Would they do it again?

“Ask us in a couple months,” Father Otto said, laughing.

“Without question,” Father Cesarek said, “we would all be open to it again, if the Lord wills it.”
  • Published in Nation

Celebrating Priesthood

As we celebrate the Jubilee for Priests and Seminarians this month as part of the diocese's year-long celebration of the Year of Mercy, I am reminded of my own priestly ordination that occurred 23 years ago on May 8, 1993. I was the first priest of this diocese to be ordained by His Excellency, Bishop Kenneth A. Angell. The ordination took place in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and I keep one special photo of the event in my living room. The photo captures the moment during the rite of ordination when the ordinand makes the promise of obedience to his bishop. It is one of two sacred promises. The other sacred promise is celibacy. During the rite of ordination, the bishop asks the ordinand: "Do you promise respect and obedience to me and to my successors?" To which the ordinand responds: "I do."

In the photo, I am kneeling before Bishop Angell with my hands held in his. On that day I did promise respect and obedience to him–and to his successors; that is, Bishop Matano and Bishop Coyne. I remember the moment clearly. I also remember it every year when the entire presbyterate assembles with the bishop at the annual Chrism Mass during Holy Week at which we renew our priestly promises.

That promise of obedience opens a door of special graces for the priest. As he physically places his hands into those of his bishop, he surrenders his priestly ministry to the bishop's discernment for the greater good of the diocese. While there is always place for discussion and collaboration with his bishop, ultimately the priest believes that through his promise of obedience, God will manifest his will through the bishop. That belief is not just an abstract theological notion; it is ratified through the lives of countless saints over the course of two thousand years. Not once has a priest-saint ever said, "Do your own thing" or "Your career comes first." But rather, every priest has sought grace through obedience–and it has always borne fruit in his ministry.

While most parishioners view their priest as belonging to "their parish," he really belongs to the entire diocese. (I am speaking here of diocesan priests. Priests belonging to a religious order fall into a broader category defined by the scope of their apostolate). A diocesan priest must live in that poverty of obedience by which he realizes that he belongs to no single parish, but rather that he belongs to all parishes. His pastorates are temporary depending upon the needs of the particular parish and those of the whole diocese. Jesus made that lifestyle clear in the Gospel in the following scene where, humanly speaking, He should have stayed in one town and made a very successful career for himself. But such was not God's will:

"Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, 'Everyone is looking for you.' He told them, 'Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come. So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee' (Mk 1:35-38).

The Holy Spirit opens and closes doors throughout the priest's life leading him to "nearby villages"–even when things seem to be going well for him in a particular parish. The Holy Spirit knows the souls who will benefit from the priest's new ministry, and the priest desiring nothing more than to do God's will, goes where he is sent empowered by the graces brought about by his promise of obedience.

And so, on the day of his ordination, the young priest kneeling before his bishop enters into a new reality of grace. So young and without any priestly experience, he makes those sacred promises certain of the correctness of the Church's wisdom. And then years later, seasoned by age and experience, he not only remembers those sacred promises, but he has an even greater certainty of their correctness, fruitfulness and protection. Those two words, "I do," freely given on the day of his ordination, allow him to teach, to preach and to heal, not for his own personal success or comfort, but for the common good of all of you who constitute the people of God in Vermont. When you see the young ordinands on June 18 kneeling before Bishop Coyne and placing their hands into his, promising obedience to him and to his successors, remember that those sacred promises will open the doors of special graces for them to have very fruitful priestly ministries.

Father Lance W. Harlow, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Williston and Our Lady of the Rosary in Richmond, is the diocesan chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Year of Faith. (See official on page 3.)

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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