| By Darci Swisher | Correspondent

Prayers for vocations are bearing fruit

The Diocese of Austin is facing a challenge many other dioceses would love to have — how to fund seminary formation for the large number of men discerning the priesthood.

Currently, the diocese has 41 seminarians in various stages of formation, and Father Greg Gerhart, vocation director, anticipates having 50 seminarians this fall. The 13 new seminarians who started formation in the fall of 2023 were the most in recent history — if not ever in the diocese’s 75 years.

“The prayers and the coordination of our efforts of forming and inviting people are bearing fruit,” he said.

Increasing vocations

In 2022, the diocese invited Rhonda Gruenewald, founder of Vocation Ministry, to speak about increasing vocations at the annual convocation of priests. At her direction, pastors identified five people to run the ministry at their parishes. These “vocation promoters” then attended a workshop — held in both English and Spanish — with Gruenewald and her associate, Leticia Ramirez.

“All of those vocation promoters went back to the parishes and implemented our diocesan plan for vocations, which is, ‘pray, form and invite,’” Father Gerhart said. “We’ve coordinated in a large way — in a way that we haven’t coordinated before throughout the diocese — to pray for vocations, to form people, to hear God’s call and respond to it, and to invite people to consider whether God might be calling them to the priesthood or religious life.”

One annual initiative, Called by Name Sunday, is when the priests of the diocese preach on vocations and invite parishioners to submit the names of men and women who they feel might be called to the priesthood or religious life. Called by Name Sunday 2023, resulted in 975 names submitted to the Vocations Office. Father Gerhart and his staff reached out to these men and women with letters, texts and emails.

Personal testimony

Qui Ton, 27, had his name submitted by fellow parishioners at St. Mary Cathedral in Austin, on Called by Name Sunday in 2022. “That event thrust me into the gradual opening of myself to God’s will, and I couldn’t be happier that I was asked to consider the priesthood,” he said.

Afterward, Ton attended Project Andrew, a day with Bishop Joe Vásquez that offers single men, ages 14 to 49, the opportunity for Mass, prayer, presentations on the priesthood and to meet many priests of the diocese.

“At the end, I spoke to Father Greg, who recommended that I start Discernment 180 and also gave assurance that God only wants the best for me,” Ton said. “I eventually realized that discernment could only open up great possibilities for me, whether that involved the priesthood or not, so I decided to dedicate the time to prayerfully receive his divine will for my life.”

Ton applied to the seminary, and this fall he will trade a career as a software engineer for further discernment as a seminarian.

While having Ton and so many other men respond to being prayed for, formed and invited is a blessing, it does come at a cost. The diocese pays $70,000 per year for each man, which covers full tuition, room and board, a monthly stipend for expenses and health insurance, if necessary. Multiply that number by 10, which is how many years some seminarians spend preparing for their ordination day, depending on their educational background when entering, and the amount is significant — especially when there are 50 seminarians.

Funding for those in formation

The diocese is looking beyond its standard sources of funding for seminary formation, such as the Catholic Services Appeal as well as an endowment created with gifts to the Encountering Christ campaign. A seminarian appeal will launch this spring to help meet the anticipated shortfall in funding — one that will continue to grow as, God willing, more men answer the Lord’s call to serve as one of his shepherds.

To make a gift to this appeal,

visit www.austindiocese.org/donate.

Darci Swisher is a freelance writer who has worked with the Catholic Spirit for several years. She and her husband live in Michigan.

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