Even though he's only 16 years old, Matthew Mora of Oakville is pondering a pretty mature question: whether he should go into the seminary and, possibly, become a Catholic priest.
To help him consider this decision, he is attending the fall "Come and See" retreat this weekend at the St. Louis Archdiocese's Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury along with more than 40 other young men from the St. Louis area.
"I’m hoping to see if I can get a little bit closer to the vocation God’s calling me to," the junior at Oakville High School said. "It’s not going to be a simple 'You’re a married life or a priest.' I’m hoping to walk away with a little bit more clarification."
Held twice a year, these retreats give young men a chance to interact with current seminarians, learn about the required academic courses, take a tour of the facility, and get answers to some of their questions, according to Fr. Brian Fallon, assistant vocation director for the Archdiocese.
"'What’s seminary like? Do you guys get to have any fun? Can we still have friends outside of seminary?,'" he said. "All those type of things that when you’re experiencing them here at Kenrick-Glennon, you get to say, 'Well, I’m not as frightened of this Hogwarts-type place as I was, and, I don't know – maybe God might be calling me to come here.'"
Fallon said this kind of onsite experience is one way to promote the priesthood. That's increasingly important as the Roman Catholic Church nationwide is facing a priest shortage. The St. Louis Archdiocese has 30 percent fewer parish priests than it did two decades ago, and since 1980 has only ordained an average of five or six priests a year.
But Fallon said there is a positive sign.
"We talk about a priest shortage – certainly our numbers are down, but the number of discerners is certainly up in recent years, just people being open to what God might be calling them to do."
Fallon himself was called to join the seminary after attending "Come and Sees" in high school, which "felt like I was returning home." But he emphasizes that the young men who arrived at Kenrick-Glennon on Friday are at "various levels of discernment" about whether they even want to enter seminary, let alone become priests.
"I think a lot of times people think that they have to be 100 percent sure they're supposed to be a priest at 18, and that’s a misconception we try to get rid of right away," he said.
Fallon said the attendees shouldn't feel pressured to make a decision, and instead should consider the process to entering a relationship: You try dating before thinking about marriage.
"So I think that eases the pressure on a man who is discerning in high school – 'Look, why don’t you come for a couple years, get your general credits through the seminary, and if you’re not supposed to be here, the church will let you know or you’ll be able to understand through your prayer and through working with the seminary formation staff," he said.
That's a lesson 16-year-old Jax Byington of Bonne Terre learned since he first attended a "Come and See" last year.
"I’ve had people say, 'So you go to the seminary, you’re going to be a priest.' That’s not necessarily true," the sophomore at St. Pius High School in Festus said. "It is a process, and this is another stage of discernment: whether you’re going to figure out if you’re going to the seminary – not that you’re going to be a priest."
Byington said he likes how joyful and peaceful the seminarians always seem to be when he visits. When he thinks about becoming a priest, he said he isn't sure about giving up the possibility of getting married or whether he's even cut out to be one.
"That’s why I like the come-and-sees; I get to talk to seminarians," he said. "I get this feeling sometimes, this feeling of unworthiness, like I couldn’t do this because I'm am me, I'm a sinner. But it helps me to realize that everyone is a sinner, and it doesn’t matter who you are. If God’s calling you to your vocation, then you will be in that vocation."
Among these weighty conversations and lots of prayer, Fallon said the students also get to have fun playing games and sports and hanging out with the seminarians. But it's often during this downtime that the serious questions come out.
"We’ll be sitting around having a soda or playing basketball and, 'Well, how did you know you were called to be a priest?' is ultimately the question," he said. "The answer is, 'Well, I didn’t know. I came to the seminary to figure it out."
Meanwhile, Mora has some advice for future attendees of the retreats: "Don’t come in thinking you’re going to come out with a definite answer. Come in with an open mind, see what weekend is like, and have fun."
For young women interested in becoming nuns, each order of religious women in the St. Louis area holds events throughout the year. On Nov. 25, the Daughter of St. Paul will hold an evening of discernment.
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