Good shepherds of future flocks
LEWISVILLE — Thomas Jones first began thinking about a vocation to the priesthood in high school.
But the Carrollton native didn’t understand the need for more “men of the cloth” until he was deployed in the Middle East with the U.S. Air Force.
“We were in theater, but not a forward operating base, so chaplains would provide Mass for us,” explained Jones, who served as a military computer specialist.
Soldiers on the front lines, confronting the enemy, would go months without receiving the sacraments.
“That really bothered me because I was able to go to Mass every day but the people being shot at couldn’t,” recalled the 35-year-old who witnessed firsthand the ripple effect one priest can have on the lives of others. “That’s one of the main factors that compelled me to enter the seminary.”
After eight years in the Air Force, the St. Catherine of Siena parishioner began studying for the priesthood in 2010 and is now one of 26 seminarians in the Diocese of Fort Worth. He is currently spending his pastoral year at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Lewisville where he is becoming acquainted with the inner workings of a faith community.
“The Church needs more seminarians — a lot more seminarians,” Jones asserted, and parishioners can help the cause in two ways. They can pray for vocations and support the Good Shepherd Special Collection held annually in the diocese on the fourth Sunday of Easter. Contributions allow young men to study for the priesthood without worrying about financing the required education. This year’s collection is set for the weekend of April 21-22.
“When a man commits to being one of our seminarians, our bishop pledges to pay for all college expenses — tuition, room, board, and books, explained Renée Underwood, associate director of the Advancement Foundation, a non-profit corporation that oversees donations made to assist the mission of the Church in North Texas. “Education costs for seminarians are the single biggest line item in the diocesan budget every year.”
The average annual cost to the diocese per seminarian is $52,090 with the length of formation taking seven to nine years. Diocesan seminarians currently attend St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La., Theological College in Washington, D.C., and Assumption Seminary in San Antonio.
Financial obligations stalled Pedro Martinez from entering the seminary.
Already active in various church ministries, Martinez first considered a call to the priesthood after his pastor, Father Hector Medina, asked him to think about the possibility.
“My pastor was such a great example of care and compassion and that added to my desire to be a good servant for the Church,” explained the St. Matthew parishioner.
But Martinez, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 14, was reluctant to enter the seminary. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington, the new graduate was saddled with student loan debt and began working fulltime. His job as a human services specialist with the City of Arlington also helped support his disabled father.
“It was a tough decision,” he admitted. “I wanted to serve the Church but didn’t know how I could leave my family.”
The enthusiasm he witnessed at World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain rekindled a desire for the priesthood.
“When I came back, I decided to discern my vocation,” he continued. “I contacted the Vocations Office and they were very helpful in guiding me through the process.”
Martinez’ student loans were deferred and the diocese paid for his tuition and other expenses at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio. Just as his formation studies began in 2013, the Social Security Administration approved his father’s disability payments.
“It was a way for me to see how God always provides and takes care of His people,” he explained. “I’m very blessed to have people who are very generous and support our vocation both spiritually and financially.”
Currently serving his pastoral year at St. Jude Parish in Mansfield where he’s in charge of the altar servers, the 32-year-old tells people to encourage young men they know to consider a religious vocation.
“The money you contribute to the collection can help change the life of a seminarian,” he said. “I’m very grateful for the support I get from the diocese in general. It’s made a big difference in my discernment and journey to the priesthood.”
Fellow seminarian Jones expressed similar feelings.
“I eat every day, I have a bed at night, and a roof over my head because of the generosity of others,” he said. “That’s something that’s never far from my mind.”
Good Shepherd Sunday is an appropriate time to show support for seminarians, Underwood pointed out. The day’s Scripture, taken from John’s Gospel, describes Christ as the “Good Shepherd” who lays down His life for His sheep.
“In the same way, our priests are pastors of their flock,” Underwood said. “Their lives are a total self-giving for others. These young men being helped will be our future priests.”
During Good Shepherd Sunday, Mass celebrants also will share their personal vocation stories with the congregation.
“We’ll hear what led them to discern a call to the priesthood and what the priesthood means to them today,” she added. “It’s truly a wonderful way to understand why this collection is so important.”
“This is one of the few special collections where 100 percent of the money given stays right in the diocese,” Underwood emphasized.
In parishes where a religious order priest is the pastor, 50 percent of the money raised in the parish collection will go to his order to promote vocations. Parishioners can text SEF to 91999 to make a gift to the Seminarian Education Fund at any time.