Steubenville serves as conduit for planting seeds for religious vocations

Sid Hastings
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Drew Burkemper was hoping he would get through the entire weekend of Steubenville without a mention of vocations. Several years ago, as he attended the conference with his youth group from St. Joseph Parish in Manchester, Burkemper already had an idea that God might have been calling him to the priesthood. But he certainly wasn't ready to let the world know that.

At the end of the weekend, Steubenville organizers asked young men and women who were thinking about a religious vocation to stand up. A blessing was offered. Their peers applauded and cheered them on. It's become a hallmark of every Steubenville conference -- a visible sign of support for potential religious vocations.

Burkemper is now a transitional deacon, with just about one more year to go before he is ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Looking back on his experience, Steubenville had an influence on his discernment, and for that, Burkemper said he's grateful. This summer, Deacon Burkemper accompanied a group of teens from his assigned parish, St. Patrick in Wentzville, and he said he witnessed in some of them the same thing he experienced as a teen.

"It was at these times I was forced to think about it then," said Deacon Burkemper. "(Steubenville) was definitely a major factor in coming to understand this (vocation) was something real -- that this wasn't just a passing thought, but something real in my heart that I think God had placed there."

Vocations influence

Local leaders also see retreats such as Steubenville as an opportunity to make that connection with young people who might be discerning a vocation. At this year's conferences, Father Christopher Martin, director of the archdiocesan Office of Vocations, announced the debut of a new vocations app for mobile devices, which he said was designed to be a continuing source of support for those thinking about the priesthood or religious life. (See related box.)

"I think that for Steubenville, the whole purpose of the retreat is to give young people a personal encounter with Christ," said Father Martin. "The fruit of that encounter is not only knowledge of God's love for you but also a sense of mission. And flowing out of that call to mission and that encounter with a very personal God is the question, 'Are you being called?'"

The priest said the youth retreat setting can provide a context for that person who is wrestling with the idea of a religious vocation to be able to stand up and recognize two things -- that they're not alone in their discernment and that they're supported, regardless of what their vocation turns out to be.

The retreat setting also shines a public light on the many young people who have their hearts open to the idea of a religious vocation. Last weekend, for example, more than 100 young men and nearly double that of women, stood up during the vocation call and blessing. Father Martin said those kinds of scenes draw positive attention to supporting young people in their discernment.

"I think that there is a crisis in the Church of not recognizing marriage as a vocation and not seeing it as God has called me to this," said the priest. "In general, people don't find a lack of encouragement for marriage, but they do run into a lack of encouragement for priesthood or religious life. And that's why they're emphasized in a retreat setting like Steubenville."

State of vocations

Such public displays of support also draw attention to the need for vocations, particularly the priesthood. "Jesus changed the world with 12. Just imagine what we can do with all of you," Father Martin said to the more then 100 young men who came forward at the end of the weekend.

That attention is manifesting itself in a growth in vocations. Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, for example, has reported that it will see an increase in vocations this coming year. According to development director Kate Guyol, the seminary had 108 men at the start of the 2012-13 academic year. This year, the seminary is expected to welcome approximately 123 seminarians, which includes Cardinal Glennon College, the pre-theology program and Kenrick School of Theology.

That growth also comes at a time when the archdiocese is looking at how to keep its parishes adequately staffed with priests. John Schwob, director of pastoral planning for the archdiocese, noted that in the past 12 months, nine priests have voluntarily chosen to take a leave of absence -- reasons vary from health issues to continuing education to discerning the future of their priesthood, he said. A tenth priest was removed this past year for allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Several other priests have retired.

"Christ is going to call some of you to be a living sacrifice," Father Martin said to the young men at Steubenville. "But we cannot do anything without the grace of God. The first invitation is to come and see."

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