In Fr. Eugenio de la Rama’s ideal world every parish priest would be promoting vocations to the priesthood whenever they had a chance. Pastors would be the vocations director of their parish. They would talk up the priesthood from the lectern and encourage the youth of the parish to pray about whether they were being called to the priesthood.
And while that’s not exactly second nature for priests, Fr. Eugenio, who is the Director of the Office of Priestly Vocations for the Archdiocese of Newark, is actively working to create such a culture at the parishes, schools, and institutions in the Archdiocese.
“There are some pastors that are really trying to do new things because they’re on board and they want to have a robust vocations ministry in their parish,” he said. “Priests are being introduced to this new concept of raising vocations from our parishes, and the way we do that is by talking about it, sharing it from the pulpit and encouraging the youth to pray about it.”
It’s no secret that vocations to the priesthood have fallen off sharply in recent years. Locally, there are currently 41 seminarians studying for the priesthood at the three seminaries in the Archdiocese of Newark. Of those, 10 of the students came up through the Archdiocese of Newark and attend either The College Seminary at Saint Andrew's Hall or Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University on a full-time basis. Thirty-one students attend the missionary seminary of Redemptoris Mater in Kearny which is under the direction of the Neocatechumenal Way.
Fr. Eugenio said the decline in priestly vocations is unfortunate, and that over the years the Catholic faithful and religious have taken the formation of priests for granted.
“Most people think that priests just kind of show up at their parish, and because we’ve always had them, we always will,” he said.
There is some good news, Fr. Eugenio said, pointing to the next crop of young men aspiring to become priests.
“We have six men now, and then we have many high school guys who, if they could, would enter the seminary immediately because it’s their dream to become priests,” he said.
Fr. Eugenio checks in with the priests-to-be every three months or so to see how they are progressing and to encourage them in school.
“I let them know that I’m praying for them,” he said. “The priesthood is the result of a process. And if God is calling a young man to become a priest then ideally we should be talking about it, praying for him, recognizing where to direct him, and encouraging him.”
Over the past few years Fr. Eugenio has introduced new initiatives to promote vocations. And while the Coronavirus pandemic has impeded programs this year, he is looking forward to the continued growth of Quo Vadis and the Aspirancy program.
Quo Vadis is a four-day summer camp program for high school students. It offers an opportunity for young men to examine their life, understand their Baptismal call to holiness and what it means to be a Christian man in today's world.
“It’s about authentic Christian masculinity,” Fr. Eugenio said. “It’s something that I feel is not addressed enough in the Church. It’s about how to grow in faith as a young man since the rapidly secularized culture can pose a real challenge in that regard.”
The experience includes outdoor activities, prayer, and a chance to meet peers from all over the Archdiocese.
“It’s so lifegiving because we emphasize how a man gives of himself in selfless generosity to people around him following the example of Jesus Christ,” he said. “It is an amazing week. One year, when the guys went home, I had parents calling me in tears asking, ‘What did you say to my son? He helped out with the groceries. He cleaned his room.’”
Fr. Eugenio explains how the changed behavior is because the young men who participate in the program are challenged to view daily events or tasks as opportunities to be a gift to others. “In life, you are either giving or taking from others,” he said.
He added, “It was just so awesome. That’s probably my favorite thing so far in the past several years.”
The Aspirancy Program is for men who are seriously discerning the priesthood but are still working or attending school. Fr. Eugenio refers to it as “seminary light.” The aspirants meet up and go on pilgrimages to shrines, and prayerfully consider if God is calling them to be a priest.
“We give them the experience to learn more about the priesthood and how to pray about it before making the big decision to enter the seminary,” he said.
The Office of Priestly Vocations is very active on social media. Its YouTube channel offers numerous videos about the priesthood and its various ministries. Videos include testimonials from priests and students, essay contest videos, and more.
In a video entitled, “Meet our Vocation Director,” Fr. Eugenio discusses his role and the Office of Priestly Vocations.
“When I became a priest, I said: ‘Am I giving up my life?’ And I was thinking about it in the wrong way,” he says in the video. “When really, God doesn’t ask us to become priests and lose our lives. We lose it in that we give it up by choice voluntarily. We don’t view it as a loss. We give it up as a gift and we give it to the Church in Jesus so that we’re able to share in his priesthood and receive abundantly the grace of the bridegroom, the Church, and her reciprocal love for us.”
To learn more about the Office of Priestly Vocations of the Archdiocese of Newark, visit www.newarkpriest.com.