Vocations Director Seeks Broad Range of Qualities in Future Priests

By George Raine
Catholic San Francisco
January 11, 2012

Father David Ghiorso

You would think it would be counterproductive for Father David Ghiorso, vocations director for the Archdiocese of San Francisco and pastor of St. Charles Parish in San Carlos, to say "no" more than "yes" to men who show an interest in the seminary, given the relatively thin ranks in the priesthood.

He said five men last year were somewhat easy calls: They were 55 and older, which would give them senior status after some seven years in the seminary. Others lacked, by Father Ghiorso's standards, fire in the belly.

"They have to be people who are going to take charge," said Father Ghiorso, who succeeded Bishop Thomas Daly as vocations director when, in May, then-Father Daly became auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of San Jose.

The seminary is very structured, Father Ghiorso said: "'This is what you do and when you do it.' When you get to a parish no one is going to be telling you what to do. You are going to take initiative."

The numbers and demographics for seminarians studying to be priests in the Archdiocese of San Francisco reflect a national trend: There has been a slight increase in numbers of entrants in recent years, even with some being advised that at their ages it would not be practical for them or the Catholic Church for them to pursue their vocations, and the average age of men expected to be ordained is trending younger.

There are currently 21 archdiocesan seminarians, compared with 20 a year ago. Of them, 17 are at St. Patrick's Seminary & University in Menlo Park; two are at Bishop White Seminary at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and one is at Theological College at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Three are expected to be ordained this year: Deacon Jerry Murphy and Deacon Armando Gutierrez, both now at St. Patrick's, and Deacon Felix Lim, at Theological College. The three men are transitional deacons on their way to priesthood.

The Catholic Church in the United States is celebrating National Vocation Awareness Week Jan. 9-14, dedicated to promoting vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education.

"It is our responsibility to help children and young people develop a prayerful relationship with Jesus Christ so they will know their vocation," said Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

Archbishop Carlson added, "Through a culture of vocation in families, parishes, schools and dioceses, Catholics can nurture an environment of discipleship, commitment to daily prayer, spiritual conversion, growth in virtue, participation in the sacraments and service in community. Without this environment, promoting vocations becomes simply recruitment. We believe we have much more to offer our young people."

Each year, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University compiles a survey of newly ordained priests. It found in the class of 2011 the average age of ordinands is 34, slightly younger than in 2010, following the pattern in recent years of average age at ordination in the mid-thirties.

Those who are ordained will face the realities of the priest shortage, not as acute in the Archdiocese of San Francisco as it is elsewhere in the United States priests in Idaho are circuit-riding between parishes, for example, and there were 39,466 priests in the U.S. in 2011 compared with 58,632 in 1965 but that's not enough for Father Ghiorso, who was ordained in 1981, to lower his bar.

"People are going to be looking to you to be a mover and a shaker, and that is a difficult transition for some," he said. "They understand balance in their life. And here are the qualities I like to see: Charity would be the first one. You want to help other people. I look for ones who are looking for a deeper meaning in their life. I want them to have a good prayer life. I want to see leadership. I want to see commitment. It is not a big word in our society today, to be able to make a lifelong commitment. And sociality: Do you like people?"

Patrick Summerhays reportedly passes this test. By his own account, however, it took him a long time to hear the voice of God. When he did hear it he knew the call was unmistakable. "God has spoken to me not only in prayer but through other people and encouraging me, or at least he thinks I have what it takes to be a good priest and to minister to people," said Summerhays, 38, studying theology at St. Patrick's with an expected ordination in 2015.

"When I finally gave God a shot and asked him what he wanted me to do," he said, "I really began to see for myself. I really don't think it is something that I have sought out for myself. I think God is constantly calling people."

Summerhays, as part of his mandatory field education, is also performing one of priests' most critical duties hospital visitations in which he sees the spectrum reaching from new life in maternity wards to death and dying, and finding the right tone for a priestly presence. He's doing the work at Sequoia Hospital and Kaiser Hospital, both in Redwood City, learning from Father Kevin Kennedy, in residence at St. Pius Church in Redwood City, the chaplain.

Of standing with a patient and a family at death's door, he said, "This is one of the most important parts of being a priest, and more or less ushering a soul into heaven, and accompanying them in this final leg of the journey. It is important for the family, at a time when faith can be tested."

Summerhays is one of 104 seminarians at St. Patrick's, which serves 17 western and Pacific Rim dioceses and a religious order, the Franciscans. There may be three or four more added this year, if immigration and other issues are resolved, which puts the seminary at capacity.

Sulpician Father James L. McKearney, the president and rector of St. Patrick's, is likewise an advocate of quality over quantity. "That is our modus operandi," he said.

"Sometimes it means asking good guys, nice people, to leave the seminary until they are ready to be in a seminary," he added. "For some, it is obvious they do not have a priest's vocation."

But when applicants wend their way through a filtering system of multiple layers and psychological exams and reach Father McKearney's office, he wants to know, "Why the priesthood? Why now? With everything that is going on in our society, in our culture, the clergy sex abuse outrageous stuff."

Father McKearney said, "They say, 'That is precisely why, Father. I want to be a good priest. I want to help the church. I want to regain our status in society. Help people save their souls.' It is all this practical pastoral but also deeply spiritual instincts and to be good priests. It is always inspiring.


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