New board hopes to address ‘vocations crisis’

By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

TAUNTON, Mass. — Acknowledging that vocations are a “crucial thing in the life of the Church,” Father Kevin A. Cook, director of vocations and seminarians for the Fall River Diocese, said it is imperative that we all respond to the will of God in some way.

“Without vocations, everything falls apart,” Father Cook said. “Without vocations to the priesthood, you don’t have priests and you don’t have the Sacraments. Without the vocation of Marriage, the family falls apart. Without vocations to consecrated life, you don’t have that profound witness of a total gift of life to the Lord.”

To that end, Father Cook said Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., recently asked him to organize and oversee a Diocesan Vocations Board comprised of priests, deacons, religious and married lay people who “have all shown in different ways a passion for vocations,” he said.

This newly-formed, 10-member board has been meeting since the beginning of the year and held its most recent brainstorming session at Holy Family Parish in East Taunton, where Father Cook serves as pastor.

In addition to Father Cook, the board is comprised of Father Christopher M. Peschel, associate director of vocations and seminarians for the diocese; Sister Paulina Hurtado, O.P., Episcopal Representative for Religious and associate director of vocations; Father Jay Mello, former associate director of vocations; Father Arnold Medeiros; and Father David Pignato.

Rounding out the group is Deacon Rick Varieur of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Parish in South Attleboro; John and Paula Wilk, members of St. Patrick’s Parish in Wareham; and Phil Martin, chairman of the Theology Department at Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth.

In speaking with Bishop da Cunha, Father Cook said he expressed a desire to have a diverse group with representatives from different walks of life who have each responded to their own vocations in different ways. While the priests have an obvious vested interest in vocations, it’s equally important to get input from members of the diaconate, religious orders, and married lay people as well.

“There hasn’t been another group like this (in the diocese) in recent memory,” said Father Peschel.

Father Cook said he remembered around the time of his ordination that Father Craig Pregana had attempted to form a similar group, but pressing pastoral duties and assignments made it difficult to maintain.

He has higher aspirations for this latest venture.

“This will be an ongoing board, because in terms of vocation work, there’s so much that needs to be done,” Father Cook told The Anchor. “And you always have the challenges of society that will present new obstacles to vocation work. But right now we’re looking at how we can set an initial direction and our hope is to be a real support for the work of the diocese.”

Noting that the diocese and the Church, in general, has fallen into something of a Catch-22 situation where the dwindling number of vocations has created a lack of visible role models for young people, Father Cook hopes to bring an awareness of these potential callings back to the parishes, schools and ministries of the diocese.

“It’s not that there aren’t as many vocations, it’s that young people aren’t listening and responding to them,” he clarified.

“I went to Catholic schools all my life and I was always close to the priests in my parishes,” said Deacon Rick Varieur. “My uncle was also a missionary in Haiti for 25 years and he would return and tell me stories. I think that’s why I’ve always had an affinity for clerics and that’s what led to my own vocation.”

“Most young girls have never even seen a Sister or met one before and they don’t know what they do,” agreed Paula Wilk.

That’s why for the past several years Wilk has organized the three-day Called By Name Retreat for Women, which mirrors the similar Quo Vadis Days experience for young men held in July. This year’s Called By Name Retreat will be held August 21-23 at the Sacred Hearts Retreat Center in Wareham.

“It’s a weekend retreat for women, college-aged, to discern their vocation,” Wilk said. “It’s not necessarily for those who are called to religious life — although we focus on that quite a bit — it’s a vocational discernment retreat. We have talks about Marriage, and what that really entails. We have talks about religious life, too.”

But one of the most important aspects of the retreat is having that one-on-one interaction with religious Sisters, Wilk said.

This year members of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity and the Little Sisters of the Poor will be in attendance.

“They spend a weekend with the Sisters and see they are real people and they can have fun and go swimming with them in the ocean,” she said. “And the questions they ask them are so funny.”

In turn, Sister Paulina Hurtado said she’s worked with youth and young adults her whole life and she has always maintained “a special interest in vocations.”

“I worked with vocations for the permanent diaconate for about 14 years in the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif.,” Sister Paulina said. “As a Dominican Sister of Charity in the field of education and in the formation of persons to the religious life, my involvement with seminary vocations has given me the conviction and continued interest to make others aware of God’s personal call in their lives, to follow Jesus Christ closely either as priests or religious men and women, and to dedicate their lives to His work of Salvation for all.”

Already familiar with the Fall River Diocese through her frequent stays at one of her community’s main houses in Dighton, Sister Paulina was only too eager to take on the role of Episcopal Representative for Religious and associate director of vocations when Bishop da Cunha first contacted her.

“I belonged to this diocese, in a sense, because I started my religious life here,” she said. “So I am very glad to be working with this board and the diocesan (vocations) team as well.”

As a teacher at Bishop Stang High School, Phil Martin said he sees teen-agers on the front lines everyday and he senses that they are being bombarded with mixed messages from the secular world and are struggling to discern God’s call in their lives.

“I think they’re only getting one side of the message and it’s the wrong side from our culture,” said Martin. “And not all of them are getting that message at home, so it’s important to meet them where they are and show them that God might have a plan for them and, hopefully, one they will follow to make them happy.”

Citing his own parents’ example and solid Catholic upbringing, Martin said he hopes his own children will reap the same benefits.

“Whatever God wants for them is what they need to do and hopefully we can find ways to teach that and pass it on,” he said. “At least, that’s the goal.”

Some of the ideas discussed among Diocesan Vocations Board members included possibly having a full-time vocations director, looking at ways to start different prayer support groups for vocations, and declaring each diocesan ordination day as a solemnity, so that all priests and parishioners can attend.

“It’s like a big brainstorming session with people just tossing out best practices and good ideas,” Father Peschel said. “(We) frequently check out what’s working for vocations offices in other dioceses, especially ones that seem to be rather successful in sending a number of seminarians. I guess best practices are good because we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here.”

For Father Cook, he hopes the Diocesan Vocations Board will at the very least become a catalyst to get people to more consistently talk about, pray for, and support vocations throughout the diocese.

“Our hope is that once we have a real sense of all the essential aspects of the diocese where that message of vocations can become more prevalent and fostered, then we can come up with a practical plan to present to the bishop to implement,” he said. “That’s how we’re approaching it right now.”

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