For many years bishops
and priests have been asking themselves, “What can we do to alleviate
the shortage of priests in the world?” Many proposals have been offered
and different strategies have been tried to solve the vocation crisis in
the Church. In spite of these efforts, the number of priests is still
declining. In 1966, there were 35,925 priests in the United States. In
1977, that number diminished to 31,977. The total number of diocesan
priests ordained in 1965 was 994, while only 521 were ordained in 1997.
Signs of an upward trend in priestly vocations began to manifest
themselves when the Sacred Heart School of Theology at Hales Corners,
Wisconsin accepted older men as candidates for the priesthood. Among the
three seminaries in the United States offering a second career to men
who are now widowed, confirmed bachelors, or divorced, Sacred Heart
Seminary has the largest enrollment. The other two seminaries engaged in
a similar mission are John XXIII at Boston and Holy Apostles College at
Cromwell, Connecticut. Since 1988, more than 250 Sacred Heart graduates
have been ordained to serve the Church throughout the world.
A study published by the National Catholic Association in 1993
indicated that there were no seminarians in the 1960s over the age of
50, and only seven percent exceeded the age of 30. By 1993, there was a
conspicuous change. Forty-four percent of all seminarians surpassed the
age of 30, and approximately six percent were older than 50.
This year there are 102 seminarians studying philosophy and theology
in Sacred Heart Seminary. They range in age from 26 to 76. The oldest
student will be ordained in two years.
Many men who were successful in the secular world oftentimes felt
unfulfilled. They were convinced that there ought to be more to life
than the accumulation of wealth and the attainment of a prestigious
position in society. In their souls, they echoed the words of Saint
Augustine who declared, “Lord, our hearts are ever restless until they
find rest in you.” Many of them had found happiness in their married
life. But they still could not suppress a desire to do more for God by
serving him in a special way. Their spouses were well aware of their
desire to become priests. Some wives, who suffered from a terminal
illness, encouraged their husbands to pursue the dream of priesthood
after they themselves died.
Those second-career men never expressed any doubts whether they were
too old to study for the priesthood. Once they were freed from worldly
responsibilities, they did not hesitate to begin their study of
philosophy and theology in preparation for the priesthood. More than
ninety percent of those candidates have persevered. They were
goal-oriented and did not allow any person, thing, or circumstance to
dissuade them from realizing the dream of becoming a priest.
Sacred Heart School of Theology is unique because all of its
graduates come from many different professions and walks of life. They
include doctors, lawyers, bankers, engineers, teachers, architects,
accountants, employees of the F.B.I., military officers, commercial
pilots, construction workers, carpenters, farmers, etc. Those
individuals achieved success not only in the secular world, but they are
now highly successful as Christ’s ministers. They are performing
outstanding work caring for the spiritual needs of people throughout the
world. Those second-career priests are disseminating the Good News in
Australia, Canada, Europe, South America, Indonesia, Cameroon, South
Africa, as well as in seventy-seven archdioceses and dioceses of the
People who are served by second-career priests discover that those
mature men had followed different paths before they reached the same
destination, namely, the priesthood. The lives of those men are
characterized by their desire to become more Christlike and to rely more
fully on prayer. Here are three accounts concerning their lives and
Dr. Dick Ward was an anesthesiologist for forty years. He was a
member of the faculty at the University of Washington Medical Center in
Seattle. Prior to that appointment, he was an Air Force flight surgeon
and also served in the Navy during the Korean War. He and his wife Norah
were married for thirty-seven years before she died in 1987. This couple
was blessed with three children.
Dick had accumulated substantial wealth working as an
anesthesiologist. Before this doctor entered the seminary, he bequeathed
a $600,000 home to his son Kevin as well as a 1986 Porsche sports car to
his daughter Sheila. All of his antique furniture and the balance of his
estate were given to his son Tim. Then he terminated his $300,000 a year
position and surrendered his medical license to pursue studies for the
Dr. Ward grew up as part of a devout Catholic family in Seattle. As
a little boy he had entertained an aspiration to be a priest. But
circumstances changed the direction of his life when he fell in love
with Norah Muldoon in 1950. Although both husband and wife attended Mass
regularly on Sundays, they still believed that married men should be
eligible for the priesthood. Dick shocked many of his colleagues when
they learned that he had sacrificed his beautiful home and other
material possessions to embrace the priesthood.
Tragedy struck the family in 1980. During a routine physical
examination, doctors informed Norah that she had a lymphoma. For seven
years she submitted to chemotherapy and radiation treatments. While she
was seriously ill, Norah encouraged Dick to study for the priesthood
after her death. He credits Norah for his decision to change his career
from the practice of medicine to the ministry of saving souls.
Dick was ordained in 1993 at the age of 67 and assigned to a parish
in the Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington where he is discharging his
priestly duties faithfully and enthusiastically. People love Father Dick
and are grateful that he decided to become a priest.
Numbered among the graduates of the Sacred Heart Seminary was Helmut
Richter, who was not a typical candidate for the priesthood. He was born
in Germany, baptized, and then confirmed in the Lutheran Church. This
affiliation with his Protestant heritage was broken when enemy troops
attacked his home town during World War II and forced his family to
leave. Richter’s mother could not provide adequate care for her children
in refugee camps. So she placed Helmut and his two sisters in different
foster homes. Later a Bavarian farming couple adopted Helmut and raised
him as a Catholic.
Helmut emigrated to the United States in 1967. As soon as he became
a citizen, he was inducted into the United States Army.
While he was stationed in Paris, France as a member of the medical
corps, Richter married a Dutch nurse. They had two daughters before
their relationship ended in divorce.
After returning to the United States, he accepted a job offer with
the Wells Fargo Bank. Soon he began to climb the corporate ladder.
Following his appointment as vice president of personnel, he assumed
responsibility for the supervision of 600 employees in 10 regional
Richter experienced pangs of conscience when he observed how the
bank employees were treated and exploited. Solely preoccupied with
profit margins, bank officials paid no attention to how the loss of a
job could affect an employee’s marriage and children. “We followed the
law,” commented this vice president, “but we did not follow the spirit
of the law.”
Although Helmut had attended a variety of Protestant services, he
could never experience the spiritual joy and tradition which were
part-and-parcel of Catholic worship. One day, while visiting a Catholic
Church in San Francisco, he felt a longing to return to his Catholic
roots which he had abandoned in his boyhood days. Upon completing a
series of instructions, he became a full-fledged member of the Catholic
Subsequently, he received an annulment and quit his job in 1989.
Company officials thought that he had been offered a substantial
increase in salary by another corporation. Helmut simply asserted that
he had a new boss, namely, Pope John Paul II.
Richter did not hesitate to sacrifice nearly all of his material
belongings to others when he entered the seminary. He felt excited and
fulfilled because he was convinced that he did what God wanted him to
This second-career seminarian spent five years at Sacred Heart
Seminary earning a bachelor’s and a mastery of divinity degree. He was
ordained in 1994 at the age of 51.
Today Father Helmut Richter is pastor of the Church of the Good
Shepherd in California. His previous experiences in the secular world as
a banker and married man have helped him immeasurably to administrate
his parish efficiently and to provide wise counseling to married couples
who are having problems with their marriage.
There are many Catholic laymen in the world who would like to become
priests. However, when someone suggests that such a person has all of
the qualifications to become a good priest, the potential candidate
often excuses himself by responding, “I am too old to study for the
priesthood.” If that individual firmly believes that age would bar him
from the priesthood, he ought to consider the life of Joseph Jacob, the
oldest seminarian now attending the Sacred Heart School of Theology.
Joseph Jacob was born in Torrington, Connecticut on September 22,
1922. His childhood and adolescent years were uneventful. Unlike some
second-career men, who secretly desired to become priests since their
boyhood days, this native of Connecticut was never interested in the
priesthood. No one, except his grandfather who died at the age of 106,
ever predicted that he would become a priest.
Mr. Joseph Jacob matriculated at Notre Dame University, South Bend,
Indiana in 1939 where he pursued an accelerated program in aeronautical
engineering. He graduated in 1942. His specialized study is now known as
aerospace engineering. In 1943, he was hired by Pan American Airways in
New York City. He spent three years working for that firm. One day he
met Jean Burke, a fellow employee at Pan Am. They were married in 1945.
Their love brought two sons and two daughters into the world.
Unfortunately, two other children died in infancy. Today all of Joseph’s
four children are happily married and leading successful lives.
In 1946, Joseph was hired by the Torrington Manufacturing Company of
Connecticut. Thirteen years later this father of four children and ten
grandchildren was transferred by the company to Rochester, Indiana, a
small community of 8,000 people.
After enjoying many years of married life, Joseph’s wife broke her
hip. Following unexpected complications from surgery, she died in 1994.
Before her death, Jean once asked her husband, “What would you do if I
were to die first?” He declared, “I would become a priest.” He was 72
years old when he uttered that statement.
Eighteen months after Jean’s death, Joseph Jacob read an article in
the Catholic Golden Age magazine. The writeup focused on a man who had
been ordained at the age of 80. About the same time Joseph read another
article concerning the life of Dr. Larry Beyer, a physician practicing
in Texas. Dr. Beyer had been ordained in 1995 at the age of 75. After
reading those two reports, Mr. Jacob decided to study for the
priesthood. Although the bishop of Lafayette, Indiana was reluctant to
accept this father and grandfather as a candidate for priestly
ordination on account of his age, he changed his mind when he was
assured by other priests that Joseph Jacob may still be able to serve
the Church at least five years prior to his retirement or death.
This future seminarian was able to commence his theological studies
at the Sacred Heart School of Theology in January 1997. He will become a
deacon in December of 1999, then spend six months engaged in pastoral
work for the Diocese of Lafayette, and be ordained in June 2000.
Joseph Jacob laughed when he mentioned the date scheduled for his
ordination. “All of my children, grandchildren, relatives and friends
will probably fill the church that day.” His smiling countenance
indicated that he was eager for that momentous day to arrive.
This likeable father and grandfather is in good health. He is
enthusiastic about becoming a parish priest working for the spiritual
welfare of people. Anyone who has become acquainted with the future
Father Joseph Jacob is confident that he will succeed.
During my three-day sojourn at Sacred Heart Seminary, I met and
conversed with some of the second-career priests who had returned to
their alma mater for an annual reunion of graduates. Every one of them
admits that he is happy in his vocation. These men love being priests
and insist that no career in the world has given them the satisfaction
and fulfillment which they experience by doing God’s work. As Christ
promised, they will be rewarded a hundredfold because they gave up
worldly possessions to follow him.
We should be grateful that these second-career priests have been
willing to answer God’s call. May their ministry be crowned with
success! And may the Lord bless each one of them with special graces to
do his will!
Joseph C. Frisch is a priest of the Diocese of Winona, Minn. He has
pursued doctoral studies in philosophy, theology, psychology and
medicine, and earned two doctorates in French universities.