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A second chance to become priests

By Joseph C. Frisch

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 United States.
    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 belated vocations.
    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 priesthood.
    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 offices.
    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 Church.
    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 do.
    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!

Reverend 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.

 

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