Millennial Shepherds for the Future

By: Samuel Pearson

Samuel Pearson (5th year) chats to some of the seminary’s newest brothers about life, vocation and being Catholic today.

“I didn’t have a lightning bolt moment,” says 32-year-old Blake Crossley. “Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP gave a talk a few years ago where he spoke of the ‘OPD,’ or the Order of Perpetual Discerners – those people who just keep going around in circles asking themselves if they should or shouldn’t give the priesthood a go. I decided I was well entrenched in this group and it was time to take the plunge!” 

Blake would go on to join the Order of Preacher’s, but after a couple of years, ‘saw the light’ (as we diocesan seminarians would say) and joined the seminary to train for the diocesan priesthood. “So here I am in the seminary!” he laughs.

Blake is one of ten new first years to join the seminary this year, all of whom are part of a growing number of young millennial men joining the priesthood or at least seriously thinking about it. While the so-called ‘nones' (those without religious affiliation) increase, Christian morality ever more stridently rejected and the church's sex abuse crises' global proportions become horrifically more apparent, the numbers of young men here in the seminary has actually risen.

The First-years at St Patrick’s Cathedral

The First-years at St Patrick’s Cathedral

There was only about twenty in the seminary during the early 2000s, by 2005 it had risen to the high thirties and for the past couple of years, numbers have stabilised around fifty, with the seminary recently expanded to accommodate larger numbers.

Like many of his brother first years, Blake is an Aussie. He hails from Murray Bridge, SA later obtaining a degree in pharmacy. In his spare time, he mentions casually, he plays flute, clarinet and sax – “and I’ve played in different bands in the past and in the orchestra pit for musicals.”

While those training for the Adelaide archdiocese has been few as of late, Blake is one of three, including year 21 old and Architectural studies major, Edward Ibarra (whom we call EJ) and former secondary school teacher, Joshua McDermid.

Like Blake, EJ loves his music, playing guitar and bass, while Joshua prefers lawn bowls and passionately supporting Port Power, which puts him at odds with Blake who follows the Adelaide Crows.     

“I started seriously discerning the priesthood in 2016 after a particularly inspiring homily when I was a teacher on a Year 12 retreat”, says Joshua. “My decision to enter the seminary was helped along through my attendance at World Youth Day in Krakow and through the example of a young Adelaide priest, Fr Peter Zwaans. My biggest reservation about entering the seminary was that I loved my career in teaching”.

“For me, it was a gradual call,” says EJ. “The defining moment...I remember it clearly, it was on the 27th of July 2017. I am kneeling before Our Blessed Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament when I told him I was ready. Suddenly I started to tear up with tears of joy because at that very moment I found the peace and love that my heart was longing for”.

It’s a similar experience for 25-year-old Ian Vergel, (an avid painter in the art of iconography), who worked as an accountant and now is training for the Melbourne Archdiocese. “As I spent more time in prayer and reflection, there grew a gradual attraction to the priesthood. I was enticed by the idea of helping others get to heaven and to help them understand Christ and his teachings.”

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Even so, the move to the seminary has been a big change and he’s not coy about the lifestyle changes. “After leaving a full-time salary, I have come to realise how luxurious I was in my expenditures!” he laughs. “Nowadays, I have to be really careful with my expenses and indulge in the occasional treat.”

“Which is?” I ask. With the seminary located next to Lygon Street, Ian grins broadly and says (not surprisingly), “a Pidapippo Gelato!”

Gentle and somewhat self-effacing, Jamie Castillo, 29, changed his PhD in engineering to a masters degree, so that he could enter the seminary earlier. “I can’t live without music!” he says, effused and smiling. But he goes on to extol the importance of prayer in his life and its centrality to discerning his vocation.

“My decision to enter the seminary was the fruit of one year of serious discernment with a spiritual director, prayer, and intimate relationship with the Lord. St. Therese of Lisieux who is one of the patron saints of priests and seminarians, also played a great role in my vocation story.”

John Vespa

John Vespa

John Vespa, 35, grew up in the Melbourne Suburb of Greensborough. While initially working in hospitality as an apprentice chef, he travelled around Europe, lived and worked in London, until late 2009, before returning to Australia to complete a Bachelor degree in nutritional medicine. After working in a clinic as a dietician, he joined the seminary.

“From a very young age I felt the love of Christ in my heart and although at that point I was unsure exactly what it was, that feeling has stayed with me and is with me today”

Tuong Nguyen, 30 (who, after some time listening to us try to pronounce his name, allows us to call him Jude), is the only member of his year level from Vietnam.

“I lived in a small village...called Ban Me Thuot, where most people are farmers and cultivate coffee beans and all kinds of nuts, wheat, and vegetables”

“My calling was at the age of eleven when I heard my uncles’ stories of priesthood...my grandfather encouraged my desire to pursue priesthood, by becoming a server in my parish.”

It hasn’t been easy adjusting to a new culture, but he enjoys his time here. “It is good to live and study with other seminarians from different countries. I feel that the seminary is my second home, I get along well with other seminarians and enjoy the good food, entertainment and studies as well.”

The fourth of five children, 21-year-old Joseph Schaefer from Mount Waverley in Melbourne’s South-east, credits a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago as a great impetuous. “In the weeks following the pilgrimage, I began to feel the graces working in my life...I started the application process only a few weeks after returning to Australia.”

Now in the seminary for a couple of months, Joseph says that he’s “absolutely loved” it. “Being part of a young community of men all seeking the Lord together...is very enriching for my faith.”

Aidan Williams

Aidan Williams

20-year-old Aidan Williams, from Caroline Springs in Melbourne’s west, felt drawn to serve God and his church since he began altar serving from grade four. “It wasn’t until three years ago that I started discerning the call of the priesthood and what it meant to me. I knew deep down God wanted me to do it, but I wasn’t listening and was blocking him out.”

Aidan eventually went on to join the National Evangelisation Team (NET Ministries Australia). This enabled him to travel around the whole of Australia, working with Catholic schools and parishes, exploring and teaching the Catholic faith to those who wanted to know about Jesus and also help those who were struggling with life’s challenges.

“Towards the end of last year, after much discernment I knew, I had to give the seminary a try. And here I am today discerning the will of God for my Life!”

For the youngest of the group, 19-year-old, Geelong resident, Rhys Lowther, a vocation was also apparent from a young age. “My vocation has been clear to me from the age of 12-13 years. By 15 years of age, I wanted to give my unworthy self to that work of so many great men before me: the salvation of souls.”

Such faith will be critical to a future ministry amidst an increasingly godless society. I ask them if it’s harder being Catholic today. “Well yes it is!” says Aidan emphatically. “As a young Catholic…each day I am trusting, having hope and always knowing Jesus is by my side and within my strength and weaknesses. For if “I trust in Him, my cross I bare, will be transformed into the crown that will give glory to Him forever.”

While some may reject what they see as off-putting piety, Aidan is refreshingly genuine in his conviction. “That is the true meaning of what makes me a young Catholic that still wants to believe today. Yes, I don’t know where I’ll be next year, but I know that I will be serving with Jesus still.”

“Yes,” says Ian, almost bluntly, when asked about being young and Catholic. “But in every generation, there has always been a struggle [and] in these struggles lies the most beautiful moments of being a Catholic.”

Josh has a different take. “What is perhaps most difficult, is being a young Catholic when they are so few people your own age practising the faith.”

“The never-ending crises within the Church and the hatred that many have towards her has certainly taken its toll on me,” says Rhys. “Before entering the Seminary my spiritual director, after hearing my lamentations, reminded me that this isn't the first crisis the Church has found herself in during the past 2000 years and it is precisely in these times of apparent despair that Our Lord raises up the greatest saints.”

From Left to Right:  Rhys Lowther, John Vespa, EJ Ibarra & Ian Vergel

From Left to Right: Rhys Lowther, John Vespa, EJ Ibarra & Ian Vergel

For EJ, it’s not all doom and gloom. “What has inspired me and given me courage is seeing my fellow brothers continue to serve God in these tough times. It is a true testament of the faith. God has persevered with his church for centuries where the faith has also been faced with major challenges...he won’t abandon it now.”

The current crisis is “more of a reason to push through to the priesthood, to join the battle, to help others repent and believe the Good News” he says.

In recent decades, the discipline of priestly celibacy has come under withering critique, not just from outside the church, but even more forcibly from within. Wouldn’t the mission to proclaim this Good News be easier and more credible to the people of today without celibacy, I enquire.

“It provides a freedom for the priest to imitate the priesthood of Christ who totally and exclusively dedicated himself to his mission of salvation,” says Blake.

“And if we think of it that way, celibacy is definitely not a barrier, but more so a liberating factor for a priest,” says Jamie thoughtfully.

“So it’s still relevant today,” says Blake, “but just appears as a foreign concept to the notion of sexual freedom extolled in our society.”

While this same society extols openness and choice, it seems they struggle to appreciate those same qualities in the commitment priest’s make. Tuong is very clear; “Celibacy and chastity are free choices,” he says. “Since my choice is made through a lot of prayer, discernment and encouragement, I will make this as a commitment for life. To make this commitment, I have to open my mind, heart, and soul to the calling from God.”

This spiritual openness to God, allows for a pastoral “openness to those with whom I will be working and serving...instead of a sacrifice it will be an act of love as God did on the cross on Calvary.”

 “Ever since I can remember, I knew and understood that priests do not marry because their love is not for one but for many,” says John. “Although marriage is not for every person, the role of the priest is to lay down his life for the community. For me, the love I feel inside is for one and all of the people.”

Josh laughs; “In many ways, I think the promise of obedience to the bishop is harder! I was used to having control over my decisions and now I have to accept that I will be sent where the bishop tells me and do as he asks.”

“Well honestly it is not easy living the life of celibacy,” says Aidan candidly.

“I believe it is hard in today’s world and some may say ‘how do I live a life like this’! Firstly, I have to trust in God and that whatever he has planned for me I will follow. I am not sure still about the true meaning of celibacy…but while I am in the seminary I have to trust that whatever God has planned for me will still be beautiful. That’s what I feel celibacy is to me right now.”

Rhys Lowther at Hangan’s family farm.

Rhys Lowther at Hangan’s family farm.

“I feel strongly that celibacy has much to teach about the meaning of sacrifice just as the commitment of marriage does to modern society,” says Joseph.

“The more I learn about the priesthood, the more I see that at its greatest, it is a pure act of gift and self-sacrifice for the people of God and as a priest, to completely lay one’s self down for the people, you would have to be free from the necessary limitations that marriage and a family bring.”

Rhys agrees; “Of course being a young man of 19, this was the most confronting decision I had to make...But this is precisely why it’s so relevant! Celibacy is supposed to shock the world to look more closely to the deeper truths of existence and remind them that there is a deeper meaning to even the greatest goods and pleasures on earth.”

Their thoughts aren't widely shared today, but then neither is the faith which animates each of our newest brothers in Christ. In the end, it's that kind of faith that matters, that lasts and can withstand the tests of time.