Priests in Training

Seven high schoolers participate in first ever Priestly Vocation Retreat

Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2009

"In many cases, young men feel called to married life, but for some, they may be called to a radical way of discipleship, sacrificing much in order to follow the Lord. This radical discipleship, as Pope John Paul II called it, is the priesthood."

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

- Bishop Edward Burns, Diocese of Juneau

At the beginning of the summer, four high school students came to Bishop Edward Burns with one thing on their mind - a priestly vocation retreat. And last weekend, that goal became a reality for seven young men from Southeast Alaska.

"This retreat is a powerful reminder that the Lord still calls and that there are a number of young men being called to consider the priesthood," Burns said. "While various people in our society may balk at making a lifelong commitment, there are some who are committed to the Lord and have a great desire to live a life devoted to serving others. This retreat was a great value to the church, and the young men expressed their appreciation for such an opportunity."

The high school Priestly Vocation Retreat was held Sunday through Wednesday at the Shrine of St. Therese. Burns was present, along with Roman Catholic priests Jim Blaney, Patrick Casey, Thomas Gallagher, Perry Kenaston, Jean-Paulin Engbanda Lockulu, Edmund Penisten, Scott Settimo, Patrick Travers and Thomas Weise.

Retreat topics included "Discipleship," "Priesthood & Mission," "How do you know God is calling you?" and "What is priesthood like?" In addition to these presentations were sermons and reflections during the liturgical celebrations of Mass and Holy Hour.

"All of the presentations were geared to assist the young men in acquiring a closer relationship with Christ so as to discern what vocation the Lord may be calling them to," Burns said.


Thomas Melville, 17, was one of the seven students, six from Juneau and one from Petersburg, who attended. He said he has thought about becoming a priest since he was 8 years old.

"The workshop was very informative," Melville said. "We spent three days living life pretty much as a priest does, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, going to Mass every day. There were chances for reconciliation, chances to just talk with the priests outside of their normal habitat. So it was really nice to be able to just talk to them."

As for more priestly vocation, Melville said the option is still on the table.

"(Priesthood) is one of the most essential things of the Catholic church," Melville said. "It'd be an honor to represent the church in that way. ... And I encourage people who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives to go try it."

Each day of the retreat had a schedule of events: Bishop Burns presided at daily Mass, while each of the priests either preached at Mass or made a presentation on a topic pertaining to priestly life and ministry in Southeast Alaska. Monday and Tuesday afternoons had lengthy periods of free time for recreational activities and private conversations.

"The young men asked many questions, not only about the priesthood but also about church teachings, personal relationships and the myriad issues which our young people face in our time," said the Rev. Edmund J. Penisten, director of Vocations and Priestly Formation for the Diocese of Juneau.

Father Scott Settimo, parochial administrator at St. Gregory's Nazianzen Parish in Sitka, noticed that several of the boys seem to have experienced some hardship or tragedy in their lives.

"As a result, perhaps, they gained a more serious view of life and its ultimate meaning than their peers," he said.

Settimo also said at least two students came from fervent Catholic families, one being the son of a deacon, and at least one was recently initiated into the faith.

"(This is) significant in that such a conversion often comes at the cost of relationship with family and friends, or in any case, usually indicates a depth of commitment that may not always be present in 'cradle Catholics,'" he said.


"It's important for us to invite them to consider this vocation," Burns said of his disciples. "The retreat also serves as a verification of our hope in God's plan to regenerate the priesthood."

And to Burns' surprise, all of the active duty priests in the diocese attended.

"This was a great indication to the young men how important priestly vocation efforts are to the Diocese of Juneau," he said. "I think the men enjoyed spending the time with the priests - all of whom are vastly different and thoroughly committed to serving as priests in Southeast Alaska."

Each priest took a topic and facilitated discussions on that particular theme. They all described their personal vocation story, how they felt God called them to the priesthood.

"It became apparent to the young men that none of the priests present had the same story," Burns said, "that God treats each of us differently and as individuals."

Penisten believes the retreat helped the boys to discern more deeply their respective vocations in life.

"Flowing from the general Christian vocation to holiness of life, each young man asked, and continues to ask, the right questions regarding his specific vocation," he said. "It may be to priestly life and ministry. It may be to marriage and family life. It may be to life and ministry in a religious community, such as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Society of Jesus, or the Discalced Carmelites, to name the three such communities represented among the priests at the retreat.

"A good time was had by all. We confidently may expect that the Diocese will host events of this sort in the future."

Settimo agreed that, "by all accounts," the workshop was a success.

"First of all, it was the young men themselves who asked the bishop if we could have such a gathering, so as to afford the opportunity for young men to explore the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood," he said. "Secondly, it was well attended. ... And too, this (and rising numbers of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life nationwide) seemed to me to show that young people are courageously aspiring to that which is true and meaningful, as against a culture embracing relativism and self-satisfaction."

Burns said this type of retreat has never been offered before in Juneau. The travel, room and board expenses were covered by the Diocese of Juneau.

"We see this retreat as necessary for young Catholic men as they explore how the Lord may be calling them to live their lives," Burns said. "Even if they do not pursue the priesthood, they will definitely benefit from praying about their future state in life. One always profits in praying about what God has in store for them."

For more information about the priesthood, contact the Diocese of Juneau at 907-586-2227 ext. 25.

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