What’s the secret sauce in Wichita’s vocations boom?

by Mary Rezac

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Priestly ordinations in the Diocese of Wichita, May 26, 2018. Credit: The Catholic Advance

Father Chad Arnold, vocations director in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, is hesitant to dole out advice about how a diocese can increase its priestly vocations.

He recognizes that he’s been blessed.

At a time when bishops and vocations directors across the universal Church are wringing their hands about a dire shortage of priests, Wichita has ordained 10 men to the priesthood for the second year in a row, upping their priestly population by about 20 percent.

“I wish there were an easy, A-B-C sort of answer, but in reality it’s so many things we are blessed with that I believe aid our vocations,” Arnold told CNA.  

One of those things is a commitment to perpetual adoration chapels in diocesan parishes.

“We have a high number of perpetual adoration chapels throughout our diocese, so we have a lot of young men spending time before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament,” he said. 

“That moment of silence is so critical to hear the Lord speaking to them, so that availability is there.”

The diocese has also been blessed with priests “who work hard and live their faith and take joy in their priesthood and provide tremendous examples and models for the young men in the parishes,” Arnold added, as well as good and faithful bishops who have directed the diocese well.

6 men who were ordained as priests of Wichita have since become bishops, including Bishop Shawn McKnight, who was installed in February as Bishop of Jefferson City, Mo.

The diocese, which sits in the southeast corner of the state, covers 20,021 square miles over 25 counties, and is home to 114,195 Catholics in 90 parishes. While most of these parishes are covered by one priest, the recent bumper crops of priestly ordinations means that some larger parishes with hundreds of families are able to have two or even three priests.

“It’s extra camaraderie, working as a team to get together and assess certain situations and try to come up with a positive, spirit-filled response rather than just one person himself mulling over a task or a challenge,” Father Jerome Spexarth, who just gained a new priest at his parish, told The Wichita Eagle.

“It’s been a great aspect of teamwork. Jesus does send out the Apostles two by two,” he added.

The diocesan Catholic school system, which includes 35 grade schools and 4 high schools, also helps to foster vocations, Arnold noted.

“I think people teaching the faith in those schools who take their faith seriously and earnestly and have a joyful, loving faith with our Lord and are able to pass it on,” he said.

The culture of the Midwestern plains state is also one of those “intangibles” that nonetheless is an important contributing factor that encourages vocations, Arnold noted.

The diocese is mostly made up of small, rural towns where churches are often the center of social life, big families aren’t an anomaly, and the idea of stewardship is embedded in the culture.

“It’s deeply embedded in the spirituality of this diocese that the gifts that we have - whether those are material or personal or what have you - come from God and we have an obligation to return them to God in some fashion,” he said.

Wichita also offers catechetical programs and initiatives through which young people get to interact with priests and seminarians. Among the offerings is Totus Tuus, a summer program founded in the Wichita diocese in which teams of college students and seminarians teach religious education at parishes. Similarly, Prayer and Action sends high school students and seminarians throughout the diocese to perform works of corporal and spiritual mercy.

“Totus Tuus...allows the men an opportunity to live their faith in a profound way,” Arnold said. “It gets the seminarians out in front of the kids and shows them that they’re enjoyable and normal people.”

Arnold said there are also several retreats and events throughout the year that are specifically aimed at young men who may be interested in considering the priesthood. He said he also makes regular visits to the Catholic schools and major colleges in the area to talk about vocations and to answer any questions that young people may have.

“I am fond of telling people I don’t do a lot of recruitment, I just facilitate,” he said, noting that his job is simply to provide opportunities for young people to encounter priests and seminarians who are already joyfully living their vocations.

“Sometimes I worry in vocations work that we can get gimmicky, and I don’t think that serves what we need,” he said. “I think again it just comes back to living the faith as well as we can...it comes from an authentic renewal of our own priesthood, living the faith sincerely and in line with the teachings of the Church, seeking the Lord’s assistance and taking joy in the gift that he has given us in our own priesthood.”

When he meets young men who are considering the priesthood but are hesitant, Arnold says he encourages them by telling them that “the Lord is never outdone in generosity.”

“The most common words of our Lord in the Gospels that he says over and over again are ‘Be not afraid.’ So if we can take that courage and say yes to the Lord...whatever we give to the Lord, no matter how big of a sacrifice we think we’re making, it’s nothing in comparison to what he wants to give to us.”

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