What It Takes to Financially Support Men in Formation
“Jesus is the one who calls, not the priest, nor the bishop or the pope. It is Jesus who gazes at him with love, who shows him the needs of the people of God and says, ‘If you wish, come help.’”
– Pope Francis on priestly vocations
When a man hears a call to a religious or priestly vocation, to be a servant of God, he is responding to the voice of Jesus. He is expressing his strong desire to serve and help satisfy the spiritual needs of the people of God. It is a call not unlike Jesus’ invitation to Peter and his brother Andrew, who were casting their fishing nets into the Sea of Galilee. “Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Responding to the call entails making a serious commitment to oneself and to the people one is to serve. The responsibilities are great and the decision to become a priest is not to be taken lightly, nor to be made on the spur of the moment. Rather, time needs to be taken to obtain spiritual guidance and to understand what is being asked of oneself—a lifelong promise to attend to the spiritual needs of God’s people.
Not everyone has the financial means to respond to the call. In this regard, our time and place are no different from the time of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus and His apostles relied on the generosity of people they encountered to sustain them in their travels. This was particularly true for the apostles, whose income from their trade (fishermen, bricklayer, shepherd, etc.) was insufficient to support their ministry. If the people in the towns they visited did not accept them, they had to move on. “Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.” (Mt 10:14).
With this same sense of love and belonging, we too need to provide support for men who have answered the call and are preparing for the priesthood. Time and costs are substantial. In the Diocese of La Crosse, it takes “about $440,000 per priest from start to finish over a period of nine years,” according to Father Alan Wierzba, director of the Office for Vocations. To put this into perspective, consider what Mary of Bethany did out of love and devotion for Jesus.
“Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” (Jn 12:3).
How costly was it? Scholars say a liter of nard at that time was worth about 300 denarii, about $54,500 in today’s valuation. It should be noted that Mary did this act of love willingly and without reservation.
The Diocese of La Crosse is committed to the financial support of its seminarians in the amount of $1 million per year. Father Wierzba likes to think of this as an investment in the future spiritual health of the faithful of the diocese. “We have a set policy in place, since before I took over almost nine years ago. It changes a bit to meet different needs and is different for college and theology years.”
- $7,500 Priest for Tomorrow scholarship each semester
- Diocese pays for formation fees and retreat fees
- The rest of the cost is up to the college man to pay through grants, scholarships, loans, family assistance and money earned working summers
- Diocese pays all tuition, room and board, retreat, formation and any other fees
- “The cost to the diocese, factoring in all other office and business expenses, is about $43,000 per year per seminarian for college and $67,000 for theology,” Father Wierzba said.
- Funding comes from a variety of sources.
- The Diocesan Annual Appeal pays about $790,000 a year to the budget.
- Holy Cross Seminarian Education Endowment Trust pays about $150,000.
- Fundraisers and donations to the office take care of the rest of the budget.
- The Knights of Columbus, Parish Council of Catholic Women, Catholic Daughters and Serra and Vocation Clubs make donations of various amounts.
- Estates and stock donations often build the endowment trust.
During the typical nine years of priestly formation, the candidate is always in the process of discerning their vocation as a servant of God. But what happens to the money that has been invested in a candidate who has discerned the priesthood is not the best way for him serve God? “We ask them to pay back over time what they received,” said Father Wierzba, “and to get involved in their parish. But the main idea is we are investing in men who will be better Catholics, better parishioners, better husbands and fathers for the training and formation they received. Men should not be hesitant to try seminary out of fear of having a huge debt.”
The lay faithful of the diocese can do many things to support the development and formation of priests (and other people in religious vocations). Father Wierzba mentioned a few: “Pray for more vocations; ask a young man to consider the priesthood; if there is a seminarian in your parish, help form him; let him know what is important for you to see in a priest; and support the Office for Vocations.”
The support of vocations to the priesthood by the lay faithful is not to be underestimated. Father Wierzba knows this personally. “The men couldn’t study without their assistance. I went to seminary at age 29 with about $100 to my name after selling my home for a loss in order to pursue the priesthood. I could not have gone without the assistance and support of many people.”
Story by Robert Rogers
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Published September/October 2020 Catholic Life Issue
Prayer For Vocations
Heavenly Father, Bless your Church with an abundance of holy and zealous priests, deacons, brothers and sisters. Give those you have called to the married state and those you have chosen to live as single persons in the world, the special graces that their lives require. Form us all in the likeness of Your Son, so that in Him, with Him and through Him, we may love you more deeply and serve you more faithfully, always and everywhere. With Mary we ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.