Musings of a former Vocation Director by Father Allan J. McDonald
I was Vocation Director for our diocese from 1986 until 1997. In 1993 Father Brett Brannen became my assistant. He succeeded me in 1997 and brought vocation recruitment to a new and energetic level. He has stepped down now and his assistant Father Tim McKeown is taking over. He leaves with quite a legacy. In the last month five new transitional deacons have been ordained and four new priests. The diocese owes Fr. Brannen a debt of gratitude for his zeal and energy in priestly recruitment.
Father Brannen once again succeeds me, but now as pastor of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in downtown Augusta where I have been since June of 1991. I become the new pastor of Saint Joseph in Macon, July 1st succeeding the retiring Father John Cuddy who has been pastor at St. Joseph for 30 years.
With the recent ordinations which included two men from my parish, Deacon Mark Van Alstine and Father Daniel Firmin, I have become somewhat nostalgic as I reflect on 13 years of being a pastor at Most Holy Trinity and 11 years as vocation director. Oddly enough, Father Daniel Firmin who was one of my altar boys at Most Holy Trinity will now become my parochial vicar at St. Joseph Church!
While I don’t want to take credit for Fr. Brannen’s vocation, I am proud to say that I did screen him when he decided to return to our diocese to study for the priesthood back in the late 1980’s. At the same time in the late 1980’s when I was associate pastor at the Cathedral as well as vocation director, I was trying to recruit to our diocese who has now become our new Vocation Director Father Tim McKeown. His journey of discernment made me as vocation director extremely impatient! He too was a member of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity and when I became pastor there in 1991, he finally made his decision to study for the priesthood for our diocese. He began at Steubenville and I was able to get Bishop Lessard to send him to the North American College in Rome. I was thrilled to get him to Rome!
The Church of the Most Holy Trinity has also had a remarkable track record in providing priestly vocations not only to our diocese but to religious orders. Since the 1980’s parishioners Fathers Daniel Munn, Mark Ross and Steve Harrington were all ordained. Since the 1990’s parishioners, Fathers Tim McKeown, Richard Hart, Ronald Schmidt (Jesuit), John Markham and Dan Firmin have been ordained priests. In addition to them, parishioners Jonathan Bingham is studying for the Dominicans, and Aaron Pidel for the Jesuits. Deacon Mark Van Alstine is studying at St. Vincent’s in Latrobe and Aaron Killips at the North American in Rome, both for our diocese.
St. Mary on the Hill, St. Teresa and St. Joseph parishes, all in Augusta have also provided vocations for the priesthood. There indeed is something in the Holy Water here in Augusta!
An added twist to the number of vocations coming from Augusta is the number coming from the Alleluia Community in Augusta. The Alleluia Community was formed in the early 1970’s as an “alternate society” and a Charismatic Covenant Community. Their members are a microcosm of the American Church having come from various parts of our country to be a part of this covenant community. At its beginning many members will say that they formed this religious community out of disillusionment with society in general and the destabilizing internal and external forces afflicting the church in the 1960’s and 70’s. Many were of the “hippie generation” seeking to found a religious commune but in keeping with the “hippie’s” anti-institutional agenda.
The community members have matured over the years and have mellowed in their anti-institutional attitudes. Sometimes these manifested themselves in certain anti-clericalism. In fact some members had horrible experiences of the Church in transition and some knew first hand of the priestly scandals that have only recently come to light to the rest of the Church.
However, by the 1990’s many Alleluia Community members had strengthened their ties to the institutional church and rediscovered their Catholic identity and spirituality. Father Tim McKeown was the first to be ordained a priest from this community. Fathers Richard Hart and Dan Firmin followed. Deacon Mark Van Alstine is also from the Alleluia Community as is Aaron Pidell, Johnny Johnson and Aaron Killips. Another community member Paul Alger is studying for the Legionaries of Christ. That is an amazing 8 candidates for the priesthood from a religious community who have members in all the Augusta parishes.
My own relationship with the Alleluia Community in my time here at Most Holy Trinity has been one of great encouragement but also of severe challenge at times especially when I felt that some of their customs were not in keeping with Catholic discipline. Apart from that, though, I admired what the community leaders were able to accomplish. In this new century, they had formed a religious community that in many aspects resembled the “Catholic Ghetto’s” of immigrant Catholics of pre-Vatican II times that provided an abundance of priestly and religious vocations in the 1940’s and 50’s.
These Catholic Ghettos of a previous era centered their lives on the Church, strict Mass attendance and the discipline of Catholic devotions at home and at church. They formed a Catholic culture and community of support. Their prayer and discipline led to huge numbers of vocations.
In a twist on this phenomena of pre-Vatican II Catholic Ghetto’s, the Alleluia Community while predominantly Catholic is also ecumenical. They have formed a Christian “Ghetto” in the positive sense that has produced a community of people who know and love each other and support each other in their Christian pilgrimage. Because of their faith and the community that supports their faith, we are now seeing the harvest of workers for the Lord’s vineyard coming from them and encouraging others who are not a part of their community to consider a religious vocation as well. While different from the immigrant Catholic Ghetto’s of pre-Vatican II times, there are some similarities that have contributed to a new wave of vocation recruitment.
During the time that I was actively recruiting Father Tim McKeown to our diocese, especially after I arrived in Augusta, I knew deep down that if we could get Fr. McKeown into the seminary, if he had a good experience in the seminary and if he was ordained a priest that many others who knew him and admired him from his time in the Alleluia Community as a teacher in their school, would indeed follow him into a priestly vocation.
I do believe that Fr. McKeown’s time at the North American Seminary in Rome and his subsequent ordination to the priesthood had a profound positive effect upon the Alleluia Community in melting away any residual anti-clericalism that might have existed there. While some there may disagree with me on this point, I think many would say that Fr. McKeown’s example of priesthood has inspired many community members’ children to consider the priesthood. We’ll only know in the after-life if my theory is correct.
So, I believe that the best source for vocations comes from strong religious communities that form strong Catholic families, who are committed to communitarian values, personal and communal prayer and devotions as well as strict Mass attendance. Many of the Alleluia Community members are also members of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity where a strong tradition of solemn, reverent experiences of the celebration of the Mass has been in existence since the 1970’s when two other downtown Augusta parishes merged into Most Holy Trinity. All Catholic parishes should strive to foster communities of faith and reverence that assist each other in their pilgrimage of faith, hope and love.
Finally, no one should ever under estimate the power that priests themselves have in the recruitment of a new generation of priestly vocations. Each priest is the “vocation director” for his parish. Through example and personal invitation young people will be inspired to consider a priestly or religious vocation. Augusta is an example of this.