By Beverly De Soto Stevens
Statistics across the West indicate that we may be at the nadir of an alarming plunge in seminarians that dates back to 1965. The prestige of the priesthood has been all but shattered, the traditional respect accorded priests a casualty of the clerical sex abuse crisis which erupted across the West. In many places, anti-clericalism is on the rise, as Catholic priests have been targeted by extremists and secular media with a ferocity unprecedented in the last three generations.
Moreover, post Vatican II, Catholics no longer understand the priesthood as it has been understood for two thousand years – literally, the priest ‘in persona Christi’ for his people. Hence, calls for ‘reform’ are loudest from those who have not been taught and who cannot understand why the role of a Catholic priest is simply not the same as that of clerics in other religions.
So, what would make a young man elect the Catholic priesthood at a time like this?
Rev Mr. Matthew Reiman, 27, grew up in Hawthorne, New York and graduated from Marist College with a degree in history in 2009. Rev. Mr. Seán Connolly, 26, grew up in nearby Ossining and graduated from The College of the Holy Cross with a Classics degree in 2010. Rev Mr. Alessandro da Luz, 25, grew up in East Northport on Long Island and graduated from St. Joseph’s College with a B.S. in Mathematics and Computer Science and a minor in philosophy.
Each has his own perspective on the unique situation he finds himself in – studying for the priesthood at the Dunwoodie Seminary of the Archdiocese of New York. Each has recently been ordained a deacon – the penultimate step to the priesthood.
In this revealing and extensive interview with Regina Magazine, the three deacons speak their minds.
“I HAD THE SUPPORT OF MY FAMILY. They knew this was what I was supposed to do and encouraged me to pursue the priestly vocation.”– Rev Mr. Alessandro da Luz
REGINA: When did you first know you had a vocation?
Rev Mr. Alessandro da Luz: I first knew I had a vocation when I was in seventh grade. I had recently joined the altar servers in my new parish, Christ the King in Commack, NY. Fr. Simon Fernando asked me to serve the Holy Mass on the evening of Holy Thursday. That was my first time serving (and even attending) one of the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum. I was moved by the beauty of the liturgical ceremonies, and drawn deeper into the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. At the same time, I saw the beauty and the gift of the priesthood, and saw it as something I could do someday. I kept these feelings to myself, but was certainly very interested in the priesthood.
Rev Mr. Matthew Reiman: I first knew that I had a vocation to the priesthood during my time in college. I was raised in the faith but at various times in my life I was not practicing the faith. During my freshman year of college I rediscovered my Catholic faith in a profound way that humbled me and changed how I viewed everything around me. It began when I was handed a copy of the Catechism by a good friend of mine who told me if I had questions about the Faith that I should use this resource to find the answers. Soon after that, my attendance at Sunday Mass deepened my belief in the real presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. I began to also learn a great deal about the social teachings of the Church.
I also saw clearly the destructive progressive spirit which has a grip on so many in my generation and how the prevailing practical atheism leaves many without answers and without hope. A critical moment in my own discernment process was Pope Benedict’s motu propio “Summorum Pontificum” in 2007. Around the time of this landmark document I found myself, by coincidence, at a Traditional Latin Mass. It was a great moment in my own deepening of faith because the beauty of the liturgical action, the chant, the prayerful silence, and the great care and reverence shown for the Blessed Sacrament all confirmed all that I had been feeling and made me feel intimately connected with my own Catholic ancestors and the many saints who experienced Mass this way for their entire lives.
It was with great emotion that I recognized more fully that the communion of the Church is not only throughout the world but through time and that what was once holy and perfect is always holy and perfect. It was at this time that I rediscovered the fullness of the Catholic Church’s liturgical and theological traditions.
I began to reflect seriously on the unique role of the priest as mediator between God and man as well as minister of the sacraments of salvation. I had many good impressions of priests from my younger years, especially from my early experiences in the confessional. I also was fortunate to have a good priest who helped to encourage me in my own vocation as I watched him live out his as a college chaplain. I also began to turn more and more to our Blessed Mother in prayer; constantly calling to mind her fiat.
“WHILE GROWING UP I DID NOT HAVE A DEEP APPRECIATION OR AWARENESS of the truth, goodness and beauty found in my Catholic heritage. This type of childhood experience with regard to the Faith is unfortunately all too common today.” — Rev. Mr. Seán Connolly
Rev. Mr. Seán Connolly: I attended government schooling throughout my childhood and thought very little of the spiritual life. Although I was blessed with loving parents who ensured my brother and I received all of our sacraments, while growing up I did not have a deep appreciation or awareness of the truth, goodness and beauty found in my Catholic heritage. This type of childhood experience with regard to the Faith is unfortunately all too common today. We live in an increasingly secularized world beset by so many erroneous ideas. It has been difficult for the youth of my generation to navigate these treacherous waters to come to know the saving truths of Jesus Christ.
During my high school years I began spending more time with my devout grandfather as he neared the end of his life. Every Sunday morning I would accompany him to Holy Mass and every Thursday afternoon we would make a visit together to our local parish church and kneel beside one another for a period of adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The witness of my grandfather’s tremendous humility before God inspired me greatly as I would watch him, a man I greatly esteemed in his old age and frailty but without any inhibition, struggle with determination to genuflect and kneel before Our Eucharistic Savior. My grandfather also taught me the importance of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary through the Holy Rosary. In looking back on the development of my vocation and how it has been protected over the years, I attribute this to the intercession of Our Lady. It was She who accompanied Her Priest-Son to the altar of the Cross and whom I believe has protected my own vocation, always accompanying me on the way to the altar.
My grandfather’s devotion had a profound impact on me and coincided with my first experience of Catholic schooling at Fordham Prep. This is definitely the time of my life when the seed of my vocation was planted within me. From the time spent with my pious grandfather to the inspiring example of a holy Jesuit priest in my high school and the many good lay faculty members there who provided me with such good guidance in these formative years of my life, a desire to serve God and His Church as a priest was instilled within me.
“MY GRANDFATHER’S DEVOTION HAD A PROFOUND IMPACT ON ME and coincided with my first experience of Catholic schooling at Fordham Prep. This is definitely the time of my life when the seed of my vocation was planted within me.” — Rev. Mr. Seán Connolly
During my college years I had to confront the unfortunate circumstances of a pervasive liberal spirit that marked the general campus ethos. This same spirit has corrupted so much of academia today and has even beset so many of our own Catholic universities. At first, I had difficulty articulating my resistance to the many opinions circulating around campus. I knew in my heart they were just not right and I believe this was a special grace given by God to protect my vocation. To better understand my own Catholic faith, particularly in the context of the many challenges to it I was encountering, I began a period of study. In those college years I read so much: from Sacred Scripture, to the lives of the saints, to the Catechism and more and more. What I read brought about a profound intellectual commitment to my Catholic Faith that naturally progressed from the mind to the heart and I began to pray more by hearing Mass daily and going to confession every week.
Also while studying abroad in Rome, I was able to discover the sublimity of the Traditional Latin Mass which had recently been made more widely available to the faithful by Pope Benedict XVI’s most generous Apostolic Letter, Summorum Pontificum. There is so much to appreciate about Holy Mass in the Classical Roman Rite, but what impacted my discernment of a vocation the most was the clear identity it gives to the priest as one who offers sacrifice. In beginning to attend and serve the Traditional Mass did the high dignity of the priest as the one who makes present on the altar the Sacrifice of Our Lord on Calvary become truly clear to me. At this Mass, there is no focus given to the individual personality of the priest but only the function of his sacred office which directs all attention to the worship of God.
Through all of this reading and time spent in prayer, my vocation to the priesthood became abundantly clear to me. I am not able to explain this experience of “the call” in precise detail, for it is a mystery. What I do know is that I was able to determine that true happiness for me lay only in making a total consecration of myself to God in the service of His Church.
How did you react? How did your family react?
Rev Mr. Alessandro da Luz: As a seventh grader, my reaction was simply to hold the possibility open for when I got older. When I moved on to high school, the desire to be a priest remained, but was more in the background. I did not do anything actively to pursue the vocation or learn more about it. I continued to be involved in my parish as a server, and eventually as a master of ceremony and sacristan. I also worked in the parish office, which gave me a taste of what goes on “behind the scenes” in the life of a priest and his parish.
Near the end of high school, I again entertained the idea of becoming a priest. I had an experience through my involvement in Boy Scouts to go on a 50 mile backpacking trek with a priest and seminarian and Catholic Scouts from all over the country at a place called Philmont in New Mexico. The trek had leadership and spiritual components. The priest I hiked with, Msgr. Tom Coogan, also happened to be the vocations director for my diocese at the time. I really was inspired by his enthusiasm and love for the priesthood. He encouraged me after the trip to participate in some vocations events, which I went to. Though I had been interested, I decided not to enter the college seminary at that time, motivated by some uncertainty and fear. My family encouraged me to keep my options open, but to go and get my college degree first.
When I was in college, I continued my involvement at my parish and was given more responsibilities in my work at the parish in overseeing the sacristy and sacristans as well as the training of the altar servers. At school, I also got involved with the Newman Club, which had many opportunities to grow spiritually and learn about the Catholic faith. The Newman Club sponsored two retreats each year and was one of the most popular clubs on campus. My love for God and the Church and my deepening spirituality made me come to desire the priesthood again. This time, I felt ready and my fears subsided. When I started to again seriously discern and then chose to enter the seminary, I had the support of my family. They knew this was what I was supposed to do and encouraged me to pursue the priestly vocation.
“I TOOK MY TIME DISCERNING MY VOCATION but my final decision to enter the seminary came all at once with great joy and suddenness.” — Rev Mr. Matthew Reiman
Rev Mr. Matthew Reiman: I was driving home on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul in 2008, shortly after the wonderful visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States, when I had a moment of great clarity in my vocation and truly felt that the Lord was calling me and that it was time to tell other people and begin the process. I told my parents and brothers shortly thereafter and their response was very favorable and encouraging. Two priests, who I am still close with today helped me greatly and answered many of my questions. One of them vested me for diaconate this past All Saint’s Day and the other, God willing, will vest me at my ordination to the sacred priesthood on May 23rd.
Rev. Mr. Seán Connolly: After this time of discernment I was never really nervous or uncertain about pursuing the vocation. I had prayed much to come to know what God’s will was for me and I was determined to follow it. My family was at first hesitant. They were encouraging me to take more time to think about things and rather than enter the seminary they wanted me to apply to graduate school. But it did not take long for them to realize my zeal for the priesthood was unwavering and they quickly became very supportive. The vocation has been a tremendous blessing for my family.
“THE GREATEST THING THAT ATTRACTED ME TO THE PRIESTHOOD IS THE HOLY SACRIFICE OF THE MASS, the greatest action and greatest prayer of any priest’s life. Day in and day out the priest opens the veil and enters into Calvary; Heaven touches earth on the altar.” Rev Mr. Matthew Reiman
What drew you to the diocesan priesthood?
Rev Mr. Matthew Reiman: I believe that I am called to be a parish priest. The parish priest lives and labors among the faithful and seeks to bring them closer to Christ and His Holy Church. The aspects of the parish life that attracted me to the diocesan priesthood the most are sacramental and liturgical. The parish priest enters the lives of the people as another Christ in the most joyful moments, the most difficult moments, and everything in between. He is a spiritual father and brings the people to God and God to the people. The greatest thing that attracted me to the priesthood is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the greatest action and greatest prayer of any priest’s life. Day in and day out the priest opens the veil and enters into Calvary; Heaven touches earth on the altar.
Rev Mr. Alessandro da Luz: I would have to say my active parish involvement was what led me to the vocation of the diocesan priesthood. I really enjoyed working around the parish and seeing the work that the priests there did. I also saw the happiness, example, and love of the priesthood demonstrated by the priests of my parish as I was growing up. The diocesan priesthood seemed to me like a natural fit. Additionally, I saw parishes as the primary place where the souls are located. It seemed to me that in the parish, I would have the greatest opportunities to save souls and make a difference in the lives of people.
Rev. Mr. Seán Connolly: In prayer and spiritual direction I determined with confidence a calling to serve the Church as a parish priest. It is in the parishes where so many souls are to be found and the mission of the priest today appears to be needed the most. There is a certain closeness the parish priest has to the faithful that I find appealing. It is a beautiful vocation to be with families at the most important moments of their lives when they approach the Church for the grace of the sacraments. I am excited for this mission which gives one the sense of being on the “front-lines” in the mission of saving souls and restoring a lost Catholic culture in our society.
What has been most interesting about your formation experience so far?
Rev Mr. Matthew Reiman: The most interesting part of my formation so far has been my pastoral experiences in parishes, hospitals, and schools. I have learned that the life of a priest is full of surprises, work, and unexpected graces. The camaraderie of my peers is also very edifying and has helped me immensely during my time in the seminary. The men who are answering the call to the priesthood today are orthodox, full of zeal, and are willing to do whatever it takes to bring souls to Christ and His Church. There is a great spirit of Eucharistic and Marian devotion in my seminary. My seminary experience has been enhanced by my experience as Master of Ceremonies for the seminary liturgies. The hermeneutic of continuity is as important in the liturgical life of the Church as it is in theology.
Rev Mr. Alessandro da Luz: The most interesting was a seminarian pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome in the summer of 2013 sponsored by the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The experience of visiting the holy sites of great importance in the life of Our Lord was profound, especially the basilicas of the Annunciation and the Holy Sepulchre. The holiness of these sites is palpable, and makes you feel really close to God. This pilgrimage was also my first time in Rome, which while short, gave me the opportunity to visit the four major basilicas, including St. Mary Major for the solemn Mass of the feast of its dedication. I also had the opportunity to go to the Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica every day while I was there, and to take the scavi tour to see the relics of St. Peter.
The most surprising experience of my seminary formation was probably the merging of the seminaries. I had expected to complete my seminary training at Immaculate Conception in Huntington. Initially, this was a disappointment, but I have made many new friends at Dunwoodie. The new arrangement increased morale and gives more encouragement by the greater number of seminarians praying and studying together. Our class at Immaculate Conception was nine seminarians, but now we number 22. The experience we had as a class of being ordained deacons together in the Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul at St. Joseph’s Seminary was very powerful, and those in attendance and who saw the pictures were certainly moved by the sight of a larger class!
“IT IS NOT EASY FOR A YOUNG MAN TO DISCERN A VOCATION TODAY. The world does not understand the religious vocation and often denigrates it. Discovering a vocation in the midst of the popular culture my generation was raised in is a miracle to me, for it seems impossible. Yet, in my own life and what I am so happy to be able to see in my confreres, God makes possible the impossible.” — Rev. Mr. Seán Connolly
Rev. Mr. Seán Connolly: Both the most interesting and the most surprising aspect of my formation experience is all that I have learned from my brother seminarians. My confreres are a continual reminder to me of God’s presence in our world. It is a great blessing to be able to witness firsthand their generous response to the Lord’s call and how He continually works in their lives. It is not easy for a young man to discern a vocation today. The world does not understand the religious vocation and often denigrates it. Discovering a vocation in the midst of the popular culture my generation was raised in is a miracle to me, for it seems impossible. Yet, in my own life and discernment of a vocation and what I am so happy to be able to see in my confreres, God makes possible the impossible. This is difficult to understand, for it is a mystery. But, I am continually edified by the love my brother seminarians have for God and their desire to serve Him.
Have you seen growth in the amount of youthful vocations?
Rev Mr. Matthew Reiman: I regret to say that the number of men who are studying for the priesthood is much lower than it should be. There are signs of hope, however. My class is the largest in many years to be ordained from my seminary. The “home grown” seminarian of the United States in 2015 is typically a young men who loves the traditions of the Church and is very motivated to serve the faithful by working very hard and zealously for souls. The more that diocese and vocations directors and parish priests emphasize the sacred and transcendent, the more vocations will be found.
Rev. Mr. Seán Connolly: I have been blessed to work with a number of youth discerning a vocation during my time in the seminary. I am happy to say some of them are now brother seminarians of mine with more who are currently in the applications process, thanks be to God. I attribute this to the many good priests in their lives who have fostered their own personal encounter with the Lord Jesus and who have set an inspiring example to them by displaying a clear priestly identity. The brokenness of today’s culture is becoming more and more apparent and young men will look to priests for guidance. They are not looking for novelty, but faithfulness. They want to know Christ and see His presence reflected in the priest.
One highly effective way I have seen attract vocations and one I can attest to by my own experience, is engaging men by restoring the dignity of the liturgy. When a priest offers the Holy Mass with reverence men respond positively and can more easily come to understand the profound realities of the Mass. There is no greater advertisement for vocations than the witness of a priest carrying out his sacred duties at the altar with reverence and love.
Rev Mr. Alessandro da Luz: I would definitely say there is a growth in the amount of youthful vocations. Firstly, I would attribute this to the Year for Priests inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. This helped to improve the morale of our diocesan priests and raised awareness among the faithful about the necessity and beauty of the priestly vocation. Connected to this was Pope Benedict’s own priestly example of humble service, love for the Lord, and devout, attentive care to the sacred liturgy.
Secondly, I would attribute the growth to a desire present in many young people today to serve others. Many young people today are looking to get involved in helping the less fortunate and those around the world who are in need. The idea of living a life not for oneself seems to be attractive to young people. The priesthood is a life of sacrifice, lived for others, so to me it makes sense that young men today would be more interested.
Finally, there is the example found in the holiness and zeal of orthodox priests, (many who also happen to be young) who seek to proclaim the truth, to celebrate the sacred liturgy with dignity, and most importantly, to save souls. In the Church, there has been a recovery of the urgency of the mission of the salvation of souls. The Catholic priesthood is necessary for that mission. This sense of a mission that cannot be entrusted to just anyone is attractive to young men and gives them a sense of purpose.
“FINALLY, THERE IS THE EXAMPLE FOUND IN THE HOLINESS AND ZEAL OF ORTHODOX PRIESTS, (many who also happen to be young) who seek to proclaim the truth, to celebrate the sacred liturgy with dignity, and most importantly, to save souls. In the Church, there has been a recovery of the urgency of the mission of the salvation of souls.” — Rev Mr. Alessandro da Luz