David Mowry entered seminary right after graduation from Glenbard West High School, and after eight years of preparation will be ordained a priest in May.
He is one of a small but growing number of men studying for priesthood in the Diocese of Joliet, aided by the prayers, support and encouragement of the Serra Club of DuPage County.
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"We encourage an awareness of (religious) vocations," said George Carr of Wheaton, who with his wife, Joanne, has been a decade-long member of the club. "They have a lot of options in the world."
Founded in 1958 as part of USA Council of Serra International, the Serra Club of DuPage wants young people and adults looking for a career change to know religious life is one option.
The 48 club members meet monthly for prayer and fellowship, pass out information about vocations in their parishes, give prayer and encouragement to men from the diocese seeking priesthood, hold an annual seminarian send-off in early fall and support the Rev. Burke Masters, vocation director for the Diocese of Joliet and chairman of the Joliet Area Vocation Association.
The Serra Club of DuPage is the only Serra chapter that exists in the Joliet Diocese, although there are efforts to start one in Will County, Masters said.
"Their whole mission is to promote vocations," Masters said. "Serra as a whole does a great job of that."
Masters said 30 men from the Joliet Diocese are now in seminary, compared to the 23 or 24 when he started as vocation director in 2006. The late Pope John Paul II's appeal to young people may be part of the reason, he said.
The sputtering economy also may help turn people's eyes away from material things, he said, noting that religious vocations were at their peak during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"The challenging economy makes people think about what is most important," he said. "It's more difficult to give those things up when they are readily available."
Still, even people seeking a more meaningful life have to know what opportunities are available. That's where the Serra Club and parish vocation committees can help, said Masters, who will hold an annual Parish Vocation Conference Feb. 16 in Joliet.
"I've had people in their 70s and 80s say to me, 'I always thought about priesthood when I was younger, but no one invited me,'" Burke said. "I'm convinced that the Lord has not stopped calling. We have stopped listening."
Hearing the call
How anyone hears their call to the religious life is a personal thing, Carr said. While he may ask someone if he's ever considered priesthood, Carr said he doesn't take it beyond that.
"It really begins with prayer," he said. "We pray for all people to find their true religious vocations."
Carr's own son, a Jesuit priest, found his calling after graduating from college without any direct encouragement from his parents, Carr said. Although the Serra Club encourages Catholics seeking any type of religious vocation, it has most direct contact with men seeking to become parish priests in the Joliet Diocese, he said.
Masters said the need in the immediate future is great.
"The next 10 years are going to be pretty tight. We have a lot of priests who are going to be retiring," he said. "(After that) I hope we are going to catch up."
Burke said during the years he spent preparing for priesthood, from 1997 to 2002, the average age of seminarians was 25. But the typical age for entering seminary varies at different times, he said.
"We're seeing more guys coming right out of high school, right out of college," he said.
Anyone who believes they may be called to religious life should respond to the universal call for all Christians to live a life of holiness, practice the sacraments, seek out a good spiritual director and listen to other people, Masters said.
"Often, other people see things in us we don't see in ourselves," he said.
Masters said he first heard his own call to religious life in prayer.
"I tried to deny it," he said. "It was confirmation when I heard it from other people."
Heeding the call
Mowry said he had been encouraged by his parents to seek God's will for his life, but he also at first resisted the idea he might become a priest. He had thoughts of becoming a writer and marrying until a question on an ACT form in high school made him think about his future more seriously.
He was a good student and active in St. Petronille Parish in Glen Ellyn, where he served at the alter, helped with the youth group and sang in the choir. Still, the idea of becoming a priest caught him by surprise.
"When I came to that conclusion, it really scared me because it was so different from what I thought of for myself," he said. "It was an idea that wouldn't go away."
Conversations with his parents, his parish priest and a visit to Mundelein Seminary encouraged him to move forward, he said.
"I saw they (the seminarians) were regular guys," he said.
Many of his high school friends, although not believers themselves, were supportive of his vocational choice, he said.
"It was consistent with what I was in high school," he said. "It really made sense with who I was."
Mowry entered Saint John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., for his undergraduate studies in philosophy, and that is when he encountered the Serra Club.
The Serra Club of DuPage had a pen pal program to encourage future priests and the club invited him to participate in their meetings when he was in town. Members of a Serra Club in the Twin Cities also attended a weekly Mass with the seminarians and offered their support and gratitude to those studying to become priests, he said.
"The Serra Club was that vital connection to the church at large," he said.
High school graduates like Mowry, who is now completing graduate studies in Mundelein, prepare eight years to become a priest. For college graduates, the preparation takes six years.
"The seminary is a place of discerning that call," Mowry said. "If it's not for you, God will let you know."
Members of the Serra Club pass out cards with photos and information about seminarians so others in their parish can offer them prayer and support. The Serra Club of DuPage also holds a seminarian send-off in late August before the future priests return to studies.
Last year's send-off drew nearly 400 seminarians, family members, priests and supporters to Benedictine University in Lisle, said Ed Graham, president of the Serra Club of DuPage. Graham credited Carr with being the key organizer of the event.
"It is a spiritual high in some sense," he said.
A Naperville attorney, Graham said he and his wife joined the Serra Club 13 years ago after he became concerned with the effect that priest sexual scandals was having on the church. There he found people who shared his faith and his concern for the church.
"The individuals in Serra are uniquely motivated to support the Catholic Church," he said. "Those relationships are the highest quality you could find."
Like any organization, the Serra Club faces challenges, Graham said. Its membership numbers have remained consistent, but it struggles to serve a diocese as large as Joliet, maintain vitality and develop leadership, he said. Members are not able to point directly to the result of their work and prayers, but they are encouraged by the fruit they see.
Graham recalled that he helped hold a religious vocation day for eighth-graders in Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic School in Naperville and today one of those eighth-graders is in Rome studying to be a priest.
Acquaintances and colleagues seem intrigued with his involvement in the Serra Club and the group's efforts to promote religious vocations, he said.
"In my experience, nobody recoiled. I think they find it fascinating," he said.
Mowry said those who feel called to religious life should trust in God and remember he wants what is best for them.
"I would say not to be afraid of it," he said. "We need to be prepared for God to surprise us."
For more information on the Serra Club of DuPage, call (630) 665-0994.