“The average age of our priests in the diocese is in their fifties,” Father Thomas Kramer, (now deceased) the pastor of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, North Dakota explained during a Sunday homily around 24 years ago. Factoring in the number of seminarians at the time and those expected to retire, he explained that the 5-year projection was bleak. “Pray for vocations,” Fr. Kramer pleaded
And so we did. At the end of every Mass, congregations turned to the back cover of the hymnal and read a prayer for vocations to the priesthood. It was an ever-present intention at Masses. Schools prayed daily and groups included it in their prayers before meetings. It was that plea that also led to the formation of an informal group at the Cathedral. They began praying together for one hour every Monday night before the Blessed Sacrament, asking God for an increase in vocations.
He has answered the prayers. During the 1980’s there were only 12 men that entered the priesthood and during the following decade, a total of 16 men were ordained. Then, in 2000-2009, there were 24 new priests. During the first 8 years of this decade there will be 17 ordinations.
Response is Scriptural
Father Josh Waltz, Vocation Director for the diocese of Bismarck said that in order to illustrate how well our diocese is doing now, he uses a per-capita comparison with the diocese of Detroit. “The Detroit diocese has around 1.5 million Catholics and 34 seminarians,” he said. By comparison, Bismarck has around 60,000 Catholics and 27 seminarians; that’s 1 for every 2,220 Catholics. For the Detroit diocese to have that same number per capita, they would need 650 seminarians. In addition, Bismarck three more men have been accepted to enter formation and two more are being considered.
According to Father Waltz, the response to the priesthood we have gotten in Bismarck is Scriptural: “The harvest is rich but the laborers are few; beg the harvest master to send out laborers for his harvest” (Matthew 9: 35-38).
“The more we have people praying and asking the Father for workers, the more they are going to come forward,” Father Waltz said. According to him, there are prayer apostolates among contemplative orders and in nursing homes and other types of prayer support throughout the diocese including holy hours by the priests themselves. “I would say that the fact we are doing so well here is a tribute to prayer,” he said. “It is the binding force.”
Vocations Follow Adoration
Although there is no longer a shortage of priests in the Bismarck diocese, the adoration group at the Cathedral continues, many of them present since the beginning. The reason, as some of them have explained, is that they never again want to take our priests for granted.
Rita Ciavarella is credited with starting the group. “I flew out to a conference in St. Louis that was encouraging adoration to pray for vocations,” she explained. “My son Louis was in the seminary there at the time. I was terrified because I had never flown before, but Louis convinced me that this was important.” She learned that in dioceses where there was Eucharistic adoration for vocations, an increase in priests usually followed.
When Rita returned home, she received permission from Father Kramer, to invite people through word of mouth, to join her for an hour of prayer dedicated to vocations. Although her son eventually discerned out of the priesthood, married and has three children now, she said she continues to pray for priests as a sort of spiritual mother.
During the hour, there are prayers said out loud for an increase in vocations and also for the spiritual protection of priests, a Rosary, and time for quiet reflection.
Donna Harvey said that she and her husband Bob have been coming since 2000, the year their own son, Fr. Fred was ordained a priest. It was on May 25, 2000 that the diocese had a record-breaking number of 6 ordinations. “It’s interesting to note that it was a second career for all of them,” Donna said. It would seem that God was answering prayers and had called these men out of the world to come serve him as priests. Father Fred Harvey had been a U.S. Marshal, Father Frank Shuster was farmer, Father David Richter completed a degree and had interned as an engineer, Father Daniel Berg was an accountant, Father Chris Kadrmas had worked an occupational therapist and Father Terry Wipf was a teacher.
Nancy and Don Polasky joined the prayer group fifteen years ago.
“I love it,” Nancy said. “It’s beautiful. The hour flies by.” She explained that the reason she and Don come faithfully every week is due to their love and respect for the priesthood. “You have to love those men that have dedicated their lives to be a priest,” she said. “We are praying to God that he will call good men to become priests; they are our shepherds. I think he has heard our prayers.”