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Answer the call - Diocese faces challenge to recruit men, women to religious life

Catholic Masses often include a prayer asking for men and women to enter into religious vocations.

Men are needed to become priests and women to join religious orders in northwest Iowa and nationwide.

Catholic dioceses are facing challenges, because typically it has been difficult to fill those roles.

 "In the years following the Second World War through the Korean War, a lot of men went into the priesthood," said the Rev. Brad Pelzel, director of vocations and seminarians in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sioux City.

"Those are the guys who have been retiring the last 10 years and through today," Pelzel said. "We have not been having as many young men coming in."

That, combined with fewer Catholics in northwest Iowa, adds to the problem, he said.

 "There's a shortfall between the number of priests we have retiring, among the number being ordained," Pelzel said.

Annually, about three to five young men and women across the diocese look at joining the religious community, he said.

That creates challenges for parishes to meet their needs.

"We do not have enough priests and sisters to sufficiently meet all the goals the Church would like to accomplish in our diocese," Pelzel said.

Due to shortages, the Sioux City diocese and others have to make tough decisions.

"The way we manage that is sometimes we have to close parishes," Pelzel said.

Recruitment challenges

Pelzel explained that recruitment for priests takes a different path.

He looks for young men with a willingness to serve during that process.

"They feel called to serve," Pelzel said.

Sometimes that doesn't work out and people choose not to finish their studies, he said.

"A lot of times people come into the priesthood for the wrong reasons and we ask them to leave," Pelzel said.

For example, they want security, he said.

"Trading debts for service to God is not a priest calling," Pelzel noted.

As director of the office of vocations, Pelzel said he visits schools regularly to talk to students.

"My challenge to them is what does God want you to do with your life?" he said.

It's a long process, Pelzel said.

"When I reach the point where a young man is interested enough to join the diocese, I do three interviews with him," Pelzel said.

Each interview lasts about three hours.

During those discussions, Pelzel gets to know the candidate by talking about his family and his growing up years.

Then, they talk about career aspirations, Pelzel said.

"Tell me about your dating life, what are your experiences with other people? What are your fears," he said.

Through the interviews, they also discuss each man's religious experiences and relationship with the Lord, Pelzel said.

"It's designed so in the end I've got an understanding of who this person is," he said. "The interview is designed to help me identify what areas this person needs help with."

After that, the individual will have a psychological evaluation, which costs anywhere from $800 to $2,000.

Pelzel said the three interviews and evaluation help him determine if someone would or wouldn't be a good fit for seminary.

He noted the extensive interviews and testing are a direct result of sexual abuse scandals affecting clergy.

Years ago people just said they wanted to become a priest and not many questions were asked, Pelzel said.

"In the world today, we can't do that," he said.

Called to serve

Currently, there are 14 men studying to join the Sioux City diocese, and two others will be ordained this summer.

Two of the 14 men have ties to Le Mars.

Jacob Begnoche, a 2013 Gehlen Catholic graduate, the son of Tina and Edward, of Le Mars, is studying at Conception Seminary College, in Conception, Mo.

Tim Pick, of Le Mars, is doing pre-theology studies at St. Meinrad Seminary, in St. Meinrad, Ind.

Both men said, as students, they are aware of challenges facing them.

"We are frequently reminded of the shortage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and I appreciate that we are made aware of the situation," Pick said.

In the last few years, the number of students at St. Meinrad seminary has been the largest in decades, which is good news for vocations, he said.

"However, there is no guarantee that the number will stay consistent during the average of four to six years of priestly formation," Pick said. "Seminarians come and go."

That is why the formation of priesthood, which focuses on four pillars -- human, spiritual, pastoral and academic -- is so important, Pick said.

"All are so important to form a well-rounded priest," he said.

Pick added, experience is a benefit, too, but not all seminarians have accumulated that.

Class sizes at St. Meinrad are about 20 seminarians.

Like Pick, Begnoche said he knows about the shortage of men and women entering priesthood and religious life.

When he was in high school, Begnoche said he overheard a former pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church, in Struble, talking to a parishioner about the lack of priests in the diocese.

The pastor told the parishioner the problem wasn't a shortage of priests but a shortage of men following their call to priesthood, Begnoche said.

"Much of the blame for this problem can be put on society," he said. "Becoming a priest, or entering into any sort of religious order today, goes completely against what men and women of this time have grown up learning."

Despite those challenges, some, like Begnoche and Pick, are answering the call to become priests.

"The priesthood was something that I have thought about since I was a little kid," Begnoche said.

It wasn't until his senior year at Gehlen he decided it was something he needed to do.

"I had felt the sense of a call to it for years and was finally accepting it," Begnoche said.

Unlike Begnoche, Pick's road to priesthood came later in life, after an 18 1/2 year career as the Plymouth County clerk of court and previous jobs.

"I am called a late vocation story," Pick said. "Late, in the sense as I am much older than the average 24-26-year-old seminarian, but that has not been a problem here at all in the seminary."

His calling came after being heavily involved in his church, formerly St. James Catholic parish.

Six years ago, he entered a deacon formation program.

But, he still felt called to serve at a higher level, Pick said.

"It was important for me to listen to God, and so finally I made the decision to enter the seminary," he said.


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