Thoughts of the priesthood have been surfacing recently for Ricardo Hernandez, a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg.
Hernandez, 23, arrived at the Diocese’s annual Quo Vadis Days retreat on June 26, looking for a place to express his feelings and seeking spiritual direction. By the end of the five-day experience, he had found what he was looking for.
Standing in front of the stone edifice of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., the site of the Diocese’s annual retreat, Hernandez said Quo Vadis Days gave him the direction he needs as he continues to discern God’s plan for his life.
“This week has been really helpful in the sense that I’ve been able to talk to a lot of priests and seminarians, ask for spiritual direction, tell them how I’m feeling and have them guide me,” he said. “I hadn’t had that experience of getting spiritual direction before this; mostly I’d been reading the Bible, going before the Blessed Sacrament and praying a lot. But eventually I had to share these feelings with someone else. It’s been nice to get advice and pour out my heart and see where God is calling me.”
Perhaps that call will be as a husband and father, or as a single person. Maybe it will be to the religious life. Whatever it is, Hernandez will be better prepared to hear and answer it.
“This week is about becoming a better man of Christ. That’s what we need more of in this world,” he said.
Hernandez was one of 30 young men to participate in Quo Vadis Days, which took place June 26-30. A longstanding tradition of the Diocese’s Office of Vocations, the retreat takes its name from the legend that Peter asked Jesus this question (“Quo Vadis?” – meaning “Where are you going?”) on the outskirts of Rome, as Peter was fleeing persecution. Jesus’ response was, “To Rome, to be crucified again.”
Throughout the retreat, it’s a question that participants are continually encouraged to ponder.
Quo Vadis Days immerses young men ages 15-25 in days filled with the celebration of Mass, the Liturgy of Hours, discernment talks with a host of priests and seminarians, Holy Hours, indoor games, outdoor sports, hearty meals and a dose of camaraderie and conversation.
Whether engrossed in Adoration, praying the Rosary during a nighttime procession or competing in volleyball tournaments and water balloon battles, participants are engaged in living as Catholic men called to carry out their mission as disciples of Christ.
The priests, religious brothers and seminarians who serve as retreat staff and speakers are readily present to the attendees, whether during small-group presentations, spiritual direction, conversations in the rec room or cafeteria, or friendly banter on the seminary’s athletic field.
“The great part is, they’re not telling you whether to go into the seminary or not. They are there to hear you,” Hernandez said. “They listen and give some of their advice, their experiences, and they tell you to keep praying and have patience…. It’s been a very supportive environment for me to pour out my heart and have someone listen.”
That’s a big reason Quo Vadis Days has been a success for the nearly 20 years of its existence, said seminarian Michael Pray.
“It’s organic. There aren’t any gimmicks. It’s a summer retreat for young men. That can mean a lot of different things to different people, and I think that’s good,” he said. “The first time someone comes, they just might want to get out of the house for a week. But I know some of the guys who have been around for a while who really are in a serious discernment, and they’ll say, ‘I first came as a high school student to hang out with my friends, and I’m coming now as a college student to actually do a retreat.’”
“They know it’s real, and that it’s us,” Pray said. “It reflects the Diocese and its presbyterate really well.”
Praying, learning, eating, playing and sleeping in the seminary gives retreatants a glimpse of the life of a seminarian. They also form bonds as young Catholic men.
“They’re getting to know one another in a friendship that is rooted in Christ and making connections that are important now and in the future,” Pray said of the retreatants, a third of whom were returning participants this year.
“It’s different than just hanging out with friends because there is a spiritual dimension with daily Holy Hours, praying the Rosary together, participating in a procession,” he added. “They always feel recharged and ready to take on the world, and maybe think about a priestly vocation.”
Bishop Ronald Gainer spent time with retreatants on June 28, celebrating Mass for them in the seminary’s chapel, participating in an engaging and hour-long question-and-answer session, and joining them for a luncheon donated, prepared and served by Knights of Columbus Council 12788 of St. Joseph Parish in Mechanicsburg.
During the question-and-answer session in the seminary’s lecture hall, Bishop Gainer fielded questions about the day in the life of a bishop, what he enjoys most about his episcopacy, how he discerned his vocation, and the biggest challenge for the Church today.
To the latter question, he responded that the Church’s challenge has always been conversion of the culture.
“The challenge of the Church is always to propose the truths of Christ, be the person of Christ to change the culture and not allow the culture to change the Church,” he said. “We need the boldness of missionary disciples to be able to stand up and stand firm in the truth. … There are values, disciplines and truths that are perennial in the Church, and they transcend the present moment. So many people are just going with the flow of the culture, whereas the Church asks us to see something higher, something greater.”
He encouraged the retreatants to continue to live in holiness and to listen for God’s call in their lives.
“When we find and embrace the will of God, we have peace,” he said. “I think one of the reasons there is so much discontent, so much unhappiness and anger is because people haven’t considered the will of God and how to find it and follow it…. When you land on the will of God, I guarantee you’ll have that measure of satisfaction and peace.”
“Through our baptism, we’ve all received the universal vocation to be holy men and women. How we work that out in our specific lives will be different with each person,” Bishop Gainer told them. “For some, it will be married life, some are called to religious life and the priesthood, some to the single life. But we are all called to remain close to God, close to the Church, close to the sacraments…and to give evidence to it by the way we live our lives.”
Now in his fourth year as a staff member at Quo Vadis Days, Pray said the personal vocation stories that priests, religious and seminarians share during the week are helpful for the young men and open up opportunities for vulnerability because those experiences are shared in an authentic way.
“The retreatants are looking for the truth, which we know is Christ,” he said. “I think the best compliment we could have been paid came from a small-group discussion, when a young man said, ‘This is a very masculine retreat, but in the best way possible. It’s not sugar coating things, and it’s allowing us to express what it means to be a male Christian.’”
Quo Vadis Days, now in its 18th year, is a sign of hope for the Church, Pray said.
“The world today is a challenge, and it gives me hope that there are young men who can see through all of that and come here to Mary’s Mountain to be closer to Jesus and grow in faith as good, Catholic men,” he said.
Quo Vadis Days is hosted annually by the Diocese of Harrisburg in late June/early July. For more information on vocation discernment, visit www.hbgdiocese.org/vocations/vocation-discernment/.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness, and seminarian Michael Pray.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness