By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — It was just two weeks before the one-year anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood that Father Christopher M. Peschel got the call from Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., asking him to take on the role of associate vocations director for the diocese.
“I thought I was moving at first,” Father Peschel recently told The Anchor, thinking he’d be transferred from his current pastoral assignment as parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in South Yarmouth. “But he called to ask if I would be willing to take on the role of associate vocations director and I was happy to do it.”
Although he viewed the bishop’s offer as a great honor, Father Peschel soon realized he now had to set aside more time in his busy schedule to devote to the task at hand.
“I had to sit back and think where I was going to find the time to do this,” he said. “(The bishop) thankfully was able to work it out so I would no longer have to serve as chaplain for Cape Cod Hospital, which would give me more time to devote to vocations. This is obviously work that’s in addition to my assignment at St. Pius X Parish, and I realize as much as it is an honor, it’s going to be a lot of work going forward. But I think God will provide the time.”
Already a sitting member on the newly-formed Diocesan Vocations Board and someone with an obvious passion for the priesthood, Father Peschel seemed the ideal choice to assist vocations director Father Kevin A. Cook and Sister Paulina Hurtado, O.P., episcopal representative for religious and fellow associate vocations director, in addressing what Father Peschel rightly referred to as a “vocations crisis” on the diocesan level.
“It’s no secret that we have a vocations crisis in the Church,” Father Peschel said. “I think it was in one of Father Tim Goldrick’s recent columns (in The Anchor) where he talked about how in the next five years, 17 priests will be retiring and will be replaced, at best, by four new ones (being ordained). We will start to feel that numbers crunch in this diocese a year from now, when the first of these big classes starts to retire and we realize that next year we don’t have a single ordination. I think it’s been a back-burner issue for a while, but the reality is next year we’re going to realize that there will likely be several parishes sharing priests.”
Stressing that fostering vocations to the priesthood is “important for the future of this diocese,” Father Peschel is eager to try new and innovative things that seem to have been successful in other dioceses.
“I’m hoping we can determine how best we can go about recruiting more young men and bringing an awareness of vocations to each of the parishes, schools and places in the diocese,” he said. “There are many places that the young men are who can become potential priests. I guess best practices are good because we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. If it’s working in another diocese and we haven’t tried it yet here, why not?”
In addition to ideas he’s currently brainstorming with members of the Diocesan Vocations Board, Father Peschel has suggested perhaps making the diocesan ordination day a solemnity, so extraordinary Liturgies such as weddings or funerals would not be celebrated in parishes, thereby freeing up priests and parishioners to attend the ordination.
“I think in some dioceses it has been instituted by the bishop,” Father Peschel said. “Every priest gets an invitation to attend an ordination. But the idea if the day was set aside for the bishop to be able to declare that day a solemnity in the diocese, there wouldn’t be funerals or weddings that day, and it would be setting that entire day aside and asking for everyone to gather at the cathedral for the ordination.”
Father Peschel also thinks parishes that have never sent a single young man to the seminary should be held accountable — much in the same way that parishes are commended for raising money for the annual Catholic Charities Appeal.
“I remember one parish councilor commented something to the effect that if we didn’t have a priest who lived here, we’d almost feel like we had been abandoned,” Father Peschel said. “And I said: well, hold on. How many seminarians has this parish sent to the bishop? And if you haven’t sent any, then who is abandoning who?”
Father Peschel pointed to the annual Quo Vadis Days retreat program that the diocesan Vocations Office has sponsored for the past five years as an idea that worked well in other dioceses and was successfully adopted here. This five-day discernment retreat for young men ages 14 to 18 is designed to provide guidance and support in determining what God is calling them to do in life.
Having been involved with Quo Vadis since its inception in the Fall River Diocese, Father Peschel said it has really started to bear fruit with several young men now studying at various levels in the seminary.
“Quo Vadis gets great coverage and a poster about it is sent every year to each parish,” he said. “It’s been well-promoted in the high schools and at the very least it’s giving the guys who are coming a sense that they’re not the only guy between the age of 14 and 18 who is thinking about becoming a priest.”
For Father Peschel, Quo Vadis provided an important sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that carried him through his seminary years.
“Guys who are seriously considering the priesthood can feel like they are the only one in the world,” he said. “And bringing people together like Quo Vadis does helps to build friendships. I know there’s one kid at one of our high schools who has been on several Quo Vadis Days and he was excited to be getting other guys from his high school to come this year. So, if it builds that kind of excitement in one guy; I mean, as much as Father Cook or I could talk about it or as many pamphlets as we could hand out, nothing can beat the experience of a kid who’s actually been on it recommending it to one of his peers.”
This year’s Quo Vadis Days will be held July 6-10 at Betania II Marian Retreat Center in Medway.
Noting that attendance has steadily increased each year, Father Peschel expects to have as many as 40 young men on this year’s excursion.
“We’ll accept applications right up until the week before and the place that we go to has a huge capacity — well over 100,” he said. “We’re not looking at it being that big, but I don’t think a number like 40 is out of the question this year. I think the first year we started we had like 25 and we’ve added about five more each year. Last year we had 35 and we’re hoping for 40 this year — that would be a good number to work with.”
As in past years, all of the current seminarians will be involved in Quo Vadis Days, including Deacon Jack Schrader, who will be ordained to the priesthood by Bishop da Cunha on July 11.
“The Quo Vadis retreat will end on Friday and he’ll be ordained the very next day, on Saturday, so I’m praying the man can get some rest,” Father Peschel said. “We’re hoping to be able to invite those 40 guys from Quo Vadis (to the ordination). Even if we only get 20 of them who will be able to come on Saturday, for them to witness an ordination is very powerful.”
Referring to an ordination as a “moving Liturgy” and “one of the greatest Masses the Church celebrates,” Father Peschel said having so many attend his own ordination a year ago was very edifying.
“There were priests in this diocese that I didn’t even know who came just because I was being ordained into this fraternity, so to speak, of guys who have come for years before me,” he said. “To me, that’s a sign of a witness to the guy being ordained but also to everyone there to support and welcome our new brother.”
Looking back on his own first year as a priest, Father Peschel said celebrating the Sacraments has always been the one thing that brings him the most joy.
“The reality of it is prior to June 7 of last year, I couldn’t celebrate Mass, I could only attend,” he said. “And it’s a beautiful, humbling privilege to be able to stand at that altar, celebrate Mass and preach the Word of God. The Sacraments are at the root of any joys I’ve experienced in my first year of priesthood.
“I can’t put it into words, but it’s a humbling experience to know that God chose me, God wanted me. Out of everyone in the world, he chose me to be the instrument of His grace, to bring that gift of Heaven to the world. That, beyond anything else, has been the greatest source of joy for me.”
Those interested in more information about Quo Vadis Days 2015 should contact their parish priest or visit www.qvdays.org.