April 12, 2024

The Set Ablaze Pastoral Planning Initiative has been set in motion to help build missionary disciples in our diocese, maximize the complementarity of priestly gifts, scale our resources, and promote the proper co-responsibility of the lay faithful. Done well, our united prayers and focus on our lives as Catholics should increase the number of those called to the priesthood and religious life. 

We, as members of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, have a part to play and should have great hope in our future. Bishop DeGrood recently sat down to talk about the direction of vocations in our diocese and how we, the lay faithful, can help foster the call to the priesthood in our young men.

Bishop, we’ve heard a lot during Set Ablaze about aspirational goals, but that’s different from what you call an “inspired aspirational goal.” Can you explain the difference?

An aspirational goal can be a very human thought or idea. Hopefully, we all have some sort of aspirational goals. For example, around New Year’s, people might say, “Hey, I have a new goal of losing weight or exercising more.” It can be a very human goal.

An inspired aspirational goal is turning to God in prayer, listening deeply to what God desires, and then following that inspired aspirational goal. It’s really a deep listening, learning, praying and then following the Lord.

What is your own experience with inspired aspirational goals?

In regards to priestly vocations, I had this image one day when I was riding a bike while at Broom Tree on a day of recollection. It came to me in a deep interior experience of seeing some trees, which reminded me of my grandfather’s care for the apple tree he had right outside the window where he lived. I remembered him teaching me as a little kid about the importance of tending to that tree because he knew worms wanted to infect the apples, and if that happens, it ruins the apples. It gave me the image of the call to be a priest. In my work with vocations through the years, even as spiritual director helping people discern their vocations, there’re so many things in this secular culture that have inundated and confused things and negatively affected the clarity and the purity of a vocation. And so, we need to reclaim a Catholic culture.

In light of this current reality, how do we turn to God in prayer and beg God for an increase of vocations to the holy priesthood? We know from Scriptures that it’s very clear that we are to ask the Lord of the harvest for an increase of laborers. He’s very clear that the harvest is great, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray that the Lord of the harvest will send laborers into the vineyard.

What would you say to someone who says God is just calling fewer priests today and we just need to accept that reality?

When I look at the current reality, there seems to be a general sense of apathy. We talk about moving from Christendom to an apostolic age. In Christendom, it was kind of all built in. People knew there were so many vocations because the culture fostered that. Now, if we go back to the image of the apple tree, we see there have been so many worms that have come in by way of the secular world and all of its influence. It’s really hard for people to be able to see and to discern their vocations. So, my point is, there’s a deeper systemic apathy, discouragement, fear and even a high level of anxiety.

What we need to remember is God is stable, God is faithful, and he’s not going to abandon us because we are his beloved sons and daughters. He’s not going to leave us without the necessary vocations we need, but he’s also going to ask us to foster and nurture the vocations where he’s given the graces while these young people are being affected by the things in the world around them.

If we are feeling discouragement, sadness, grief over the loss of what once was, like lots of vocations, don’t be discouraged by its reality. We have to let go of the sadness. We have to let go of the grief. We have to surrender to God. We have to focus and say: Jesus, I trust in you. But we do this with confident faith, not with the shaky “Oh, I don’t know if God’s gonna give this to me.” No, God will give us what we ask for because he loves us that much. But, then we have to do our part.

Where do we start with changing our mind-set around vocations?

We need to start with prayer. That is the most important thing, because the greatest obstacle often is the interior way the evil one works on a soul so that they don’t respond to having a holy vocation, whether it’s living or discerning a virtuous holy marriage, a holy priesthood or a holy consecrated life. Again, that image of the worms and the apple, right? The secular culture that’s coming in is really affecting us in such a negative way.

Then, I really believe that, as part of this cultural shift, we need to educate people on what is this co-responsibility of the laity in the life of the Church and the world related to the promotion of vocations. I think where we really need the laity and our clergy is working to change the culture. We should all be praying about how the Lord desires us to help nurture someone, whoever is in our life, who is discerning a vocation.

Then we actually help young people discern their vocations because we see the qualities: that one seems to really have qualities towards marriage, that one really seems to have some qualities that could be marriage or priesthood, but might need more discernment.

What are some qualities the laity should look for in a young man discerning a call to the priesthood?

The first thing that comes to me is when there’s something stirring in the heart of a soul, if God’s working in a heart, there’s something different about them. We may not know what it is, but we sense a deep sense of sincerity. And that’s where we need to be able to encourage them. We see this young man who’s really striving to grow in holiness. He’s attending Mass. If there’s Confession, for example, you might see him waiting in the line. You see someone who’s really serious about the spiritual life. That is the most important essential thing. Do we sense that they’re praying? What kind of questions are they asking? Are they asking deeper questions even around the discernment of their vocations? Do we sense that they really love the faith, or at least they have a great eagerness to learn more? You may also see a sense of service in the person, someone who loves to help other people. They’re kind to other people. They’re attentive to other people. They show a profound respect for humanity.

Tell me about the structure and roles we have in place for promoting vocations.

We decided to change our structure within the diocese around vocations and have a team approach. We added the position of vocations promoter/advocate. This person is intended to journey with young men who are expressing some sort of interest in the priesthood, or in whom we might see signs of a priestly vocation.

We’ve also adapted resources to various types of roles. So if you are a catechist, a pastor, a priest, a lay person, if you’re a parent, how could you identify those particular qualities unique to your role with the young man discerning? So part of this inspired aspirational goal has been to create resources that are going to help people succeed in nurturing, fostering and protecting holy vocations.

Are you saying we should shift the questions we’re asking from: What do I want do with my life? to What does God want to do with my life?

Yes, that’s absolutely right. And what we’ll discover is that the desires we have if we’re listening to God are really the desires God gives us on our heart. So it’s not like we create them ourselves if we’re called to marriage. It’s a deep interior gift the Lord gives to us. Whether it’s consecrated life as a religious sister, for example, or a priest or a deacon, it’s a grace that’s given to us. We need to discover it. I know in my own journey, there were a lot of times I was confused because I had mixed desires. I had human desires to be married. I’d seen my own family life, I enjoyed it and I thought, “Oh, I’d love to have kids, love to have a family.”

That’s why prayer is so important and having someone objective who can actually help us process those thoughts and those feelings and those desires. What I found in my own life was when I opened my heart radically to say, “God, whatever you want,” that’s when I had the clarity and when the grace came so clear and so strong to me.

It seems like fear and discouragement are the great worms in the apple to go back to your story, not just with vocations but with all things in general.

Yes, I think you’re right. The evil one wants us to be so discouraged and afraid; that’s what’s going on in the world today. And we know from so many examples in history, that’s how you control people. You control people by building fear. They become locked down in fear, and then you can get them to do whatever you want because they’re afraid.

Whether it’s Set Ablaze, whether it’s vocations—be not afraid. Step right into it. What we need for people throughout our diocese, really throughout the world, to do is to step forward in their vulnerability. We’re all vulnerable. “I don’t know how to do this missionary discipleship stuff. I’m not going to have all the right answers.” We have to learn to be like the disciples after Pentecost. They learned: I just have to trust in God. They thought: I am so impoverished, I can’t do this. But then they would discover that God’s doing amazing things through them. This happened in the early Church, and God still does it today for those who are vulnerable enough to understand their need for God. The super abundance of God’s provisions are really what enable them to be able to step into it without fear. Because what we need in today’s world is people to step up against the worms that are infiltrating everything in our culture.

My grandfather protected that apple tree just at the right time because he was astute and attentive to what was going on. Just like in my vocation, the last thing the evil one wanted for me was to say yes to God in my life. When I was called to be a bishop, and even right now, he wants me to be afraid, he wants me to cower back. But what God’s calling me to is to live in the light of truth, to be impoverished. God will give us the spiritual grace we need to protect the Church and vocations from the worms of the world.

I think of that image from the “Lord of the Rings.” Gandalf battles that great dragon and when it comes over the bridge, he puts down his staff and says, “Thou shall not pass.” That’s what we need today. We need men and women who are going to stop and say, “Thou shall not pass.” We are not going to allow these kinds of things, the infection, into the minds of the youth of today.

Don’t priests and the bishop have more influence over vocations than the laity?

This is how the laity live out Lifelong Catholic Missionary Discipleship Through God’s Love. The laity have a co-responsibility in the life of the Church. It’s not “Oh, that’s the bishop’s job” or “That’s the vocation director’s job.” No, God is the master of vocations. We all have a responsibility. Let’s discover what that would be. My hope is that people, through prayer, will sense the desire within them to help nurture and foster vocations to every vocation: holy marriage, holy consecrated life and priesthood.

What about a young man who decides he’s called to marriage after discerning the priesthood?

There’s no pressure. We’re here to journey with you. If someone starts thinking about priesthood and then they decide they’re called to marriage, we’ll praise the Lord. I often feel it’s a great delight when the Lord gives clarity to a young man or a young woman as to what their vocation is. We get to be ambassadors of love along the way.

Part of this plan includes the propaedeutic year for young men to be formed before formally beginning seminary education. The house (in Sioux Falls) is called the Nazareth House. What inspired you to call it that?

The whole sense of the Nazareth House was another inspired aspirational stirring within my heart. It was actually on Dec. 11, 2019. I was driving from my current assignment in Minnesota down here to the Diocese of Sioux Falls for the public announcement on Dec. 12 that I was going to be the bishop. It was a beautiful night. The moon was shining across the fields as I was making my way down 35 and then down 90. I had this deep interior sense, “I am returning to Nazareth.” I didn’t know what that all meant at the time, but it was so influential to me.

Nazareth was the home of the Holy Family where Jesus grew in age and grace and wisdom. What happened in those early years of Jesus? We don’t hear much. That’s really what seminary is intended to be: a seedbed. It’s a seedbed to nurture the growth for a young person.

When you’re a seminarian, you really don’t have a home. You’re kind of between things. And so, it’s important for the seminarians to have a home they can come to, that they have a home, if you will, like Nazareth, to be with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, to grow in age, grace and wisdom together. It’s important that they discover the godly brotherhood amongst themselves and in themselves and see how God is working within to build this band of brothers. God is desiring this new culture of being healthy, happy and holy in a very intentional way as brothers.

Part of what happens in the propaedeutic experience in Nazareth House is actually the release of the things that are not of God, that are not virtuous. Then, what these young seminarians are finding is the joy and the peace they have because they now know their conscience is in right order with God. They’re discovering new things and brotherhood and fellowship and prayer, regardless of what their vocation is.

What would you say to someone discerning a vocation?

Be not afraid! Open wide the doors of the heart. It really is the quick way to holiness. And it is the quick way to discern our vocations. Now we can delay, we can resist, we can be deceived by the evil one, but by bringing oneself forward before God and before those who assist with vocations, by bringing it into the light, it actually sets you free. Be not afraid.