By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
How do you foster vocations to the priesthood in the midst of a pandemic with an uncertain endpoint? That’s a question Bishop Thomas Zinkula and his diocesan vocation team grapple with as they prepare to lead a fresh, multifaceted approach to vocations ministry.
On July 1, Father Ross Epping will become vocation director while continuing to serve as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell. Father Jake Greiner will become director of seminarians while continuing his role as pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport and also serving as priest moderator of St. Andrew Parish in Blue Grass. Father Joseph Sia, current vocations director, will leave that position to become director of recently ordained priests and to serve as pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City, St. Joseph Parish in West Liberty, and St. Bernadette Parish in West Branch.
Associate directors of vocation, Father Thom Hennen and Father Jeff Belger, will continue in their supporting roles. Father Hennen will also become the diocese’s vicar general while Father Belger will continue serving as priest director for the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City and sacramental minister for St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Iowa City.
“Vocations is a big job; not only that, it’s an important job,” said Father Epping who has been a pastor for a year and was ordained in 2016. “It is going to be a challenge. I am looking forward to promoting vocations, and not just to the priesthood.” It will be a team effort, which he sees as absolutely necessary.
“As a pastor, I can’t do everything Father Sia did and neither can (Father) Jake.” Priests and laity “need to shift the way we think about vocations,” Father Epping said. “It’s not just our job as pastors; it’s people’s evangelical ministry to foster vocations.” Helping young men and women discern a call to the priesthood and religious life requires grassroots work — “the level at which people encounter face to face, heart to heart, soul to soul – that’s where vocations will blossom.”
Father Epping admits that “COVID-19 changes everything, including promotion of vocations. He’s been meeting with Bishop Zinkula, Father Sia and Father Greiner to talk about this coming summer and how to utilize media and whatever else is available to promote vocations.
Father Greiner looks forward to working with seminarians, in addition to his other duties, because he considers himself a teacher at heart. “I’ve always tried to get to know seminarians and keep in touch with them,” he said. Ordained seven years ago, “I’m still young and learning,” and that’s another aspect of the priesthood that he thinks benefits seminarians and himself. “I look forward to working with them, helping them, and making sure they are successful when they are ordained priests for the diocese.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a learning experience for him and all priests, he believes. “It demonstrates the need to be flexible in responding to needs,” Father Greiner said. It goes to show that “you can’t teach everything” that a priest will experience in ministering to the faithful. Like Father Epping, he views vocation ministry as a team effort.
Restructuring of the diocese’s vocation office speaks to that reality. “The past few years the position of Vocation Director hasn’t been a fulltime position; it has been paired with another ministerial role,” Bishop Zinkula said. “Nevertheless, the Vocation Director has been responsible for three major areas: 1) Promoting vocations and ministering to those discerning a vocation to priesthood; 2) Ministering to seminarians during their seminary experience; 3) Ministering to recently ordained priests.”
On July 1, those three responsibilities will be split among Fathers Epping, Greiner and Sia, as reflected in their new positions. “The Vocation Director has been wearing more than one hat, juggling more than one ball. These three priests will still be doing that; all of them will have another assignment as well. But the vocations piece of their assignment won’t be the whole thing; it will be just one of the three areas,” the bishop said.
“In other dioceses, these positions are already separate (Director for Vocations Promotions, Director for Seminarians, Director for the Newly Ordained),” Father Sia said. “Having worn all three hats the past couple of years, I know that it is a lot of work for one person, and if he is expected to be pastor at a parish as well, then it simply becomes too much. I think it made sense that the functions be split among three priests, who will all still be pastors, by the way!”
Father Sia hopes the restructuring “will allow each of us to focus properly and dedicate an adequate amount of time to our ‘specialization.’ By doing so, we can be more effective at what we are doing, utilizing our gifts and abilities to better serve our target audience, be it the general population of the diocese (promotions), the seminarians, or the newly-ordained priests.”
Father Sia described the first five years of priesthood as a crucial time period. “I am honored to accompany the newly ordained as they transition to this new phase of the priestly vocation. Having been ordained almost 12 years myself, I hope I can share some of what I have learned and experienced with these men so that they can continue to flourish as priests in their parish assignments. Besides, it’s also a good way to get to know the newly ordained priests.”
With his new pastor assignments, “I will definitely continue to be a strong promoter of vocations discernment! The reality is, each pastor is ‘vocation director’ in his own parish,” Father Sia said. “The many things I learned, the connections I made, and the resources I am now aware of will be most useful as I fulfill my role as shepherd of these parishes.”