Bishop-elect Tom Daly reflects on nine years as vocations director


After nine years as vocations director for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, it would be easy to bemoan obstructionist parents and a hostile culture that can make an already difficult job frustrating, but Bishop-elect Thomas Daly doesn’t want to go there. 

Here’s his big picture: “My experience is that God calls what is needed at a given moment in time. That I see. And he works where people are.” 

There’s more: Over those nine years, Bishop-elect Daly – he will be ordained auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of San Jose on May 25 – said he has seen prospects become more focused on being open to the call of the priesthood. 

“That is the good news,” he said. “In the nine years I have been vocations director I have seen more guys of quality who are younger saying, ‘I am going to see if this call is authentic and I am going to enter the seminary.’ This has been great.” 

Bishop-elect Daly, who is also president of Marin Catholic High School, is to be succeeded as vocations director by Father David Ghiorso, who continues as pastor of St. Charles Parish in San Carlos. He has largely attempted to help develop the vocations of young men of quality who are coming of age in the local church, although the roster also includes seminarians born outside the country but educated here and seminarians of the “young adult” category, embarking on a second career, although the growth area in priestly vocations in recent years is younger men from the suburbs. 

Currently, there are 18 seminarians being trained at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. “God willing,” said Bishop-elect Daly, three potential seminarians in the process of applying at the seminary will be accepted, and that will create a pool of 21 men -- six of whom may be ordained in the spring of 2012. 

These are relatively good numbers, said Bishop-elect Daly. The numbers move higher and lower from year to year, for a host of reasons, and it would be preferable to have a reliable ordination of four priests per year. With formation lasting seven years, that would produce 28 seminarians for the archdiocese. 

“But, we have 21, and where we live, with the wealth and being a not exactly family- and vocation-friendly, to have 19 to 21 seminarians is a blessing. Are there enough? No. Should we be grateful? Yes.” 

The median age for men being ordained in the U.S. is in the low- to mid-30s and has been for some 10 years, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which produces an annual survey of ordinands. “They look for a role model, someone who they admire and say to themselves, ‘I could do that, too,’” said Gautier. 

“If the only priest they have at their parish is 75 and he’s pastoring in three different parishes and has to run from here to there, he is probably not projecting a real healthy, happy, wholesome image of the priesthood,” she said. “It’s can’t look like much fun.” 

Much of the 2011 report is predictable: Most of the members of the ordination class have been Catholics since infancy, while nearly one in 10 became Catholic later in life. Four in five say that both parents are Catholic, and a third of the members have relatives who are priests or religious. 

Gautier noted that in the survey 23 percent in the 2011 class said the vocational advertising of websites influenced their discernment – compared with 14 percent in the 2008 survey. “I think that is indicative of the changing communications pattern,” she said of the Internet and social media. “It’s an emerging trend. You should not ignore it. You ignore it at your own peril.” 

Based at a Catholic high school, Bishop-elect Daly understands the power of social media, as well as the mountain of distractions and “busyness” that young people create for themselves. “Is the first choice or the second choice God?” he asked. “That is the challenge we face today.” 

He told the story of an excellent Catholic student who, when he asked him where he went to Mass on Easter, replied that he hadn’t gone – that he went to a San Francisco Giants game, with a 1 p.m. starting time. Bishop-elect Daly gave him an earful. 

“That just shows you how, I think, insidious secularism can be,” he said. 

There are, he said, other odds facing a vocations director: 

-- “We live in a sexually charged society and it may be that the concept of chaste living is a harder sell than it was 50 years ago.” 

-- “At one time I think the church strongly shaped the culture. Now, it’s the culture less influenced by the church that is still shaping individual lives.” 

-- “Parents may see me or a vocations director interfering in their hopes and dreams for their children … Of our younger seminarians, at least half had to deal with lack of enthusiastic support by their parents. I like that. That is a tactful way of saying it.” 

At the same time, Bishop-elect Daly has seen “a real, genuine passion for vocations by a group – not all – but by a group of our seminarians and that has been inspiring. We have a handful of seminarians who really want to go out and be disciples. They really want to talk about their calling and they want to encourage others to consider, to pray.” 

Bishop-elect Daly’s job description for a vocations director also includes: “Pray for vocations. You can’t build a vocation culture unless you have a culture of prayer. Second, have seminarians assist you who have a passion for vocations. Third, don’t get in a numbers game (to inflate the rolls) because one crazy, weird seminary candidate will chase away five normal guys.” 

At about the time Bishop-elect Daly took over vocations, he remembered when the seed was likely planted in him. He was an altar boy at Our Lady of the Visitacion Parish in San Francisco, looking for a way to escape the obligation. He asked his mother to tell the pastor the family would be on vacation all summer. That didn’t fly. 

It happened the church was being painted and weekday Mass was moved to the small Daughters of Charity Convent chapel, where only one altar boy was needed. “For some reason I said yes, I would serve at the Masses,” said Bishop-elect Daly, “and from that point on the Mass took on something different.”

Printed with permission from Catholic San Francisco.