WESTON — In the early evening, a group of faithful from churches around the Diocese gathers at St. Francis of Assisi Parish to pray for a special intention, a cause so important it will affect the future of the Catholic Church — vocations.
They are members of a worldwide apostolate begun 85 years ago called “Serra,” in honor of St. Junipero Serra, the 18th century priest and Franciscan friar who founded missions along the California coast in San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. He is recognized as patron saint of vocations to church ministry.
The Serra Club of the Bridgeport Diocese, which meets on the fourth Thursday of the month, supports activities and prayer so that more men and women will enter the religious life at a time when there has been a steady decline in vocations.
In recent years, there are fewer priests to serve the 300,000 registered Catholics in the diocese. Since 2014, 43 priests have retired and 13 have been ordained. Because of the shortage, an increasing number of parishes have only one priest in residence, and many have taken on a diocesan assignment in addition to their work as pastors.
Anita Field, a member of the group, says that throughout the day she prays for vocations because they are fundamental to the life of the Church.
“Without priests, we will have no Church,” she said. “And without their moral fiber, we are really lost. We need to be focused on something greater than what most of the people in the world are focused on.”
Daily prayer for vocations and seminarians is a regular practice for the 19 members, whose stated mission is to “vigorously respond to the call to promote and support vocations to the ministerial priesthood, the permanent diaconate and consecrated life in the Catholic Church.”
Before their meeting, members pray in front of the tabernacle, confident that Christ is listening because, as he said, “The harvest is great, but the laborers are few; pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
“Praying daily for vocations and our seminarians has made me a more prayerful and more disciplined individual,” said Thom Field, president of the club. “I ask for the intercession of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit in the lives of young seminarians.”
A convert to Catholicism 26 years ago, Field says he loves the Catholic faith and is saddened by the crisis in the Church, which has had a negative effect on vocations.
The sex-abuse scandal has dramatically impacted our ability to recruit people for the religious life,” he says. “I remember the days when parents were proud to have their son become a priest. Today, they try to talk their kids out of it, but we need to help them understand that the priesthood is an honorable and sacred vocation.”
Fr. Jeffrey Couture, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi and chaplain of the group, said that to succeed in their mission, Serrans must commit themselves to the basics of spiritual warfare because Satan will always tempt them into thinking there’s an easier way. “All of us, as a group, need to do more,” he said. “We need to do holy hours. We need to pray the rosary. We need to pray together during Eucharistic adoration.”
At a recent meeting, club members discussed plans to create a vocation ministry at St. Francis of Assisi that would pray for vocations and also provide resources and opportunities to encourage young people to consider the religious life.
Serra International was begun in 1935 by four Catholic laymen in Seattle and is recognized by the Vatican as the “lay vocational arm of the Church” with more than 1,100 clubs in 46 countries that claim over 20,000 members.
The Bridgeport chapter began through the efforts of Deacon David Flynn of St. Jude Church in Monroe, who in 2014 while in formation for the permanent diaconate undertook a project to create a vocation ministry in his parish, which ultimately led to forming a Serra Club in the diocese.
“What appealed to me was the personal formation and growth in holiness for the members,” he said. “The activities are important, but the foundation of those activities rests on prayer and the individual’s spiritual formation and growth in personal holiness.”
At times, it seemed the effort was floundering, but he credits prayers to the Blessed Mother by several people, including his wife Anita, with bringing it to fruition. The Bridgeport club was chartered on April 28, 2015 at a Mass celebrated by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano at St. Pius X Church in Fairfield.
“It is really surprising how things work with prayer,” Deacon Flynn said. “No matter how hard we work for something, it doesn’t get done on its own. You have to do it with prayer because then you are following God’s will.”
The three goals of the club are: “To promote and support vocations to the ministerial priesthood and the permanent diaconate of the Church as a particular vocation of service, and support priests in their sacred ministry; to encourage and promote vocations to the consecrated life in the Church; and to assist members to recognize and respond, each in his own life, to God’s call to holiness in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit.”
What is particularly rewarding for Serrans are the friendships that develop with seminarians, and they regularly hold events to become acquainted with them, including a family barbecue. As Deacon Flynn puts it: “Sierra hugs trees. Serra hugs the clergy.”
Some priests he knows who were ordained 50 years ago still remember the influence and support that Serra provided for them when they were in formation back in the 1960s … and knew that every day someone was praying for them by name. Gene Casciari of St. Bridget of Ireland in Stamford, who has been a member of the Serra Club since it began, says he currently prays for seminarian Joseph Cain.
In our era, despite the decline in vocations, God is still calling men and women to the religious life, Deacon Flynn said. However, many of them cannot recognize the call because they did not receive the necessary faith formation when they were growing up.
To encourage more vocations, Serra offers resources for parishes that want to start a vocation ministry, and Bishop Caggiano has asked pastors to encourage parishioners to become active in the Serra Club, Field said.
Bob Nelson of St. Mary in Bethel said, “We are always looking for new members because we are devoted to this cause. It is a vocation to pray for vocations.”