It started with a simple phone call. Six years into his priesthood, the Rev. Monsignor Tom Richter received a call from Bishop Emeritus Paul Zipfel informing him of his next assignment: director of vocations for the Diocese of Bismarck.
From one perspective, the time couldn’t have been worse for a young priest to embark on the crucial task of building up and sustaining the priesthood in a diocese. Just weeks before the call came, U.S. bishops had met in Dallas in June 2002 and approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The explosion of the priest abuse scandal was roaring and the Church was wrestling with how to respond.
“Nationally, priestly vocation ministry was really in trouble,” Richter explained. “To promote the priesthood in that climate was like promoting a disease.”
The Bismarck Diocese had just eight seminarians in formation in 2002. No priestly ordination in 2003. No ordination in 2004. “They were difficult days,” Richter admitted.
However, from Richter’s perspective, the time couldn’t have been better for a young priest to begin his work as vocation director. “Standards had never been higher. Expectations had never been clearer. The nightly news made it clear to any young man that if he was considering the priesthood, it’s not a place for a person who has problematic tendencies. It really helped inspire men who wanted a high standard.”
While the public face of the priesthood suffered, the work of the Holy Spirit continued, quietly and intensely pursuing hearts for Christ, including the heart of Bismarck’s new vocation director.
While reflecting on his 11 years as vocation director in western N.D., Richter shared some tricks of the trade. He quickly learned that, amid the abuse scandal and as the diocese’s “gatekeeper,” the director of vocations must “ask the difficult questions” and “have the frank conversations” with potential seminary candidates.
“If the screening process and acceptance process are done well, a diocese ends up with a group of men who are following Christ. And men who are following Christ are confident men. And confident men are attractive men to other secure men and they’re threatening to insecure, envious men. And so a dynamic develops where they attract others who are also being drawn by the voice of God,” Richter said. “In a trite way, the birds of a feather flock together. That bird is the Holy Spirit.”
The dynamic proved effective. During Richter’s tenure, the diocese accepted an average of at least four men into seminary formation each year while two out of every three men was ordained a priest. Most dioceses would be happy with 40-50 percent of their seminarians being ordained, Richter said.
“Every day in front of the Blessed Sacrament I would beg Jesus for four men. I would harass Him,” Richter chuckled. “He gave more than I was asking.”
In addition, all 50 men accepted were “home-grown western N.D. boys” and over 60 percent of them came from the diocese’s Catholic schools, he said. As for the one-third who left the seminary, Richter stressed that vocation work isn’t merely about ordinations.
“Our diocese is full of those men doing all kinds of great work in our diocese for the Church and for the community in general,” explained Richter. “The formation they received has had a great impact on what they’re doing. All that happens because of the generosity of the people of the diocese.”
Brought to fulfillment
After 11 years, Msgr. Richter admitted he’s realized that he isn’t a young priest anymore.
“There’s a natural step that has occurred,” he explained. “I’m now sitting in the place of a mentor to young priests, or somewhat of an older brother to younger priest brothers who were seminarians when I was vocation director.”
Richter was named rector of Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck last July, where he now leads two of his former seminarians (Fr. Nick Schneider and Fr. Jared Johnson) as they minister to the needs of the parish. The Cathedral parish has “claimed my heart,” he said, and he is ready to move on, humbly realizing there are others who can more effectively fill his shoes.
As he stood near the altar of the Cathedral this past June 13 (the place where he had been ordained a priest exactly 17 years earlier), Richter felt a powerful sense of grace and fulfillment as he presented six men to Bishop Kagan to be ordained priests, a number reached only twice in the history of the small Bismarck Diocese. “It would be difficult to find a better way to end,” admitted Richter. He found consolation in the words used at the ordination Mass and throughout the various steps of a man’s seminary formation: “May the Lord, who has begun this good work in you, bring it to fulfillment.”
Ready to move on, Richter said his ministry with vocations has made him a better priest, more deeply dependent on Christ. When he speaks of his accomplishments over the last 11 years, he credits not himself, but the bishops who led him and ultimately God. “A vocation director has to be utterly convinced that in the end, Jesus is the vocation director. I have consistently said that I don’t convince anyone to be a priest. That’s God’s job. He’s the one who chooses men. It still amazes me. 2,000 years out, Christ is still calling.”
It’s up to us to answer.
For more, see the August 2013 Dakota Catholic Action.