Come, follow me

Come, follow me

Four alumni are called to religious life

By John Walsh

It’s well known well known the number of Roman Catholic priests is declining. In 1965, there were 58,632 Catholic priests and 12,271 religious brothers in the U.S., according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Those numbers have declined to 38,275 and 4,318 in 2014. Despite that decline, men are still being called to religious life, although it’s typically later in life compared to those a generation or two ago. While the number of priests in the U.S. Catholic Church has declined steadily from 2005 to 2011, the number of newly ordained priests and seminarians in that time frame has increased, according to CARA.

In 2013, Pope Francis declared that a Year of Consecrated Life be celebrated throughout the world. YCL began Nov. 30, 2014, and will close on the World Day of Consecrated Life, Feb. 2, 2016. As the Catholic Church celebrates the YCL, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations is promoting Days with Religious initiatives and resources to help families learn about the consecrated life of religious men and women.

At John Carroll, students – including seminarians – have opportunities to enrich their spiritual lives via service, Mass, campus ministry programs, and theology and philosophy classes, to name a few. And while most male alumni don’t enter the priesthood or brotherhood right after earning their degree from Carroll, their time in University Heights can provide them with experiences that foster discernment about religious life.

Brother Matt Wooters, S.J., ’09, who’s studying for his master’s at Saint Louis University; Father Kevin Fazio ’94, a parish priest in suburban Pittsburgh; Father Alan Benander, O. Praem, ’99, a Norbertine priest at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, Calif.; and Brother Francisco Lopez, OFM Cap., ’12, a Franciscan studying at Catholic University of America, are four men who’ve had life-changing experiences that resulted in following a call to serve God in a special way.

Br. Lopez

Br. Lopez

Early on
One of eight children, Br. Lopez, who was born in the Dominican Republic, spent 14 years there before coming to the U.S. to live in Massachusetts. That’s where his grandmother first came years previously and where he went to high school.

“I’ve always wanted to go to a Jesuit school,” Lopez says. “My father sent me to a private school in the Dominican, but it wasn’t a Catholic school.”

Br. Wooters, the third of four boys, grew up outside Washington, D.C. Once he matriculated at JCU, he didn’t know what to major in but knew he loved the liberal arts.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without JCU,” he says. “I did a lot of extracurriculars: the crew team, campus ministry, retreats, service trips, studying abroad in Rome.”

By his senior year, Br. Wooters, a political science major, knew he wanted to work in the international service and social justice field after he graduated.

Unlike Br. Wooters, JCU was the first Catholic school Fr. Fazio attended. Looking
to play college basketball, Fr. Fazio attended Carroll and played ball his freshman year. After earning a B.A. in English and minoring in business, he worked for Weirton Steel Corp. in its human resources department writing training manuals. Four years later, he transitioned into the family business, the Diamond Wire Spring Co., a manufacturer of steel springs. Fr. Fazio, the first of the third generation to enter the family business, learned different facets of it and eventually became vice president of marketing and sales. To benefit the business, Fr. Fazio earned his MBA at the University of Pittsburgh in 2002.

Throughout his 20s, Fr. Fazio worked, played sports, dated, coached grade-school basketball, and learned to fly airplanes, earning his commercial and multiengine licenses. He was 30 when he thought about marriage most seriously.

Like Br. Lopez, Fr. Benander came from a large family – he’s one of eight, too. While at Carroll, Fr. Benander majored in math and computer science and was active in the campus’ Right to Life group. He also had thoughts about entering the priesthood, but they were nothing serious.

“I thought I’d get married and have a large family like my father,” he says.

After graduating from Carroll, Fr. Benander worked at Progressive Insurance as a computer programmer.

“I thought I had settled on not becoming a priest,” he says. “I wanted to become a teacher – it runs in the family – but I wanted to make more money before going into teaching, and computer programming was an enjoyable way for me to do that.”

Br. Wooters

Br. Wooters

Life-changing experiences
Even though he dated throughout high school and college and thought about having a family, the Jesuit calling had been in Br. Wooters’ mind for a while. He knew he was going abroad to do service work once he graduated from Carroll and was open to where the Jesuit Volunteer Corps assigned him. JVC orientation, which was held at JCU in 2009, helped prepare him for life in Belize, a predominately Catholic country. It was the pivotal experience in his life.

“You really can’t train for going abroad for two years,” he says. “I caught Dengue fever. I was homesick. I was sick a lot.”

Br. Wooters counseled and taught adults and children in rural areas. He also worked with students on their faith formation in Catholic schools and created safe spaces for students to talk about family problems such as domestic abuse.

“My time in Belize was most critical in terms of joining the Jesuits,” he says. “I felt close to God through the Belizeans I accompanied. I was doing what I was called to do. Now that I had done service abroad, what was next was the big question.”

While applying to theological graduate schools, Br. Wooters wrote a list of what was important to him. Most of those components matched Jesuit living – traveling, working with the poor, and living in community.

In his early 30s, Fr. Fazio gravitated toward a different calling after meeting a newly ordained priest from the Diocese of Pittsburgh to whom he could relate.

“It was the first time I thought, ‘Wow. I met a normal, regular guy with a good sense of humor who’s happy serving the Lord and people as a priest,’” he says. “It was the first time I got to know a priest well.”

While continuing to attend Mass on Sundays, Fr. Fazio started teaching CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) and wanted to learn more about his faith. He also did service work and participated in social parish activities.

Fr. Fazio

Fr. Fazio

“It developed into a leading role,” he says. “At the time, I was dating a woman. We decided we loved each other, but our love wasn’t marital or spousal.”

In the subsequent months, Fr. Fazio began waking up every day wondering what each day would be like as a priest. Who would he meet? Whose life would he touch?

“I tried to shake off that feeling for two years, thinking it was just a knee-jerk reaction to not marrying this woman,” he says. “I finally decided to look seriously into the priesthood, meeting priests and listening to their stories.”

In New England, Br. Lopez used pray at Boston College regularly. While on a retreat at the St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset, N.Y., he prayed before a statue of St. Francis Xavier, seeking his intercession for the gift of attending a Jesuit school. The priest who led the retreat told him, “It’s not you who’s choosing God, but He is choosing you!” Br. Lopez then opened his heart to start discerning some type of consecrated life.

“I never wanted to join a religious order or be a Franciscan,” he says. “I went on a diocesan retreat lead by Cardinal Sean O’Malley in Boston and came home on a Sunday and prayed to God. Soon thereafter, I found my answer via a letter sent to me by the Seraphic Mass Association.”

Br. Lopez received a letter from his friend, William Niconchuk, who was praying for him and his family. He sent him a card from the Seraphic Mass Association that included a prayer of St. Anthony of Padua. In this card, he found the information about the Capuchin Franciscans of St. Augustine Province. Later, he talked to both vocational directors, Fr. Moises Villarta, OFM, and Br. Tom Betz, OFM, about the Capuchin Franciscan life. Br. Lopez ended up in the Franciscans’ Pittsburgh province because the director thought it was best to go to Cleveland, where he thought the best formation for college students was.

Br. Charlie McElroy, a Franciscan, also told Br. Lopez to visit Cleveland to see what Borromeo Seminary had to offer. During his second semester at Borromeo, when Br. Lopez was 23, he started taking classes at Carroll. Eventually, he earned a B.A. in sociology and minored in Catholic studies and philosophy.

Fr. Benander

Fr. Benander

Cleveland is also where Fr. Benander met his good friend Eric Kennerk, who started a young adults group at the now-closed St. Rose Parish. Kennerk, who talked about becoming a priest, was interested in living his faith more seriously. As such, he set up trips to Catholic conferences. Eventually, Fr. Benander heard Fr. Thomas Nelson, the national director of the Institute on Religious Life and a priest of St. Michael’s Abbey, on tape. Though, by that point, Fr. Benander was already seriously considering the priesthood, but it was Fr. Nelson’s talk that finally clinched it for Fr. Benander.

“He struck me as a wise and holy man,” he says. “However, at the time, I didn’t have a strong interest in visiting his community. Then, sometime later, Eric asked me to visit Southern California to visit friends, see baseball games, and visit St. Michael’s Abbey. At that time, visiting St. Michael’s was a bit of a lark. However, soon after I arrived, I thought the community was perfect for me. The priests were young, down-to-earth guys who were faithful, devoted, and strong in their philosophy and theology. After more prayer and spiritual direction, and one more visit, I was convinced it was the community for me.”

Fr. Benander was 26 when he entered the Norbertine order.

Ministerial journeys
Right around the time Br. Wooters’ stint in Belize was ending, he talked to a vocational director who told him to return to the U.S. to get acclimated to American culture again. Br. Wooters lived in the Jesuit community at the University of Detroit High School, where a friend was living, and taught history to seventh and eighth graders. He applied to the Society of Jesus.

“The application process is extensive,” he says. “It includes a 20-page spiritual autobiography, five two-hour interviews, and a full psychological test.”

In 2012, while teaching in Detroit, Br. Wooters was accepted into the Jesuits. Then in August of that year, he moved to the novitiate in St. Paul, Minn., with 15 others to be introduced to religious life. An interesting part of the novitiate for Br. Wooters was his 30-day Spiritual Exercises retreat. After the retreat, he and his fellow novices were sent on pilgrimages. For him, that meant a one-way bus trip to Sacramento, Calif., with just $35 to his name.

“I needed to try and get back with just that and rely on the generosity of others,” he says. “I was homeless for the better part of one month on the West Coast. The experience was meant to push me out of my comfort zone and know God will take care of me.”

Br. Wooters took vows Aug. 9, 2014, and is a Jesuit Brother in the First Studies stage of Jesuit formation, which includes several years studying and earning an advanced degree. In Wooters’ case, he’s earning a master’s degree in social work. But he doesn’t plan to become a priest.

“I never felt a call to the priesthood,” he says. “I’m called to be a Jesuit. As a brother, I take the same vows as a priest. It’s more about how I relate to people. I didn’t want to be father. I want to be with people as a brother, who’s considered a vowed layperson. It’s an important space to fill. A vocation is about how you can love the world best. For me, that’s as a Jesuit brother. I frequently get ‘there’s still time to change’ and ‘you’re only going half way?’ from people, but I view the brother/priest relationship much like a dentist and doctor – and I’m 100 percent a Jesuit.”

In the Midwest, there are only about 10 brothers in formation, and most brothers in the Jesuit order are older – in their 70s.

In 2005, at age 34, after two years of discernment, Fr. Fazio went through the application process with the Diocese of Pittsburgh and entered the seminary in 2006. He first earned a master’s in philosophy at Duquesne University and studied for four years at St. Vincent, a seminary in Latrobe, Pa., to earn a master of divinity degree in 2012. During his studies, Fr. Fazio did service work in Guatemala, which he says was the biggest formative experience of his life.

But there were aspects of Fr. Fazio’s decision to become a priest that didn’t come easily.

“Not having a family and not carrying on the family business were two biggies for me,” he says.

Fr. Fazio was ordained at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh. At the ordination Mass, his first assignment was read aloud. He said his first Mass the next day at St. Kilian in Cranberry, Pa.

The three parishes where Fr. Fazio used to minister – he’s now pastor at St. Alphonsus in Wexford, Pa. – share various programs. There’s one bulletin and one elementary school, Butler Catholic School, which is comprised of students from at least seven parishes. There are 3,000 families and 9,000 parishioners. Sacraments were nonstop. He conducted 50 funerals and 20 weddings a year. Anointing of the sick was done weekly.

“There are many powerful and beautiful moments,” he says. “When you’re a new priest, you’re just trying to keep your head above water. Things go by so fast. But now that I’m established, I realize my ministry has a ripple effect, and I don’t quite see where the ripples end.”

Fr. Fazio says the amount of work is incredible and no day is the same.

“I’m not lonely or bored,” he says.

This year, Fr. Benander, who was just ordained last year, began working in full-time priestly ministry. His primary work, which keeps him busy, takes place at St. Michael’s Prep School. He begins the day at 5:45 a.m. with community prayer and aims to end it around 11:30 p.m. by tying up loose ends.

“Based on the formation I received from Fr. Augustine Puchner, my novice master, I try to approach each day with a monastic, prayerful spirit and sustain that spirit of recollection with God and Our Lady throughout the day,” he says.

The Norbertines of St. Michael’s are a monastic community, but they’re active. For example, they educate high school boys and girls, serve as college chaplains, run two parishes and help out at others, lead retreats, serve in prison ministry, help out the poor and homeless, and are active in right-to-life activity.

Fr. Benander – who, during his five-year studying theology in Rome, met Popes Benedict and Francis and concelebrated a Mass with the latter – calls St. Michael’s Abbey his permanent home, though it’s possible he could be asked to live and serve at a nearby abbey apostolate.

Like Br. Wooters, Br. Lopez, who has taken temporary vows in the Franciscan Capuchin order, isn’t sure he wants to become a priest – yet.

“I need to be a brother first, then if God calls me to be a priest, I will follow what He calls me to do,” he says.

Br. Lopez, now 28, is finishing his philosophy degree at Catholic University of America. Then he plans to obtain a master’s degree in theology with a concentration in Catholic social teaching. He wants to work in domestic and international economic human development and teach and work with the poor, serving them and providing services to them.

“Fr. David Nestler, who’s the provincial minister, expects friars to be open to being assigned at any ministry the Capuchin Franciscans wish to foster; but he also expects a friar to discern what God is calling him to do,” Br. Lopez says. “My discernment is an adventure. I’m open to being surprised, but I need to prepare myself.”

But Br. Lopez’s choice to enter religious life hasn’t come without sacrifice. Before entering the Capuchin order, he owned a shipping company called Misericordia Shipping Co., which he closed. As a result, he lost a lot of money and part of his dreams. He opened the company with his brother, Adriano Lopez, to use the profit to do integral human development work, such as open up water purification companies in the Dominican Republic.

“God blessed me with many things, and it was painful to leave all that behind; but I’ve been asked by God to return to Him what I’ve been given,” he says. “The Lord is calling me not to be afraid of being a saint, and I trust in the Lord.” JCU

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