The call to priesthood
Oftentimes, a call to a priestly vocation gets put on hold — perhaps for years — before the recipient feels ready to respond.
Benjamin Knopf was studying to become a carpenter. Joseph Martuscello enrolled in junior college after starring in high-school lacrosse. Steven Lewis was a homeowner and well into a successful information-technology career.
Little on the surface indicated that any of these men were heading toward priesthood. Yet voices were whispering inside each of them, and eventually all three answered their respective calls.
Today Knopf, Lewis and Martuscello are engaged in seminary studies for the Diocese of Rochester, and are among 13 men currently preparing for the diocesan priesthood. Each has completed his pre-theology program and is now attending St. John’s Seminary near Boston. After four years of theology — plus a pastoral year at a diocesan parish — they will begin priestly life, applying their own special gifts and talents.
“Our Lord calls all sorts of men, because he needs all sorts of different workers in the vineyard of the Lord. It’s not a cookie-cutter type of thing by any means,” said Father Peter VanLieshout, who serves as diocesan codirector of priesthood vocation awareness along with Father Matthew Jones.
As part of their ongoing responses to the Lord’s call, Knopf, Lewis and Martuscello all resided at Greece’s Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in the summer of 2016 before heading back to St. John’s Seminary. During that time, the Catholic Courier conducted one-on-one interviews and captured some of their activities on video as part of this multimedia package.
Here, you will learn about these men’s personal backgrounds; hobbies and interests; how they entered priestly formation; and their hopes, dreams and spiritual reflections as they move closer to ordination for the Diocese of Rochester. In addition, Fathers VanLieshout and Jones — themselves ordained as diocesan priests in 2014 and 2015, respectively — offer suggestions about what a young man might do if he feels he’s experiencing a call to the priesthood.
A self-described man of many interests, Knopf found a new focus — the priesthood — emerging in his life while he was attending Alfred State College.
During that period Knopf came to realize that for many years he’d had thoughts about becoming a priest. Finally, the time had arrived to act on those thoughts.
“I was amazed at how at peace I felt with the decision (to become a priest),” said Knopf, 24, who hails from Bloomfield, Ontario County.
In the fall of 2015 he entered St. John’s Seminary, beginning what proved to be a rigorous but valuable academic year.
“I’ve loved it,” he said. “I’m learning more than I ever thought I could learn — about my faith, about what it means to be a priest, about how I’m supposed to take care of people — who I am.”
A key learning experience occurred in the summer of 2016, when Knopf did his clinical pastoral education by working full time in the chaplaincy department of Strong Memorial Hospital. Having had no experience in this valuable yet challenging ministry, Knopf said he was uneasy at first but came to find his duties highly rewarding.
“It’s good work; it’s God’s work. It needs to be done, and I’m glad I’m allowed to do it,” he stated.
When he’s not working, studying or otherwise preparing for the priesthood, Knopf engages in what he describes as an “eclectic” range of leisure activities: “My hobbies and interests are about as varied as a 12-sided rainbow,” he quipped.
He has played the bagpipes for several years as part of his love of Scottish-American culture. Knopf also enjoys woodworking and carpentry, and fondly recalls the summer he spent working as a blacksmith. He likes reading, as well as running or walking “especially after a stressful day, something just to burn energy.”
Although his life has been filled with variety, as he begins his second year of theology, Knopf maintains a strong focus on preparing for priestly life.
“Practically speaking, I’ve been wrong so many times about what I planned on doing with my life and what I thought my life was going to look like,” he remarked, adding that “what I’ve held onto is that I will be able to love God, I’ll be able to serve his people and I’ll be able to bring them God in a way that nobody else will ever be able to.”
He had worked for close to a decade as an information-technology specialist for SUNY Brockport and had bought his own home. Life couldn’t have been much more settled for Lewis.
Then, about six years ago, while in his early 30s, “Something important happened — my TV broke,” he said.
Rather than get his big screen fixed, Lewis embraced his newfound free time, focusing less on entertainment and more on prayer. Eventually he felt the resurfacing from earlier in his life of a call to pursue the priesthood.
“Prayer was one way that the busyness of the world was silenced, and the opportunity to hear that call was made more evident,” he said.
Lewis acted on the call, entering priestly formation for the Rochester Diocese in 2014 and also selling the house he had bought in 2002.
Thus began a new direction for the native of Greene, Broome County, in the Diocese of Syracuse. He had previously been salutatorian of his high-school class and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester before completing a master’s degree at SUNY Brockport while working there.
Once again a student, Lewis, 38, now is in his first theology year at St. John’s Seminary. He said his education for priesthood involves not only intellectual aspects but also spiritual, pastoral and human development. This past summer Lewis enjoyed his cultural-immersion activities, saying he got to engage frequently in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
When not studying, Lewis also busies himself with many leisure interests. Playing racquetball and chess are high on the list, and he also is an accomplished pianist and singer.
Now he is developing a fresh set of talents. He remarked that seminary life is not always easy; neither is the loss of freedom and independence involved in giving one’s life to God. In addition, he said it’s taken a bit of time for him to adjust to being an older-than-average seminarian.
Despite such challenges, Lewis said he is very sure he’s made the right decision with his life.
“People are struck by how happy I appear,” he noted.
During middle and high school, Martuscello’s life largely revolved around playing lacrosse and other fun activities.
“I kind of put God off to the side of my life, I kind of put him on the shelf — ‘I’ll get back to you later, God,’” the 25-year-old Corning native acknowledged.
All the while, however, he sensed that something was missing. Following the death of his grandmother, Martuscello began questioning more deeply his purpose in life.
The answer became clear one night when his mother invited him to pray the rosary with her.
“I just remember for the first time in my life encountering our Lord in a unique way,” Martuscello recalled. “That changed who I was, that changed the way I saw the world, that changed the way I treated other people. It just changed the way I thought.”
“It’s almost like winning the lottery, when you have something that great happen to you. You want to share it with others, with the ones you’ve loved, and you want others to experience the same thing,” he added, noting that he became intent on the priesthood from that point forward.
Martuscello is now in his first theology year at St. John’s Seminary, having entered the diocesan priestly formation program a year ago. This past summer he engaged in an extensive immersion program — “really getting to know the Diocese of Rochester in a bigger picture,” he said. “It was really nice just to go and see the different ministries, the different cultures — the deaf community, Hispanic, the black community,” he said.
Martuscello said he still loves his sports, avidly playing basketball and soccer as well as lacrosse. Fishing is another pastime: “I really enjoy the outdoors, seeing God’s beauty and creation,” he said.
But these days, his top priority is the priesthood that lies ahead — a life he said he couldn’t have fathomed even five years ago.
“I look back and I see where I have grown, and where the Lord has led me and the people he has put into my life,” he said. “God is so good. He has filled my life with so many great people, so many great friends.”
A few years await before these men are ordained priests — and, as Lewis pointed out, there’s still considerable ground to cover not only in seminary studies but also many aspects of pastoral formation. He looks forward to the day he’ll be deemed ready to administer various sacraments — “I’ve always, in my faith, been close to the sacraments,” he said — and, in particular, officiating at Mass.
“Without the priest we can’t have the Eucharist. Without the Eucharist we can’t have a church,” he stated.
Martuscello said he eagerly anticipates “bringing souls to Christ, bringing souls to God — and being that bridge, that mediator with Christ that links together the heavenly with the earth.”
Knopf, meanwhile, observed that “One thing I am looking forward to — it takes up so many of my daydreams when I catch myself daydreaming — is being able to say Mass. One day I will be able to hold God in my hands. I will be able to forgive another’s sins. ... And each time I get to do that, I get to become a little bit more like God, and I get to draw closer to him just a little bit more.”
'Be open to God's will'
Which other men in faith communities across the Diocese of Rochester might be weighing calls similar to those of Knopf, Lewis and Martuscello?
Many people can play a part in answering that question, Father VanLieshout said. He explained that he and Father Jones help advance a process that, ideally, already has been sparked at home parishes and/or on college campuses — “creating a culture of vocations where young men feel comfortable asking the question, ‘Do I have a vocation?’” he said.
Such a culture, Fathers VanLieshout and Jones noted, can be formed by priests who are enthusiastic about their own vocations and by parishioners who promote priestly life. Families also can do their parts by the Catholic example they set and the encouragement they offer.
Of course, the ultimate decision lies in the hands of the individual. To that end, Fathers VanLieshout and Jones urge young people who think they may be hearing a call to ordained or vowed ministry to seriously weigh what it all means, perhaps by sharing their thoughts with a trusted individual. In their roles as promoters of vocations awareness, they said they do not seek any kind of immediate commitment because discovering one’s true vocation in life is typically a lengthy process that can take years.
“Do not be afraid. We are here to help you. We are here to help you find your way,” Father Jones said.
Martuscello said the important thing is for young men to embrace the direction in which God appears to be calling them.
“It’s very good to be open to God’s will in your life — to say, ‘Yes, Lord, whatever you want,’” he remarked.
Pray for 2016 seminarians
“Vocations are born in prayer and from prayer; and only through prayer can they persevere and bear fruit.”
-- Pope Francis
Story by Mike Latona
Videos by Jeff Witherow
Photography by Catholic Courier
Design by Gina Capellazzi