With Father’s Day just around the corner, attendees at the June 13 Theology on the Rocks program got a special treat. They heard from a panel of fathers – spiritual fathers – who shared their vocation stories, “The Blessings of our Fathers.”
Father Richard Gonser, Father Vince Hawk and Father Kevin Fox spent nearly two hours discussing the priesthood and how they discerned their vocations. Father Ned Weist had planned to attend, but wasn’t feeling well.
Father Gonser, a senior priest-retired who celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination last month; Father Hawk who was ordained 20 years ago; and Father Fox, who was ordained in 2019, offered perspectives on their lives as priests.
As the founding pastor (1978) of St. Julie Billiart Parish in North Ridgeville, Father Gonser talked about the challenges of creating a parish community from the ground up. Thoughts of a priestly vocation first surfaced for him in about sixth or seventh grade, he said. In eighth grade, he asked a teacher what someone had to do to become a priest. At that time, high school boys interested in the priesthood were sent to a seminary high school in Cincinnati. He recalled his parents driving him to the campus and leaving. It was a regimented, monastic lifestyle, but it was comfortable and good, he said. There were 55 in his class. Over the years, that number dropped to three. “I watched good, articulate men leave. But God had a plan for me. I had to make sacrifices by not having a family,” he said, but he doesn’t regret his decision. He shifted to Saint Mary Seminary in Cleveland for his priestly formation. There are two priests remaining from his ordination class.
“Many are called but few are chosen,” he quipped.
Father Hawk, former pastor of St. Peter Parish in Loudonville, is completing his first year as pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Avon. He is a son of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Parma, said the first day of first grade his teacher – a religious sister – asked the student what they wanted to be when they grew up. “I drew a picture of a priest,” he said. He recalled taking old Missalettes from the church home after they were outdated and using them to practice saying Mass. His family later moved to St. Mathias Parish in Parma. As he grew older, he harbored thoughts of becoming a meteorologist. He took a job opportunity at a bowling alley and impressed the owners/management so much that they mapped out a plan with a trajectory for him to be a vice president of the company by age 33.
But in the back of his mind, something continued nudging him to the priesthood. He said Father Dave Ireland, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in South Euclid and a former St. Charles parishioner, had a similar vocation story.
Unlike Fathers Gonser and Hawk, Father Fox attended only public schools and harbored no thought of a priestly vocation during his school years. But one day, the parochial vicar at his parish – Father Ireland — pulled him aside and suggested he would make a good priest. “I had thoughts of being a husband, a father and an engineer,” he said. “But once Father Ireland suggested the priesthood, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I didn’t appreciate it then, but we are good friends now. In fact, he vested me at my ordination.” Father Fox just completed his first assignment as parochial vicar at St. Bernadette Parish in Westlake. This week, he began serving as parochial vicar at St. Charles Borromeo.
He was dating a young woman and had job opportunities, but continued diving deeper into his Catholic faith – and thinking about the priesthood. His girlfriend asked if he was considering the priesthood. “I told her ‘No,’ but when she asked again, I had to break up with her.” He said she’s married with a family and they remain good friends, in fact, she came to his first Mass.
He spent time in Rome as he discerned his vocation and continued thinking about whether he should marry and have a family. He discussed it with some of the priests and said he was about halfway through his formation when he realized he was called to the priesthood “I am glad to be a priest.”
Father Hawk said he entered Saint Mary Seminary midyear, on the coldest day in Cleveland history. He credits Borromeo (college) Seminary with teaching good Christian principles, including prayer, fraternity, sports, study, spiritual direction and pastoral work, while Saint Mary (graduate) Seminary shapes men into priests. “Discernment continues,” he said, recalling how shortly before his diaconal ordination he had a discussion with one of the formators who asked him, ‘Haven’t you figured it out yet? We want men who would be good dads.”
Father Fox said there have been changes in the seminary since Father Gonser and Father Hawk’s days there, but the structure remains much the same. The college seminary has a more structured lifestyle than that for students attending a “regular” college. They have a dress code, limited times for meals and a regular prayer life. “The idea of a seminary is to help you grow in the freedom to be happy and free as a priest – not to squeeze us into a box,” he said.
Father Fox said he and his classmates lived, rejoiced, suffered, got on each other’s nerves, challenged each other and grew together for six years, fostering fraternal relationships –something priests in other dioceses notice and may envy. “It’s a great gift to have our own major and minor seminary,” he added.
The panelists were asked why so many priests wear rings that are like wedding rings. The audience learned that canon law was changed to permit it. The ring is symbolic of their commitment to the Church. Father Gonser said he wears his late father’s wedding ring in his honor. Father Hawk’s parents gave him a ring with special significance for his family. It contains a stone that matches one in his chalice. He wears the ring on special occasions. And Father Fox said his cousin, a talented woodworker, carved a chalice for him from black walnut and added a gold inlay. He also made a matching ring, but it need adjustment so he hasn’t been wearing it.
They also discussed homily preparation, noting they read the Scriptures earlier in the week. “I want to preach a sermon I would want to hear myself,” Father Gonser said. Father Hawk, who lives in a rectory with two other priests, said they meet on Mondays for a holy hour and his homily prep evolves from that. His homilies often contain something that he needs to work on or be challenged about.
Father Fox recalled some sage homily advice from Father Ireland: “The word of God is long; the word of man should be short.”
When asked about some of the biggest challenges in the Church today, the priests said reaching young people who don’t attend Mass, ensuring that people understand the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and explaining how we know that the Catholic Church has the right interpretation of Scripture.
They all agreed they are blessed that the found and are living their vocation. Father Gonser said having people tell him how he helped them or a made a difference for them is his biggest blessing. For Father Hawk, “Realizing that we could do things together is one of the most joyful moments. It’s God at work.” And for Father Fox, celebrating the sacraments is his biggest joy. He said his first Easter as a priest came during the COVID-19 lockdown, which was disappointing. The real challenge came when public Masses resumed and there were so many health restrictions. “But we put our heads together during the lockdown and we figured things out.”
The next TOTR program on July 11 at LaCentre in Westlake will feature Lynette Tait from the Diocesan Tribunal and Deacon Dave Kushner. They will discuss annulments.