I had the chance recently sit down with a great friend and mentor of mine, Father Joseph Fitzgerald. He’s an amazing priest, former national champion football player, and former U.S. Olympic Handball player. He serves as the Vocations Director of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, on Long Island, NY. Here are some of his insights on being a Vocations Director.
DQ: Father, can you tell us a little bit about what a Vocations Director does?
FJ: In our modern world terminology a Vocations Director can be compared to a recruiter and an HR Rep – we have the responsibility to search out strong candidates who desire to serve the Lord specifically as a priest.
DQ: What’s your favorite part about the job, besides being interviewed by me?
FJ: Interacting with current seminarians and the conversations I have with men who are in the early part of discernment – to hear how they struggle with God or telling their families and friends, and then how much joy and relief they feel when the decision is finally made to enter. I just think back to where I was when I was in that point of the journey.
DQ: If someone comes and talks to you about vocations, does that mean they are signing their life away and will be ordained as soon as possible?
FJ: I had a priest say to me one time when I was discerning and dating someone – “like you date a woman, you have to date the priesthood.” Which, when I heard that, I thought it was really weird – but he put it into perspective. You have to spend time with the priesthood, get to know other people who are “in the family,” see what they are like and what they like to do. I had to ask the tough questions, get a sense of the charism, poverty, service to the elderly, teaching, diocesan, order, missionary, etc. So when a person comes to speak to me initially, that is how I try to explain it to them. They are not signing their life away, and ultimately, my interest is their eternal joy and salvation, and if it is not as a priest, or a priest for my diocese, I want them to figure that out. So they are certainly not committing to anything with just a conversation with me.
DQ: So if someone discerns for a while and then discovers that they aren’t called to a religious vocation, would that be okay?
FJ: That’s correct. Like I said before, I desire for myself and everyone else to fit their life into God’s plan. When people prayerfully discover their vocation, or what their vocations is not, there is exhilaration in that because finally there is recognition of what God desires – so it is more than okay.
DQ: How does being Vocations Director help, build up, and/or challenge your own vocation?
FJ: It is a constant reminder of how little I am. People do not become a priest because of me, but because of Christ, and also my own personal value is not based on how many men enter the seminary; it is based on the fact that I am a beloved son of the Father.
DQ: Now, you weren’t always planning to be a priest. You were an Olympic Athlete and you were in a serious relationship at one point. How do those experiences help you as a Vocations Director?
FJ: I have always made the connection in my priestly journey with my life as an athlete. I played college football, Quarterback at Ithaca College a Division III school in upstate New York and also Olympic Handball – in both cases I found myself in a community of very different people – some with similar morals and others with very different morals. But we all shared a common goal, and in order to be successful we had to put our own personal wants and desires behind us in order to achieve the team and individual goals and the expectations set before us. Cooperation was important but so was obedience and following the direction of the coaches. We really trusted the coaches. They made us do things at times that were hard and even unorthodox – but it led to great success – winning a National Championship in college and also finishing in the Top 10 at the Olympics.
I also received great knowledge in relationships. I was engaged to be married at one point and although it was a difficult time in both of our lives when the relationship ended, there is no doubt that I could see God’s hand working in that time. I became a better man and ultimately a better Father by some of the joys and hard times.
I realized as I listened more to God leading me away from that relationship that He could see beyond what I could – and that His will was something different. I did not want it to be different at that time, but it brought great peace to my heart and I became who He wanted and who I wanted to become.
As a Vocation Director, I am looking to see how discerners have come through challenges and adversity – how they relate, can they be part of a team, etc. How do they relate with members of the opposite sex? Are they bitter? Are they running from something or responding to God’s beckoning? Having a better understanding of these things helps me properly love and lead the people God has entrusted to me.
DQ: Do you have any words of advice for a young person discerning their future vocation?
FJ: Spend some time in the quiet, no headphones, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Just leave your phone at home and take a walk or a run, find somewhere peaceful, and most importantly sit in front of Jesus in the Eucharist and receive Him often – but without any noise or distractions and then you will hear Him – you will know if you are called. Begin there, and then surround yourself with priests and religious who are joyful and love their vocation, watch them and do what they do.
Lastly, surround yourself with dedicated, faithful lay people as well. They will strengthen you throughout the journey and remind you sometimes, when you think the grass is greener on the other side of the Vocation fence – dirty diapers and a mortgage are just as difficult at times as the challenges of a priestly or religious vocation.
It’s also important to have loving and supportive friends. Do not be afraid to engage in conversation and friendship with people of the opposite sex, but always be mindful about how you are honoring them and your own response to God’s desire for your heart and theirs. They can be companions, but not necessarily always confidantes.
Trust in the Lord. Listen to the Lord. Follow the Lord.
DQ: That’s awesome advice, Father. It was so good to chat with you and learn a bit about the mind, heart, and responsibilities of a Vocations Director. Thanks again for your time. See you in Strong Island sometime soon. We’re praying for you!
FJ: Thanks Dom. Sounds good and God bless.