CLEVELAND — Father Ryan Mann watched “with awe and reverence” as the seventh priest in seven years from his home parish of St. Mary’s in Hudson, Ohio, received holy orders from the bishop. “Not just seven and seven,” he thought. “But seven in seven in the wake of the year the Church just had in America.”

Father Daniel Samide was ordained the seventh priest from St. Mary’s parish, along with eight other men for the Diocese of Cleveland, on May 18, by Bishop Nelson Perez. Cleveland’s Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist was packed to overflowing, with people out on 9th Street, to celebrate the joyous occasion.

“There was something so beautiful happening at that ordination,” Father Mann, the second priest ordained out of the “St. Mary’s Seven,” told the Register. Father Mann became a priest in 2014 and knew Father Samide, both from their parish’s youth ministry and during their time together in seminary.

Since 2003, St. Mary’s parish has seen approximately 25 men discern the call to the priesthood, with nine as priests. According to priests and parishioners, the “secret” to the parish’s vocations culture is proposing to youth, by word and example, the beauty of living their lives in fellowship and prayer with Jesus Christ and making seminary a normal part of a young man’s discernment when considering where Jesus is calling him.

Father Mann said St. Mary’s “is a very happy parish” that has produced “normal and joyful priests.”

“We had a very strong youth ministry and a priest who was fully happy and engaged in his priesthood,” Father Mann said. The parochial vicar at the time, Father Damian Ference, was actively engaged with St. Mary’s youth ministry, “knew us by name, looked us in the eyes and said, ‘You should consider being a priest.’”

St. Mary’s parish invests in young people. Ron Nowak, St. Mary’s Youth and Young Adult Ministry leader since 2003, told the Register that the parish uses Life Teen. Done well, he said, Life Teen is orthodox and charismatic, relationship-based and “very Eucharistic-centered.” Young people start going to Mass during the week and draw closer to Jesus through Mary. The parish celebrates confirmation in students’ junior year of high school, and Nowak said conferral of the sacrament needs to be followed with strong youth ministry.

“To implement it well takes a lot of commitment,” he said. When it comes to proposing the Gospel to teenagers, “often you just have one shot.”

 

Freedom to Discern

Nowak said the involvement of their seminarians and priests is key to helping their young people see themselves following Christ through the priestly vocation. St. Mary’s has more young men in seminary, but the next person to be ordained — God willing — will be in three years, and then there is the possibility of having four men ordained in a row if they all discern the call to priesthood.

Nowak said the parish treats seminary as a normal thing for a young man who wants to “just take some of this time to discern God’s will for me.” Most young men have discerned other vocations through seminary, but they were intentional about listening to God’s plan for their holiness rather than defaulting to a vocation, such as marriage, without any discernment.

Father Mann said he appreciated being able to discern his vocation freely this way and that the parish treated it as normal for guys to go through seminary and discern successfully a different vocation. Putting pressure on a young man by talking about how he’s going to be ordained a priest one day, instead of treating it as his process of discernment, he explained, would be akin to asking a young man after his second date about his wedding plans.

 

Normal and Joyful Models

Father Mann said talking with seminarians during St. Mary’s youth-ministry program allowed him to see them as “authentically human and happy” and gave him the confidence that he would not end up “weird” from going through seminary.

“These guys were happy, normal and healthy — and I thought I’d give it a shot,” he said. Father Mann set aside a career in jazz, improvisational comedy and acting with The Second City, a Chicago-based comedy club, to enter the seminary at the age of 21.

Father Mann said St. Mary’s always felt like home, where parishioners knew him by name. They wanted him to be “serious” about discerning his vocation faithfully and were ready to hold him accountable. Every time he came back in the summer, one beloved parishioner who has since passed away would ask him how his seminary studies went and made sure he was faithful to his seminary discernment and not dating young women at the same time.

“All the people really wanted from me was that I was taking seriously my commitment,” Father Mann said.

Father Patrick Schultz, who was ordained in 2016, told the Register that the Life Teen youth ministry changed his life. Until then, practicing his faith had not been a big part of his family’s life — they went to Mass just a few times a year — and he went to Life Teen because a girl he liked had invited him to come.

Instead, he said about his vocation to the priesthood, “I met a person that night in Jesus.”

Father Schultz said that any idea about joining the seminary up to that point would have been “unambiguously ‘No!’” Then he encountered the seminarians in the youth ministry, and Father Ference, the parochial vicar of St. Mary’s at the time, asked him to consider a vocation to the priesthood.

“I thought, ‘If that is what priesthood is, then that’s so awesome,’” Father Schultz told the Register.

Still, Father Schultz had doubts at the time, and what followed was a “Jonah Year.” He said he went to the University of Dayton in Ohio, had a lot of fun and met good people. But he felt spiritually unsatisfied and knew he needed to enter seminary after that freshman year.

 

Vocations Beget Vocations

Father Ference, who is now a doctoral student at the Angelicum (Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas) in Rome and a member of the formation faculty at Cleveland’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, told the Register that parishes serious about creating a culture of vocations need to realize that “vocations to the priesthood come out of discipleship.”

Father Ference explained how St. Mary’s, under Father Edward Kordas’ pastoral leadership, invested its budget heavily in inviting youth into fellowship with Jesus and helping them discern how Jesus was calling them to follow him. As a result, St. Mary’s has given the Church seminarians who became lawyers, police officers, husbands, fathers and also “some dynamite priests out there.”

“Vocations beget vocations,” he said, adding that parishes cannot hope to create a culture of vocation by shortchanging the discipleship of their youth with halfhearted, unserious programs or giving their formation part-time attention.

Bishop Perez told the Register that he has been bishop of Cleveland for two years and ordained Father Samide’s brother Richard — the sixth priest of the St. Mary’s Seven — to the priesthood last year. He said that the diocese has a “wonderful culture of vocations.”

According to Bishop Perez, 68 out of 96 men in their seminary are from the Cleveland Diocese, making it one of the top five U.S. dioceses for “homegrown” priests.

“Cleveland has been blessed,” Bishop Perez said. “These men last year and this year who’ve been ordained to the priesthood are exceptional.”

Bishop Perez said it was clear to him that youth and young-adult ministry played a critical role in St. Mary’s streak of priests. His diocesan vocations director is studying the dynamics of St. Mary’s parish so other parishes can learn how to develop or strengthen their own culture of vocation.

“That’s what he’s working on,” he said. “We want to multiply that type of parish spirit in other places throughout the diocese.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.