An Apostle of Vocations

Fr. Charles Hyacinth McKenna, O.P.

Comparatively very few men become priests. While the chief duty of those few is to offer sacrifice, they have another important obligation, that of perpetuating the sacred priesthood through the fostering of vocations in promising young men. Having planted in a soul the desire of one day becoming an “alter Christus”, God leaves the fulfillment of that desire largely in the hands of those who have attained the priestly rank. Some priests have in an exceptional degree the gift of discerning vocations. Among such was the late Very Reverend Charles Hyacinth McKenna, O.P.

In the Life of Father McKenna we read : “It would be difficult to say how many young men were enabled by our apostle of vocations to attain to the priesthood during the forty and more years that he devoted to this particular work. On one occasion the writer made bold to ask him the number, and the answer was : ‘Perhaps the least said on that subject the better; but there must have been two hundred or more ‘."1

Every priest reading these lines will say : “Two hundred is an exceptionally large number.” Many will ask : “How did he do it ? Why is it that I have discovered and helped so few? Why is it that from this old parish with its good Catholic school only two or three have become priests?” Vocations are needed now more than ever. The demand for priests to work in the vineyard of the Lord at home and in foreign lands is great and is constantly increasing. What did Father McKenna do to make this, his special apostolate, so very successful?

By his noble, ascetic appearance, by his dignified yet natural conduct everywhere, but especially in the sanctuary and sacristy, and by his powerful, touching sermons, Father McKenna awakened many a slumbering vocation in the souls of boys and young men. The bright, good boys who have vocations, are generally altar boys. They see the priest not only in the sacred vestments standing at the altar or ascending the pulpit, but meet him more closely in the sacristy. Here Father McKenna said little, never a joking or trivial word, never an impatient or angry word. He greeted the boys in a friendly, fatherly way; but his mind remained serious, seemingly lost in the great mysteries he was about to perform or had just performed. He prayed much and the boys who saw him at prayer, learned from him how to pray. Seeing him making his preparation for Mass or thanksgiving after Mass, they would stand quietly in their places, observing him closely; would look up to him with admiration, and feel deep down in their hearts : “Ecce sacerdos magnus ! It is something great to be a priest! I wish I could be a priest!”, " Sicut palma florebit in domo Domini.” Father McKenna was like a palm, the greatest ornament in the holy places. He attracted the eyes of all, edified all, especially the boys, and lifted their hearts to God. “Multiplicabitur sicut cedrus Libani,” because he was like a palm in the Lord’s house.

Having a heart burning with zeal for the good of the Church, and loving boys ardently and seeking their perfection, Father McKenna was always seeking vocations. He began to speak to boys about their vocation. When his watchful, penetrating eye had discovered some signs of special graces in the soul of a boy or young man, he did not hesitate to call him aside to ask him: “What do you intend to do when you get big? Did you ever think of becoming a priest?” Boys are very timid in things religious. They fear to open their hearts and communicate their sacred secrets to a priest. Girls are different. They will speak without hesitation to parent, teacher, or confessor about going to a convent. Father Noldin, S.J., the well-known author and university professor, frequently called the attention of theologians to this difference between boys and girls. He declares that the latter will come to you for the settlement of this their most important question between baptism and death ; but you must go to the boys and ask them; you must hire them to work in the vineyard of the Lord.

Christ Himself gives the example. When the youthful disciples, John and Andrew, heard the Baptist say: “Behold the Lamb of God!” they went to Jesus and followed Him in silence. They were too timid to say a word, however, until Jesus, knowing their hearts, began to speak to them, saying: “What seek ye?”, “Rabbi, where dwellest Thou ?”, “Come and see.” They came and saw where the Master abode and stayed with Him. In order to have vocations for the sacred priesthood multiplied “sicut cedrus Libani”, prudent confessors must imitate the Divine Master, turn to the heavenly favored boys, and ask them what their hearts are seeking in silence. When Father McKenna had found a new spiritual son who was seeking the abode of God in order to dwell with His Christ and become His disciple, his joy was great, and his efforts to remove all obstacles assiduous and most generous. Poverty is very often the first and greatest difficulty. The rich young man who may feel the call, is often tempted to turn away in silence through love of his riches. The youth of the middle or poorer class is not thus tempted and is usually better disposed to follow the Master. He fears to seek help from his hard-working parents. He knows not what to do and, therefore, frequently does nothing. Such a one the priest must direct and encourage. Christ did not say : “Young man, you must have a certain amount of money to follow Me.” He said : “Young man, you must give away all and keep nothing, to follow Me.”

The good friar acted as a heavenly mediator between poor boys blessed with a special calling, and rich people blessed with the goods of this world. He did not hesitate to seek pecuniary assistance from the well-to-do for his spiritual sons; so that they might obtain the required preparatory education. Pastors and confessors may well imitate Father McKenna’s example. There are always generous people to whom this peculiar charity appeals. They may not contribute much toward the erection of a church, or a school, but for the building-up of a living church of Christ they will give cheerfully if only asked to do so.

In the past few years it has become easier for spiritual directors to help poor boys toward the priesthood because in many dioceses preparatory seminaries have been established where poor students are educated at a small cost. Also many of the religious orders and congregations now make special provision for the free classical education of their candidates. The Foreign Missionary Societies of Techny and Maryknoll, the Church Extension Society, the Josephinum Seminary at Columbus, accept and provide for students who give themselves and have nothing more to offer. Poor boys are frequently ignorant even of the existence of such institutions. The priest must direct them and give them such information.

In guiding his spiritual sons, Father McKenna showed a noble, Catholic broadmindedness. He was a loyal member of the Order of Saint Dominic. He admired its constitution and history, venerated its saints and loved its special work. He constantly and ardently worked and prayed for its spiritual and temporal progress. But his love for the Order did not make him narrow. He remained, first and above all, a whole-souled Catholic. The apostolic friar fully realized that the religious order is only a tree planted by the Holy Ghost in the fertile field of the Church, receiving its life and strength from the Church, destined to bear fruit for the Church. With keen interest he followed her work and progress throughout the whole world. Consequently, recruiting her priesthood was an especial object of his zeal.

The Holy Spirit, who descended upon Christ in the form of a pure, gentle dove and led him away from the multitude into the lonely desert, there to fast, pray, and be tempted before beginning the great work of Redemption, dwells in the souls of boys called by Christ and enlightens their minds, inflames their hearts, draws them gently, mysteriously, to fill a clearly defined place in the priesthood. It is the priest’s duty in this regard to cooperate with the Holy Ghost. He must direct that soul according to the light and attraction the boy has received from the Holy Spirit. This is one of the most difficult labors of the Catholic priesthood. Father McKenna realized well that he was only an instrument of God. He prayed much to know God’s will and to accomplish God’s will. He was quite as ready to help the boy to become a diocesan priest as a religious priest; caring little what order or diocese the boy entered, provided God’s will, the salvation of the boy’s soul, and the good of the Church were accomplished. This noble disinterestedness pleased the boys and brought God’s blessing upon the zealous friar’s efforts. In this respect many directors of souls make serious mistakes. They do not consult the will of God, nor the inclination of the soul, but insist that the subject go to their favorite diocese or convent. They go counter to the spirit of the Church, which encourages young men to decide their own field of labor in the priesthood. By acting thus they disappoint and discourage the boy and do much harm.

When Father McKenna had succeeded in placing a young aspirant to the priesthood in college, seminary, convent, or monastery, where according to his judgment God willed the young man to be, he did not abandon him, but continued to take a fatherly interest in his protege, frequently writing him letters of admonition and encouragement. And whenever a mission or retreat brought the venerable priest near one of his boys, the latter was always invited to meet him and lay bare his soul’s secrets. When taking a much needed rest, it was his delight to have a few of his boys with him. He enjoyed their company, listened with interest to their stories, and took part in their games. Father McKenna could be young with the youngest, yet he never forgot that he was a priest of God, and their spiritual father.

Young men studying for the priesthood need direction. The boy who remains at home and takes up a worldly career is directed more or less by his parents. But to the boy who says : “I am going to be a priest,” parents often reply : “We do not know that way to heaven ; you must go alone. You must find your guide on the long, dangerous road,” while in the institution during the scholastic year, the student usually finds some director; yet when he returns home for a vacation, he often stands alone, most sadly abandoned by all. He is told and he feels that he cannot take part in the amusements of his fellows. If he calls on the pastor, he is received in a cold, formal way, and as a result never returns. Here is a splendid opportunity for priests. That privileged young man of their flock, who desires to press toward the mark of his supernal vocation, they can befriend by making him feel at home in the rectory, by rousing his interest in church activities, and encouraging him to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion daily.

Failure did not discourage Father McKenna. He failed often. Not all his boys persevered in their ecclesiastical studies; nor did all those who became priests through his incentive, prove grateful for the assistance rendered. This the saintly friar felt keenly. Religiously he kept his eyes on those who persevered and found happiness in their success. This joy in turn quickened his zeal so that he was enabled to consecrate himself to this special, most difficult, and most exalted apostolate, even to his declining days.

Failures discourage too many confessors. They cannot forget the boy who discontinues his studies, nor the girl who returns from the convent. Their ardor is thus dampened, and instead of encouraging vocations, they unconsciously discourage them. Sad mistake! What neglect of duty! Let every priest imitate Father McKenna’s prudent zeal, broadmindedness, and never-failing watchfulness in dealing with vocations. Let him banish from his mind forever those who, lacking perseverance, have failed to respond to God’s call. Rather should his gaze rest on that vast army of faithful priests and religious living the life of Christ and doing the work of God, “et multiplicabitur sicut cedrus Libani “.

Clement M. Thuente, O.P.

Chicago, Illinois.

  1. O’Daniel, The Life of Father McKenna, O. P., p. 271. New York, 1917. ↩︎