Taking the podium at Aug. 9’s Taste of Faith dinner in Little Rock, Msgr. Scott Friend, diocesan vocations director, couldn’t help himself. Introducing the diocese’s seminarians, he asked the crowd to refrain from applauding until all had been recognized. Then, in stern headmaster tone, he issued a mock warning.
“Now I know you people from Christ the King think you’re special. But just because you have 11 seminarians, which is more than some dioceses …” he said before Christ the King parishioners in attendance raucously ended his sentence with applause.
You can’t throw a stick in the Diocese of Little Rock without poking a seminarian native to Little Rock’s Christ the King Church these days. While other parishes can point to comparable numbers as a percent of congregation, none matches the west Little Rock parish’s headcount. In eight years, the Catholic congregation has produced one priest and lists 11 diocesan seminarians and one religious order seminarian.
“It’s a combination of a lot of people and a lot of prayer and always focused on Christ and always focused on the Eucharist,” said pastor Msgr. Francis I. Malone, who is quick to also point to his predecessor, Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert, as the genesis of the current culture of vocations.
“He baptized most of these young men, and I was blessed to give many of them first Communion and be their pastor for the past 13 years,” Msgr. Malone said. “I see my vocation as priest as extremely connected to Msgr. Hebert in the sense that both of us love Jesus Christ, both of us love being priests, and we love being pastor of Christ the King. I see that I’m standing on his shoulders.”
Twenty-five percent of the diocesan seminarians are Christ the King parishioners. Father Andrew Hart was the first homegrown priest from the parish. Current seminarians and their projected ordination year are: Stephen Hart, 2017; Patrick Friend, Joseph de Orbegozo and Stephen Elser, 2018; Jon Miskin, 2019: Joseph Friend, 2020; Alex Booth, Brian Cundall and Ben Riley, 2021; and Daniel Wendel and Chandler Donaldson, 2022.
Brother Jacob Wisenbaker, a Christ the King parishioner and 2011 graduate of Catholic High School, is a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity and began his studies this month at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Most everyone you talk to about Christ the King’s success in fostering vocations points first to devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Msgr. Hebert built the adoration chapel; perpetual adoration began on Msgr. Malone’s watch.
“Having perpetual adoration (is when) we started to see young men respond,” Msgr. Malone said. “There’s nothing greater than the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. This is a 24/7 deal; we have people there 24/7 praying and in particular praying for, among other intentions, an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. So, it’s just not a coincidence, it can’t be a coincidence.”
Accompanying perpetual adoration prayers is a traveling vocations chalice that weekly makes the rounds in parishioners’ homes.
Mary Battreal, who along with her husband Conrad chairs the parish’s hand-picked vocations committee, said it’s not an issue finding hosts.
“It’s not difficult at all anymore, I have people calling me,” she said. “In the beginning, some thought it was just for people with large families and then just for families with boys. Now, it’s young, old, couples, families, single people, everyone.”
Equally impactful is a second “chalice,” a poster with photos of every Christ the King seminarian that is passed from one Christ the King School class to another following Friday’s school Mass. The children also write letters or prepare goody packages for young men away at seminary and pray for them throughout the year.
“One of our seminarians, Joseph Friend, was at Mass,” Msgr. Malone said. “He wasn’t dressed in any particular outfit or collar or anything, he’s just sitting in the pew and he said at the end of Mass he got up and a little child said, ‘You’re Joseph! You’re Joseph Friend! We pray for you!’”
Many parishioners and parents also credit the 2,000-family parish’s active youth ministry program and the influence of Catholic High School on these young men’s decision to discern their calling.
“I’m not embarrassed or shy about asking a young man,” the pastor said. “When they start serving Mass in seventh grade, I’ll say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great one day if you wore these vestments? Help me up the steps, celebrate Mass together?’ And, you can see the reaction on the faces of young men as they serve Mass with me around the church.”
Moreover, he added, “we have encouraged people not to be afraid to ask someone, ‘Do you think the Lord is calling you to the priesthood? You have all the things that it seems the Lord would want in a young man to pursue this calling.’ And so our people are no longer bashful about that.
“I’ve had young men come to me and say ‘Someone behind me at Mass tapped me on the shoulder and asked “Have you thought about becoming a priest?”’ So it’s on the front burner for us as a parish.”
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