The Catholic High School gym echoed typical cheers, applause and prayer on May 1, familiar sounds to any athletes.
But it was also a holy place, as seniors Thomas DePrez and Joseph Jones signed on to become seminarians with the Diocese of Little Rock.
“It’s obviously a great place for a lot of fun like intramurals, basketball games and pep rallies, it’s also a solemn place where we celebrate Mass among other things. Today it’s a holy place. It is the place where Thomas and Joseph make a step into the direction that they’ve been called to go,” said Catholic High principal Steve Straessle.
For 10 years, the school has had a rich tradition of mirroring the signing of athletes to a particular college team with that of seminarians discerning the priesthood. The ceremony has always been focused on support, not pressure, as students will then spend the next eight or more years studying and discerning their call to the priesthood.
Vocations Director Msgr. Scott Friend opened with prayer before Bishop Anthony B. Taylor spoke of the pride he had in Catholic High’s support for vocations (see sidebar).
DePrez and Jones have been walking a similar path to discernment. The 18-year-olds come from families of five, have participated in the Theology Club and Rockets of Faith and have felt God’s call even as children.
“I sort of had a feeling starting at a young age like, ‘What if God is calling me to the priesthood?’” DePrez said. “Over to the years, I’ve gone on retreats and during adoration during one retreat I really felt like a strong calling that that’s what God wants me to do with my life. That really has never gone away and here we are today.”
DePrez, who is involved in the Drama Club, plays the violin and attends Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche), said he was both excited and nervous ahead of the ceremony. He recalled sitting in the gym three years ago, watching John Paul Hartnedy sign on to discern in the seminary.
“I had this crazy idea come into my head, ‘what if I’m down here someday signing to do the exact same thing,’” he said, adding, “I would just like to challenge everyone here who might be thinking to themselves, ‘what if God is calling me?’ to be bold and keep that door open because if you just open your heart to God, he can work wonders with you and in the lives of others.”
His father Joseph said it was a “great blessing” for the family.
His mother Joanne said the youth program, led by Christie Powell at Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock, had “a huge impact” on her son after attending several retreats and Steubenville conferences.
“He loves to serve, that’s his big thing. And he spends a lot of time in adoration,” Joanne said.
During his remarks, Joseph Jones admitted leaving Catholic High can be scary.
“One thing that I like to think about when I’m kind of scared or anxious or anything, I think about a verse from Mark’s Gospel ‘Do not be afraid,’ have faith. I believe if we put our trust in God, then we don’t need to be afraid of our future but rather we should be happy for what he has planned for us,” Jones said.
An altar server at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock and member of the wrestling team, Jones said he is simply listening to God.
“I feel like there have been many moments over a long period of time. I’d have to say that came around December. I attended the Diocese of Little Rock’s Come and See (discernment) retreat and I just had a great time and there was a moment in prayer that I knew this is what I was supposed to be doing,” he said.
His parents, Tom and Laura Jones, were not surprised at their son’s decision.
“We couldn’t be prouder … senior year is when we knew he was very serious about signing with the seminary,” his mother said.
DePrez and Jones will both attend the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and live at the House of Formation.
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