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Cultivating the Lord’s Vineyard

4/1/2015

Jerry Circelli

Father Tim Birney stands with Deacon Brian Meldrum

Father Tim Birney, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Detroit, stands with Deacon Brian Meldrum in the library of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. (Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard)

In answering God’s call to priesthood or religious life, seminarians and postulants face many challenges along their spiritual journeys. In order to become ordained as a priest, most seminarians are expected to complete at least six years of intensive study and formation, sometimes more. Religious sisters and brothers likewise spend years in discernment and training before taking their final vows.

During this process, those called to the priesthood or religious life must also deal with the reality of managing finances. Since seminarians and postulants spend nearly all of their time in daily study, prayer and apostolic outreach, opportunities to earn an income are scarce. Trying to find money for books and personal supplies can become a strain and diversion as one seeks to follow the Lord’s call.

To help ease the burdens of those who have chosen to radically devote their lives to Christ and his Church, the Knights of Columbus offers significant financial assistance through its Refund Support Vocations Program (RSVP). Launched in 1981, the initiative allows councils, assemblies and Squires circles to “adopt” one or more seminarians or postulants by assisting them with financial aid, prayers and moral support.

A ‘LIFELINE’ FOR VOCATIONS

Recognizing the great need to foster religious vocations in the Church, the Order inaugurated RSVP more than three decades ago to motivate local units to share their resources with young men and women pursuing a religious vocation. As an incentive, the Supreme Council awards $100 to councils and assemblies for every $500 donated, up to a limit of $2,000 per individual. Squires circles receive $20 for every $100 donated. In Mexico and the Philippines, councils and assemblies receive the equivalent of $50 for every $250 donated.

Since 1981, RSVP has provided approximately $63 million in aid to more than 100,000 men and women pursuing their vocations to the priesthood or religious life. More than 6,200 seminarians are currently receiving financial assistance from 3,000 local K of C units through the program.

Among those recipients is Brian Meldrum, a transitional deacon studying for the Archdiocese of Detroit. Deacon Meldrum attends Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and is serving his pastoral year at St. John the Baptist Church in Monroe, Mich.

“I remember getting my first check for $500,” Deacon Meldrum said. “It wasn’t anything I was expecting or anticipating. And then to receive it, just out of the generosity and love that these men have for seminarians, the priesthood, Christ and his Church — it was overwhelming.”

Early in his studies, Deacon Meldrum used the funds to buy philosophy and theology books, school supplies and personal items. In his later years of seminary, he has used the money for clerical clothing, liturgical books and vestments that he will need in his priestly ministry.

The Knights’ support of seminarians is received as “a great sign of God’s providence,” according to Deacon Meldrum.

“Often the checks come at a time when you’re really not sure what you’re going to do for money,” he added. “Then the Lord provides, through the generosity of the Knights. It’s really an amazing thing. I know there are a lot of others guys who share that experience.”

Father Tim Birney, director of priestly vocations for the Archdiocese of Detroit, helps to coordinate the Knights’ financial gifts to men like Deacon Meldrum who study at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. This support is really a “lifeline” for seminarians who don’t have a means of income, Father Birney said.

And he speaks from experience. Father Birney distinctly recalls being on the receiving end of RSVP funds while studying at Sacred Heart from 1989 to 1998. Like many others seminarians, he said he typically received about two $500 checks each year throughout his formation. For much of that time, it was his major source of income. But it was also something more.

“When there is an organization like the Knights of Columbus that can assist with a financial burden, it makes your discernment that much easier,” Father Birney said. “Any vocation can be a bit of a roller coaster, so the fewer distractions and difficulties that present themselves, the better it will be for each man.”

STRONG PARTNERS

Among the Knights that Father Birney has gotten to know over the years, one in particular has always stood out: Leo Niedzwiecki, a past grand knight and vocations chairman of St. Lawrence Council 2950 in Utica, Mich., who died last October at age 88. Niedzwiecki was well known among the local seminarians and priests for his pioneering efforts with the council’s RSVP support.

“I got to know the man with the long last name very well, saw how hard he worked and how dedicated he was to the seminarians,” said Father Birney, who coincidentally served at St. Lawrence Church, where Council 2950 is based, during his first assignment as a priest. “There are many councils with men just like him, but he and that council stood out because they were consistent every year.”

Two years before his death, Niedzwiecki passed the torch onto his son, Dale, who now serves as the council’s vocations chairman.

“Although I have big shoes to fill,” the younger Niedzwiecki said, “I am looking forward to continuing in his footsteps.”

Dale recalled that, when the RSVP initiative was first launched in 1981, his father worked with the pastor at St. Lawrence Church to include a special monthly offering at Masses, which was designated specifically for the Knights’ vocations assistance program. Since that time, Council 2950 has collected and donated more than $500,000 through RSVP.

Since 1996, more than 80 percent of the $25,000 raised annually for seminarians has come from St. Lawrence parishioners, with the remainder raised through a K of C-sponsored Polka dance, an annual vocations breakfast and a series of cash raffles.

“The priests who benefit from the program are great ambassadors for the Knights of Columbus,” Dale added, noting that RSVP has generated a tremendous amount of goodwill for the Order.

Father Birney agreed: “Every seminarian and every priest is well aware of how strong a partner the Knights of Columbus is when it comes to the seminary and the Church.”

RECORD-BREAKING SUPPORT

In addition to K of C councils supporting the RSVP initiative, a number of Fourth Degree assemblies are actively involved.

“RSVP has been a very good incentive,” said Deacon Ed Simola, vocations chairman for La Salle Assembly in Chicago. “If you assist seminarians, you get money back, and that gives you seed money to assist even more seminarians.”

Like Council 2950, La Salle Assembly is among the top units Orderwide that contribute to RSVP, having raised approximately $475,000 for seminarians since 1981.

But top honors for any single K of C unit assisting seminarians through RSVP belongs to Wichita Falls (Texas) Council 1473. In the past 24 years, Knights there have awarded some $2.2 million to seminarians.

Mike Brown, vocations chairman, explained that the majority of funding comes from the annual Father Aidan Donlon Vocations Dinner, named for the council’s late chaplain, who recognized the growing need for vocations within the diocese. Brown, who has spearheaded the council’s RSVP drive from the start, stated that proceeds from the dinner have increased every year, with a record $139,000 raised this past February.

“Once a seminarian gets into the program, our goal is to keep rewriting him a check every year,” Brown said.

He went on to explain that the Knights have a special ally in Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, a fellow member of Council 1473. Bishop Olson, in fact, attended the first Father Donlon dinner in 1991 as both a member of the Knights and a seminarian receiving support.

“I was really impressed, because it was something new that hadn’t been done before for priests or vocations,” he said. “I will always be grateful to the Knights for their generosity, because their support helped to prepare me as a priest.”

And it’s not just the funds raised by Knights that are so important, Bishop Olson added. “It’s also what the Knights are doing through their prayers and their encouragement of our seminarians. It all promotes strong relationships between our future priests and the people of God.”

‘BLESSED BY GIVING’

While the large majority of RSVP recipients each year are seminarians, whether for dioceses or as members of religious orders, the program also supports women answering a call to consecrated life.

For the past 30 years, Poway (Calif.) Council 6031 has offered RSVP support to sisters in formation with the Poor Clares, a cloistered monastery in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Vocations chairman John Heinen, whose sibling is mother superior of the monastery, set the wheels in motion for his council’s RSVP involvement.

“We help the sisters, and they pray for the world and for us multiple times per day,” Heinen said. “That’s like having an angel on your shoulder all the time. We feel blessed by giving.”

One of the young women the council supports is Sister Karis, who expects to complete her formation and take solemn vows early next year. In her own vocational journey, she recalled seeing testimonials on the back cover of Columbia about men and women pursuing religious vocations.

“I felt so encouraged, just seeing that there were other young people who were following the call,” said Sister Karis, who grew up in Washington. “It made me feel that if they can do it, maybe I can do it, too.”

While organizing a discernment retreat in high school, Sister Karis said the Knights stepped up and offered financial support for food and other expenses. Now 700 miles from home, Sister Karis continues to receive support from the Order on her own journey to serve Christ and his Church.

“When I showed up here, they were helping me, too,” Sister Karis said. “The Knights have been right there for me all along the way.”

JERRY CIRCELLI is a correspondent for North Texas Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Worth.