Enfolding all of you: parents of seminarians enter the journey

by Kiki Hayden

North Texas Catholic

Gary and Joann McCrackenGary and Joann McCracken
Gary and Joann McCracken (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


One evening at a pizzeria, Isaac McCracken announced to his parents that he was applying to seminary.

“It surprised me,” recalled his father, Gary, “but…I was much more accepting of it.” This was not the first time Isaac had spoken of his desire to discern the priesthood.

His mother Joann had what she now describes as an “adverse reaction.” Questions raced through her mind: Who would pay for seminary? Why wasn’t Isaac finishing his economics degree? “I got up and walked out, sat in the car. I was so angry,” she recalled.

Whether the thought of seminary brings joy or heartache, the parents of seminarians receive a unique invitation to surrender to the Lord. Fortunately, in the Diocese of Fort Worth, seminarians and their parents are supported financially, in community, and in prayer.

 

Surrender

Shortly after the “famous dinner,” as Mrs. McCracken described it, Isaac contacted his parents asking when Bishop Michael Olson could come over to discuss their concerns. Mr. and Mrs. McCracken were surprised by Bishop Olson’s quick response and his welcoming demeanor. “He was very unassuming,” said Mrs. McCracken, and “he answered every single question.”

“He drove a very small car,” added Mr. McCracken.

Over a dinner of Italian food, Bishop Olson emphasized that seminary is a discernment process — not every seminarian becomes a priest. He also told them that the diocese pays tuition for every seminarian.

“Even if he discerns out, he’s still got an education. All that costs him is time,” said Mr. McCracken.

This was a turning point for Mrs. McCracken. She began encountering families of seminarians and priests. At Mass, she noticed readings about letting go and listening to God’s voice. With each experience, she felt more and more comfortable with her son’s decision. “It’s a shock, it’s a struggle, and you have to accept… it’s their choice,” she told the North Texas Catholic. “And then you have to decide: Am I going to work against it, do nothing, or encourage it?”

Now, Mrs. McCracken encourages Isaac’s seminary journey. A ceramic depiction of St. Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana is prominently displayed in the McCrackens’ kitchen.  “He’s happy… He seems like he’s in the right place,” Mrs. McCracken said.

Like the McCrackens, Michael and Alana Demma were concerned that their son Jonathan planned to discern his vocation before finishing his engineering degree.

Alana and Michael DemmaAlana and Michael Demma
Alana and Michael Demma (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


“I didn’t want him to do this. I was thrilled that he wanted to become a priest,” recalled Michael Demma, “but I wanted him to finish school, because I always had a plan.”

“It was my intention to finish my degree first,” wrote Father Jonathan Demma, parochial administrator of Sacred Heart Parish in Wichita Falls in an email. “But after praying before the Blessed Sacrament…I knew I was supposed to leave that year.” With longing in his voice, he told his father, “I can’t wait one more day to consecrate the Eucharist.”

“I’m done,” said Mr. Demma, and he opened his arms in defeat. “And then I gave him 100 percent support.”

Alana Demma felt called to ask Mary to protect her son. In Adoration at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, she prayed, “You gave up your Son; I’m giving up my son — not like you did but I need you to take care of him.”

At that time, Fr. Demma felt called to discern religious life with a Franciscan order in faraway New York. She gazed at an image of Mary. “The picture I was looking at moved. Mary was holding baby Jesus and she presented Him to me… and I’m thinking, ‘Girl, you are crazy!’ And then I saw this angel.” A friend of hers, also present in Adoration, saw the angel, too. “From that moment on,” Mrs. Demma beamed, “it was whatever Jonathan wanted to do for Jesus.”

 

Supporting Seminarians

John and Heide Hoffschwelle were concerned about the education provided in seminary. Their son Joseph has learning differences and received extra support in school. The Catholic school his sisters attended lacked the resources Joseph needed for a successful education. “Kids who have learning differences… we forget them,” Mr. Hoffschwelle said.

But the Lord does not forget.

John and Heide Hoffschwelle
John and Heide Hoffschwelle (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

“We have to give huge credit to the Diocese of Fort Worth and Bishop Olson… they go out of their way to help him…. During the summer they do special work with the [seminarians],” said Mr. Hoffschwelle.

“And the seminary here is helping me, too,” added Joseph over the phone.

The Diocese of Fort Worth ensures that each seminarian receives financial support, community, and prayer. “We make the commitment for all these men who are on this discernment journey: we [the diocese] pay for it,” explained Renee Underwood, CFRE, Associate Director of the Advancement Foundation, which fundraises for the diocese. She emphasized the contributions of the St. John Paul II Shepherd’s Guild, which provides opportunities for benefactors to provide financial support to seminarians of the diocese. The diocese covers seminary tuition and even provides health insurance. “That’s a super blessing we have in this diocese because of that commitment that the Bishop of Fort Worth makes…. We only cover it because of the generosity of benefactors: Shepherd’s Guild members, grants, the Annual Diocesan Appeal, things like that.”

This support is about more than money. Mr. Hoffschwelle has a folder in his phone of prayer cards for the seminarians of Fort Worth. Each day of the month, he prays for his son Joseph, as well as for another seminarian; each seminarian is assigned a day of prayer by the diocese. Mrs. Hoffschwelle offers daily Mass for her son and the other seminarians.

The St. John Paul II Shepherd’s Guild also holds several events a year where seminarians, their parents, and other benefactors gather “to walk with [the seminarians] and understand and to love on them and see them as people,” said Underwood. “It’s about a relationship.”

For the McCrackens, joining communities of other seminarians’ parents has been a validating experience. “You could see every walk of life,” Mrs. McCracken said. They met families of many ethnicities, educational and spiritual backgrounds, and marital situations; families who were thrilled their children were in seminary and families who were struggling to accept it. “You’re not… on an island by yourself,” said Mrs. McCracken. “When Bishop Olson came [to our house], it wasn’t like, ‘We’re taking your kid.’ It was like, ‘We’re enfolding all of you.’” In the Diocese of Fort Worth, parents of seminarians are invited to enter that journey together, in community and prayer.

Gary and Joann McCracken

One evening at a pizzeria, Isaac McCracken announced to his parents that he was applying to seminary.

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