Story and photos by LIZ QUIRIN
Finding out what God has planned for each person takes time, planning and prayer at the very least. It also requires soul-searching and usually a discussion or two with people who are closest.
Father Nicholas Junker, the Belleville diocesan vocations director, said he was encouraged to consider a vocation to the priesthood from the time he was a child.
Both his parents and his grandparents served as sounding boards for him.
(In photo at right, Fr. Junker talks with a seventh-grader about a possible vocation as Sr. Carolyn McWatters RSM watches.)
“I sat in the front pew with my grandparents,” Father Junker said recently as he looked at the path that led him to his present assignment.
“They pointed to Msgr. (James) McCormick and said ‘that could be you’ celebrating” the liturgy.
While some might view his search for young men willing to devote their lives to ministering to God’s people as difficult, even on good days, Father Junker has embraced the challenge with open arms.
A native of St. Peter Cathedral Parish, he traces his vocation to his childhood, and yes, he did set up an altar in his home and require family members to attend his “liturgies.”
“I’d break out the Ritz crackers and the grape juice,” he said and smiled.
He was ordained May 8, 2008 by Bishop Edward K. Braxton, and Sept. 1, 2013 he was named vocations director.
As a vocations director, Father Junker has been visiting Catholic schools, talking to his counterparts in other dioceses and creating strategies to reach out to young men to consider the priesthood.
Father Junker said he must “get everyone — parents, teachers and priests — comfortable with the idea of young men becoming priests.”
This is not a question of “tolerating” the idea of someone becoming a priest but of “accepting and promoting” the idea, he said.
“We need to convey the joy of the presbyterate” to people.
Often, priests who are unhappy or have committed crimes receive publicity while those who are happy and well adjusted don’t receive much media attention.
“On the whole, priests are happy and fulfilled in their ministry,” Father Junker said, “not demoralized, isolated or unhappy.”
Pope Francis will have an impact on vocations, Father Junker said both in quantity and in the approach to the priesthood as humble servants.
“I hope the vocations will have that image of Jesus as the humble foot-washer,” Father Junker said.
As a relatively new vocations director, Father Junker didn’t know how busy his days would be.
“I was surprised at the pace of the day,” he said. “I thought I’d be looking for things to do.” bFather Junker has discovered his days are full and rewarding.
Father Eugene Wojcik, a diocesan priest who celebrates his 40th anniversary this year, invited his young brother priest to preach the homily recently at a local liturgy at St. Mary in Chester.
Father Junker traced his history with Father Wojcik to his elementary school days at St. Peter Cathedral.
“He handed me my diploma when I graduated from eighth grade,” Father Junker said.
Later, the young man met Father Wojcik again, when “he welcomed me to the seminary” as the diocesan vocation director.
Now, a priest of five years, Father Junker is extending the invitation he received to other young men and encouraging vocations in all corners of the diocese.
At a recent liturgy at St. Clare in O’Fallon, he participated in a panel on vocations after celebrating the parish’s Saturday evening liturgy.
During Catholic Schools Week, coming up at the end of January, Father Junker will be in a different school every day, celebrating Eucharist and talking about vocations.
Father Junker said he will visit classrooms and answer questions. “It will give youth a chance to ask questions about vocations, the seminary, religious life” whatever they have on their minds.
Not content to talk only to Catholic schools students, Father Junker said he is also talking to parents who home school their children. “They’re very dedicated and faithful people.”
Father Junker is hoping to add parish religious education programs to his roster as well. He wants to talk to anyone interested in discussing vocations. At a monthly gathering the topic is vocations. This is a man on a mission from God, and he takes his mission and his ministry seriously.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-234-1166, ext. 113 to begin a conversation.