By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published March 19, 2009
As a high school student considering the priesthood, Branson Hipp came away from one of the annual vocation discernment retreats of the Atlanta Archdiocese with this understanding: God calls all kinds of men to be priests.
“There were a bunch of guys—a good group—from all walks of life, from up to (age) 50 and I was the youngest at 17,” he said. “The atmosphere was incredible.”
The “wonderful thing” about the retreat was “meeting other guys discerning” and “enjoying conversations with heart,” he added. “There are guys who are pretty sure and others who are not sure and asking questions.”
Matthew Busch, a native Floridian who moved to Atlanta three years ago, appreciated the opportunity to ask questions and expand his understanding of what priests do outside of Mass on a day-to-day basis.
“Do they get a vacation? Are they on call 24/7, 365 days of the year? Do they receive a salary? These were secondary questions,” said Busch, who already was coming to an assured acceptance of his desire to become a priest. “Going to the retreat was perhaps less about discernment for me and more of what I needed to do and what to expect. The questions were answered very well.”
Father Luke Ballman, director of vocations for the Atlanta Archdiocese, confirmed the importance of the retreat “to give men the opportunity of participating in something concrete as they discern.”
“There are a number of elements that are important,” Father Ballman explained. “One, it’s an opportunity for men in discernment to meet each other as individuals. It’s also an opportunity for men to meet seminarians and be able to pull them aside in private conversation. They can pick the brains and heart of a seminarian to learn what their journey has been like.”
Another important element that resonates with many men is that they realize they are not alone.
“If I become a nun, a priest, a religious brother, I’m not the only person in the world thinking this,” Father Ballman said. “It’s not weird. It’s comforting to realize there are other normal people and that God is working in them.”
Ernie Darby approached the retreat, usually held in the winter, “with an open mind.” He appreciated the prayer time and another discovery. “I realized there were so many people out there who were thinking the same thing.”
A convert whose interest in the Catholic faith was piqued by watching the funeral of Pope John Paul II on television as a college student, Darby also appreciated the presentations by Father Ballman and the seminarians. “You realize that they are normal people who also have hobbies and go see movies.”
Matthew Dalrymple also came to the faith while in college and law school. Now 29, he worked for a time as an attorney, living in midtown Atlanta, attending Mass and growing in appreciation for the sacrament of reconciliation. But he began to “sense in a big way that I wanted to give everything to (God) for the sake of others.”
On the discernment retreat he approached then-seminarian Dan Ketter, now a priest, who had given up a nice income and comfortable lifestyle to serve others through the priesthood.
Dalrymple appreciated the seminarian’s wisdom and the sharing of details about his own experience of discerning and being in the seminary.
The presence of the seminarians on the retreat is crucial, said Father Ballman, who hopes eventually to offer separate retreats for high schoolers and college students.
“Seminarians are a lot closer to the men who are on the journey. They can identify with them much better than they can with me. … It’s harder for them to see that there was a time when I wasn’t a priest. (With a seminarian) they’re seeing a guy in progress; it’s more real.”
One topic included in the retreat is the “celibacy theme,” he added. “It’s something that every man discerning has to come to grips with.” It goes beyond the physical sacrifice to “more the emotional one.”
“As clergy we commit in life to love everyone. A married person commits in his or her life to exclusively love a spouse and family; the love is very focused. Mine is much broader. … It is not exclusive, not focused on one person.”
The love is different, but “each is a beautiful gift of self that also contains a cross.”
He stressed the importance of “the celibate witness” to society. “Society is obsessed with sex, but sex . . . as possessive, demeaning, hedonistic. God offers love that is life-giving and permanent and is a real commitment.”
The retreat, which lasts a day and a half and is set amid the beauty surrounding the Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center on the Chattahoochee River, includes presentations by the seminarians and by Father Ballman, who gives practical advice on how to discern and what the next steps may entail. Mass celebrated with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory followed by a meal mark the retreat’s closing.
“The archbishop does a good job of encouraging and inviting and challenging (the retreatants) to take the next step … in following God’s will,” Father Ballman said. “He makes (the priesthood) look exciting, attractive and life-giving because he embodies it in such a way that speaks to the hearts of the men.”
Busch acknowledged “the good experience” of having the archbishop’s presence and support on the retreat. He is beginning the process of applying for the vocations program, not in Atlanta as previously thought, but in Florida. Through discussions with Father Ballman, he realized north Florida “is still considered home to me. … If things go well, I will be entering the seminary in the fall.”
Following the retreat, Darby pursued opportunities to “get away from everything familiar to me and discern on my own, to just be by myself in situations that were new to me.”
Today he is a seminarian for the Atlanta Archdiocese, studying pre-theology at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa.
“I’m where I need to be at this time in my life,” he said.
Feeling a strong calling, Hipp sought advice about his young age at the time of the retreat, since he was then a senior in high school and not old enough to apply.
“My big question was do I wait and go to college and have some real world experiences or do I prayerfully discern and apply?”
Hipp waited until his 18th birthday in February 2008 and then applied. The “formidable process” included writing a 10-page autobiography, taking physical and psychological exams and being interviewed by members of the vocations board. He was able to pursue completing the application during his senior year as he participated in a work-study program, which gave him the flexibility to travel from Peachtree City to Atlanta when needed.
He received confirmation informally when he was handed an Atlanta Archdiocese shirt at the Eucharistic Congress and, later, a formal letter of acceptance in the mail.
Now Hipp attends St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict, La.
The seminary program has been challenging spiritually and intellectually, he said, but it has also been “a lot of fun.” On a recent weekend he and some of his classmates camped, fished and played tennis.
“We know how to have fun and pursue holiness,” he said.
Dalrymple credits a disciplined prayer life and participation in the sacraments with making his transition smooth from his working life to academia again. He is a pre-theology student at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, studying for the Atlanta priesthood.
“A great peace comes over you when you’re doing something God has called you to do, a deep and lasting peace,” he said.
For more information on the vocations discernment retreat or the vocations program of the Atlanta Archdiocese, call the Vocations Office at (404) 888-7488 or visit www.calledbychrist.com.