Junction City — On the first day of school, students stream in and out of classrooms. In the hallway is the 2016-2017 Seminarian poster for the Salina Diocese. Just a few steps away, inside Room 206 is a familiar face: Alex Becker. On Aug. 16, Becker was in St. Francis Xavier High School not as a seminarian, but as the new math teacher. “By and large, the students have been really interested in (my experience as a seminarian) and it seems like some of them have been more willing to discuss their own interests in seminary in the future because they know it’s not an ‘If you go, you’re committed for life,’ ” Becker said. “They understand it is a process, it’s not a forever decision.”
A graduate from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Becker received a degree in statistics with the intention of working in sports statistics. Upon graduation from K-State, he headed to Conception Seminary College as a pre-theology student. As he neared the conclusion of pre-theology, he prayed about continuing on to theology school. Becker said he didn’t feel called to continue, and shared that with Co-Vocation Director Father Gale Hammerschmidt during a seminary visit. “It worked out as a happy coincidence,” Becker said. “Father Gale had recently gotten word from their math teacher that she was taking a job elsewhere, so he was already looking for a math teacher. “I told him I had been not feeling called to continue and he told me to continue praying about that, to make a good decision for sure. Not to rush into anything.”
Then Father Hammerschmidt mentioned the math position that was opening up at St. Francis Xavier school. “As I prayed about it, I became more and more at peace with the idea of leaving and more and more at peace in taking the job here,” Becker said. “It would be serving the diocese as I had wanted, just in a different way.” Because he has a college degree in math, he is enrolled in an online transition to teaching program at Fort Hays State University in Hays, which will take two years to complete. “When I first pursued the degree (in statistics), the one thing I would not do was teach high school,” Becker said. “Any time in my life when I say ‘I’m sure this is not for me,’ it ends up being exactly where I go.”
As a teacher, he is expected to be a role model, similar to when he was a seminarian. The biggest change for him is going from a school environment where he is surrounded by peers, to instructing the students. “Also, going from a situation where my prayer life is regimented and things are built into my schedule, I now have to take the initiative to make time for that,” Becker said. “It’s still a transition.”
Father Hammerschmidt said he is thrilled with Becker’s transition to teaching in the diocese. “Obviously, we are disappointed when people leave the seminary, we understand it’s not a failure of the system, but that the system is actually working,” Father Hammerschmidt said. “We find it noble when someone has the courage to at least to investigate whether or not the priesthood is their call. There is no better place to discern one’s call than at the seminary.”
If the priesthood is not a man’s vocation, “We trust the time they spent in the seminary will be beneficial to whatever God calls him,” Father Hammerschmidt said. “For example, Alex is doing an incredible job teaching at St. Xavier. We hated to see him leave seminary, but I love watching him thrive as a teacher and watching students come to the Lord because of his presence in their lives.”
As a young professional, Father Hammerschmidt said he was teaching in the Catholic school in Manhattan from 1996-2005. “While I was teaching, I came to a particular point when I felt my calling,” he said. “I realized it was important for me to go to the seminary before I could feel comfortable moving forward with any vocation. “Had I ignored what was working in my heart, (the pull) would never had gone away, even if I had gotten married.”
In traveling throughout the diocese, talking with men who are considering and discerning the seminary, he said he’s also spoken with some who discerned out. “For men who are married with families, I recognize they are more at peace after going to the seminary and finding out it’s not for them,” Father Hammerschmidt said.
Rob Riordan, the father of six who lives in Solomon, was a seminarian for several years. “I thought about the priesthood since grade school, and I had always put it on the back burner,” he said. He graduated from Kansas State University in accounting and began working for a CPA firm. “I got tired of the CPA firm and that life,” Riordan said. “I thought ‘There had to be a greater good.’ ”
In early 1981, he was accepted by the Salina Diocese as a seminarian and was sent to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. It would become his home for the next two and a half years. “I enjoyed everything about the seminary,” Riordan said. “I enjoyed being around the guys. It was a great experience in terms of good liturgy, spiritual formation and direction.”
The experience was an enriching one, but as he discerned, he began to question what his future would look like. “Even though I loved the seminary, I didn’t think I would do well in the priesthood,” he said. “It came about through prayer. I believe the priesthood is a call, but I didn’t feel the call to keep going.” He said goodbye to his classmates in 1983. He said the decision was very clear. “There was no ambiguity,” Riordan said. “I knew when I left, I would never go back. It was very clear. “In the early 80s, it was really a discernment process,” Riordan continued. “There was no ridicule or anything like that (for leaving).”
He moved to Wichita, where he worked for the U.S. Treasury. As his mother aged and wished to move from the farm in Solomon into Salina, Riordan said he moved into the family homestead. It was shortly after he returned to north-central Kansas that he met Maureen, his future wife. The two were married in August of 1986.
His experience as a seminarian was not an awkward conversation or a red flag for his future wife, Riordan said. “Her family were very strong Catholics, so it was like ‘He was a serious enough Catholic to give (the seminary) a try,’ ” he said. “There was no negative side to having been a seminarian.”
Furthermore, Riordan said Archbishop Daniel Kucera, O.S.B., who was bishop of the Salina Diocese at the time, was supportive of his discernment process. “Bishop and the priests were supportive of the decision to go into the seminary, but also in the decision to leave,” he said.
Currently a parishioner of St. Mary, Queen of the Universe Parish in Salina, Riordan and his wife have six children and four grandchildren. Several years ago, Archbishop Paul Coakley, who was bishop of the Salina Diocese at the time, asked the Riordans to spearhead an effort to pray for vocations within the diocese. “Being in the seminary, you saw how important the role of a priest is, all religious vociation,” he said. “We’ve always shown an interest in it, which is why I think Bishop Coakley asked us to be involved.” They organize the Vocatio group, which meets monthly for adoration and prayer for the seminarians. Additionally, a member of the group takes a day of the month specifically to pray for vocations. “The need is great, not just for priests but for sisters and religious life,” Riordan said. “Anything to help build up the Catholic culture in our diocese.”
For many years, Deacon Wayne Talbot thought the priesthood was his vocation. In 1989, he entered into a high school seminary in Hannibal, Mo. “I had felt a calling to serve the Church as a priest from grade school,” he said. “I thought it was what I really wanted to do.” He graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School Seminary and attended Conception College Seminary in Conception, Mo. “During my college years, I had some back and forth with discernment, trying to figure out where to serve,” Talbot said. “I felt a call to serve the Church, but it became more vague as how I could serve the Church. I didn’t think there was any other way to serve the Church. I thought (the priesthood) was the only way.”
Because he was a seminarian throughout high school and college, Talbot said he was concerned that “I hadn’t been out in the dating game,” he said. “I knew if I didn’t have that experience, if I went through straight to ordination, I would have something in the back of my head that said ‘Did you discern fully?’ ” he said. So he took a year out of the seminary and worked at St. Thomas More Parish in Manhattan with Father Melvin Long. “I was looking to see if I could be out there in the social experience,” he said.
Yet the social experience wasn’t drawing him in. Talbot said he felt the pull to return for further theological studies. He contacted the diocese and was in the process of preparing to enter University of Our Lady of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. And then he met Kathryn, who was the secretary at Seven Dolors Parish in Manhattan. “(Meeting her) threw a wrench in things,” Talbot said. “I told her I had to go back, because if I stayed out, I would always regret not assuring myself of my call.”
What could have been an awkward conversation wasn’t. “She was a very solid Catholic, her faith was important to her,” Talbot said. “In some ways, she understood more than others would have. I didn’t want to end up regretting that I didn’t go back (to the seminary) and make sure. “I still felt a call to serve the Church, but I couldn’t figure out if I was called to serve as a priest. I wasn’t aware of any other way to serve.”
After a few months at Mundelein, he discerned out of the seminary. At the encouragement of Father Long, he finished his masters in theology at St. Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Ind. During his masters program, he reached out to Kathryn while she was working on a degree at Emporia State University. “We reconnected and made up our minds that we would spend our lives together,” he said. The two were married in August of 2000. Upon completion of his masters, Talbot said Father Long re-hired him to work at St. Thomas More as the adult religious education director. He still works at the parish, and is now the pastoral associate at St. Thomas More.
In 2009, the Salina Diocese ordained its first class of permanent deacons. Talbot was not among that group; he said he wished to take ample time to discern that calling. He recalled a conversation during spiritual formation at St. Meinrad, where he received his masters in theology. “They asked what I would do in life and I said ‘Probably work for the Church,’ ” Talbot said. “She said ‘You might think of the diaconate.’ I laughed at the time.”
Talbot said he was at a conference and struck up a conversation with Father Frank Coady, the head of the permanent diaconate program. “He asked if I ever considered (the permanent diaconate),” Talbot said. “I said ‘I did, but I don’t want to make it look like it’s a replacement vocation for not being a priest.’ ” At the time, his children were young — in second and fourth grades. “After a lot of talk and a lot of prayer with my wife, and going through the initial stages of discernment, the one-year discernment process, she said ‘Let’s go ahead and do it.’ ”
The couple found a way to dedicate time to studies, while still maintaining essential family time. “It was a thorough discernment process,” he said. Talbot was among the second class of permanent deacons ordained in 2013 for the Salina Diocese. He said he finds the work enriching, specifically assisting with the sacraments, especially funerals and weddings. “I have had the ability to be able to meet more people that way, too,” he said, “to let them see a married guy who is serving the Church. Someone who can relate on a different level.”
An unexpected result of his mission to serve has been his wife’s role. “Kathryn has come out of herself and is now serving in more capacities in the parish as well,” Talbot said. While his call was not to the priesthood, he said the years of seminary formation assists him in his current role. “Seminary gave me a foundation of how to talk about religion,” Talbot said. “It gives you a language to discuss things at a different level about the sacraments and Church in general.”
Occasionally, Talbot said he will hear a fleeting “you missed your call to the priesthood comment.” It’s a comment that he knows is simply not true. “I found my vocation,” he said. “This is exactly where I am supposed to be. I’m serving the Church and am happy to have the blessing and privilege of doing that.” Talbot said looking back on his path, he sees God’s hand at work, guiding him through each phase of life. “All of these events happened for this particular purpose,” he said. “This is exactly where God wanted me to be, even though when I was younger, I never would have imagined that.”