Deacon Brian Warchola begins the next chapter in his life Saturday. It is the day he will be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
For Warchola, it will be a day of joy and hope as he begins a call that he sensed in childhood. For the diocese, it could be a day of concern as no new priests are expected to be ordained from seminary for possibly five years. As older priests reach the retirement age of 75, younger men will be needed to take their places.
The lack of men seeking to become priests is a concern nationwide. Warchola believes part of the problem could be the pull between the priesthood and marriage. It was part of his struggle as a young adult trying to discern his call.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Deacon Brian Warchola will be ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament at 10 a.m. Saturday to serve in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. Another seminarian will not be eligible for ordination for four to five years.
He had thought about the religious life as early as age 11 when he was an altar server at Our Lady Queen of Angels Parish in Central City. He became an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at age 16 and served in both capacities during high school and college.
Although he talked to parish priests about his desire, he took a different path after graduating from Shade High School in Cairnbrook. He attended Cambria Rowe Business College in Johnstown where he earned his associate degree in business. While looking for a position in his profession, he continued to work his part-time job at a greenhouse.
Then tragedy hit his church.
Father William Mullen, his parish priest, suddenly died.
Warchola, who was 21 at the time, said he had never talked to Mullen about a religious vocation, but Mullen had asked him about considering the priesthood a few weeks before his death.
"I had already made a decision that I was not going to be a priest. He brought it up to me, and I discouraged him from talking about it," Warchola said.
Mullen's death made him think again.
"When he died, I thought it was a sign from God," he said.
Warchola spent the next year meeting weekly with Father John Byrnes, vocational director for the diocese, at the time. They would met for dinner and Mass and pray together.
Byrnes would answer his
questions and talk to him about the priesthood.
Warchola said it was a scary time because he felt alone, not realizing that others were going through similar struggles until he enrolled at St. Vincent College in Latrobe as a Catholic theology major in 2005.
In college, the vocational call became stronger.
"I knew it was what I was supposed to do with my life," Warchola said.
He said he realized that God wanted him to be a priest.
"I could trust in that," he said.
"God's amount of grace is so abundant," he said. "God remains with you. If you put yourself in God's hands, he is going to give you everything you need."
Although he initially wanted to find that dream job and eventually get married, Warchola believes it is not for everyone.
"It's a natural, good desire to be married and have a family it's a beautiful dream," he said. "[But] happiness is accepting the calling, even if it's to the celibate life," he said.
As a deacon, Warchola has already seen how God has enriched his life with friendships beyond his expectations. He said often when he is at a restaurant or the mall, people make it a point to say hello.
Perhaps they recognize him through his assignments as deacon at Resurrection Parish in Johnstown, St. Aloysius Parish in Cresson or Prince of Peace Parish in Northern Cambria.
Parishioners often introduce him to their friends, and he has reconnected with friends from high school and college.
"I have met thousands of people and developed friendships I could not have otherwise, even people who are not Christians and have no faith," he said.
Although Warchola knows God has called him to the priesthood, getting young men to discern that direction can be a challenge.
"Religious life is not as attractive or as the kids would say 'cool or awesome'" as it once was, said Father Allen P. Zeth, director of vocations for the diocese.
He said in years' past, people would have large families with maybe three or four sons, and it was often thought that one of those sons would be a priest.
Zeth said families are smaller today and not as strong in stressing their faith.
And even when a young man may be considering the religious life, parents may discourage it, he said.
"We don't have a political ladder to be climbed," he said. "Parents want a better life for their sons. They don't see the religious life as that."
He said the sexual abuse cases could have scared some families away, and celibacy also could be an issue for a few.
He called celibacy a gift from God.
"It is a sacrifice on our part. You have to put your mind to it, to be celibate for the church," he said.
No matter what the vocation, Zeth helps people determine if the religious life is for them.
One of his roles is to visit Catholic schools throughout the diocese and to answer students' questions, often in a classroom setting. A Bishop's Night for Vocations is held annually and retreats are held
at St. John the Baptist Retreat Center in New Baltimore.
"Guys considering the priesthood can get away and pray about discerning their calling," Zeth said.
Those desiring to be a member of the clergy undergo a lengthy interview process and a full medical and psychological evaluation.
Before entering seminary, someone studying for the priesthood needs 30 hours of philosophy, acquired through a bachelor's degree.
Through its foundation and the Knights of Columbus, the diocese will pay for seminary with the student understanding that he must reimburse the diocese if he fails to complete his studies. Students also pay a stipend to the diocese for eight to 10 years to help future seminarians.
While the journey to priesthood is a long one, the blessings are said to be unsurmountable.
Father David Rizzo of Our Lady of Lourdes said he was driving back to the rectory recently after a long day that began at 7 a.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m. with a visit to Altoona Hospital.
"I thought to myself, how blessed I am to be able to share in people's joys and struggles to assist people who are sick or near death. It's a privilege."
"We work with people, serve people and assist them in their journey with the Lord and growth in their relationship with God, to see them as the people God meant them to be," he said.
Rizzo was a pre-med student at St. Vincent College in Latrobe when he felt the call to the priesthood.
"For the first time, I was on my own, and I turned to my faith. As I was turning to my faith, I felt a strong presence of the Lord in my life," he said.
He said during that time, he helped his roommate return to practicing his faith. He said the roommate told him: "Dave, you should become a priest."
Twelve years ago that became a reality when Rizzo was ordained. He has served in six parishes and has seen good people in various places in life.
He said he is involved in their journey from birth to death, including baptism, confirmation and marriage.
"I've always felt I made the right choice," he said.