Above: Father Scott VanDerveer, a former parishioner, is pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Glens Falls. “I do think it’s interesting that Jesus said in the scriptures that the church would always find a way to survive, that the church would always prevail. I think that’s beautiful, and I think it means that we need to be open and trusting that we will find our way.”
By FRAN PERRITANO
Becoming a priest wasn’t a priority early on for Scott VanDerveer and Dennis Walker.
Both graduated from college with degrees not necessarily associated with the priesthood. Neither had any inclination they eventually would become priests.
“No, no I did not, not in the early days,” said Father Scott. “I always had a very strong relationship with God, but I never liked going to Mass. My relationship with God was very strong in that I kind of talked to God like an imaginary friend. I was always speaking to God, and I would say, ‘What a beautiful day it is,’ ‘I wonder what I want to eat later,’ ‘Why are caterpillars fuzzy?’ I would say all of those things to God and have an ongoing dialogue with God during the day.”
Father Dennis never gave the priesthood a second thought early in life.
“I didn’t really have any great desire to be a priest when I was younger,” he said. “I really respected and revered priests in general, especially the ones I knew. But I never really considered priesthood until I was out of college.”
Father Scott, 46, and Father Dennis, 33, are among a younger generation of priests. They face challenges and cope with changes in the priesthood that their predecessors did not have to deal with.
The men describe how they eventually were drawn to the vocation, what obstacles they face with the dwindling number and aging priests, and how they view their calling.
Resisting the call
Father Scott, who was a parishioner at Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament for several years, graduated from college with a degree in journalism.
“I thought I was called to be a journalist and I was attracted to that because I always wanted to be the one to inform people of what was happening; let me be the one that informs them the way Walter Cronkite did at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination,” he said. “But then I realized informing people is not my calling — it’s related to my calling, but my calling is more precise. I am not called to inform people. I am called to inspire people.”
He held several jobs, including a school bus driver and teacher, and even toured the world with the singing organization “Up with People.”
Still, Father Scott felt the priesthood was not right for him.
“I didn’t want to be a priest even though I knew it was my calling because I thought it was too extreme of life. I thought it was too odd. I thought it required way too much having to twist myself into a mold that didn’t fit me — you know taking vows of obedience and chastity, celibacy and living a simple life, being told where to live, where to go, what your life would be having to take the entire role on, not just the parts you like but all of it, which is so all-encompassing. So, I fought being a priest for 20 years. … I wanted to put it off, put it off, put it off, but eventually after 20 years I gave in. I was too tired to keep running and I became a priest.”
He was ordained in June 2013.
Father Dennis, who spoke at our parish’s Communion Brunch in October, thought his calling was in the business world. He earned a master’s degree in business administration and set off on that path.
“About a year after I graduated college, while I was working as an auditor, I felt a sense I might be called to serve the Lord as a priest,” he said. “At my home parish of St. James in Syracuse, we were blessed to have three seminarians studying for our diocese. They were all around my age, they were all happy and they all had a sense of purpose and hopefulness as they studied to become priests. I saw what they were doing and thought to myself, ‘Maybe I should at least consider the priesthood or perhaps apply to the seminary.
“It took a couple years of prayer and discernment before I applied and got accepted into seminary studies,” Father Dennis said. “But it also took a few years of study and discernment in the seminary to determine that this was what I believed the Lord was truly calling me to.”
He was ordained in June 2021.
Shrinking numbers a challenge
Both men now are fully invested in their vocation. Father Scott is pastor of St. Mary’s in Glens Falls, which also has a pre-K through eighth-grade school. Father Dennis serves two parishes in the Syracuse area — St. Rose of Lima and St. Margaret’s in Mattydale.
Father Scott and Father Dennis acknowledge the priests’ workload is much more than previous generations of clergy because of the lack of new priests.
In 1980 in the Syracuse diocese, there were 515 priests, according to catholic-hierarchy.org. In 2021, there were 206, many of whom are getting older and retiring. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in 1980 there were 58,398 ordained priests in the United States. In 2020, that number was 35,513.
Nowadays, many priests and pastors serve two, three or more parishes.
“That is the biggest challenge — to have too many parishes, too much work, too many tasks and having the feeling of being stretched too thin,” Father Scott said. “My big struggle right now is that I always feel overworked, and the people of God have a right and legitimately often feel undernourished.
“I have so much work to do, so much correspondence, it’s a real challenge, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a burden. What makes that sad is I’m working as hard as I can so people ought to be very, very happy — and they are. People are very grateful and loving, but they cannot hide the fact that they’re used to a higher level of connection with the priest than can be given when you have multiple parishes.”
Father Dennis said the current situation resembles the church’s beginnings in the country.
“The early days of the church in the United States are somewhat reminiscent of where we are today in the Northeast,” he said. “Before the church was really established, priests would ride from church to church on horseback to say Mass. They were very much missionaries. … Priests are really not meant to stay at one church for very long and that necessitates that they be adaptable.
“In terms of multiple parish situations, it is not ideal to serve more than one church, but our call as priests requires us to follow the example of the first apostles to cast into the deep waters. Personally, I have very much liked serving the two parishes I am assigned to. Both parishes are grateful to have a priest and I feel fulfilled by being able to serve these people.”
The changing dynamic of the priesthood has necessitated change in evangelization.
“The focus of our evangelization efforts in our present time is to bring people into a personal relationship with Jesus,” Father Dennis said. “That has been the goal for a few decades now because merely following a set of rules does not make you a disciple. Now the focus is helping the faithful realize their need for a personal relationship with Jesus and the goodness that flows from this. If someone develops a genuine love of God, they will better understand the church teachings and the beauty and wisdom behind them.”
Father Scott said there is a fine line between the “mission” of caring for his flock and the “maintenance” of running a parish.
“I think we often have to choose. Are we going to focus on mission or maintenance, and I don’t think that’s an all-in or all-out endeavor,” he said. “I think every day I need to devote a lot of my time to mission and a lot of my time to maintenance.”
The changing priesthood
With all the changes and responsibilities, the question arises: Do younger priests approach their vocation differently from previous generations?
“The priest of today focuses heavily on evangelizing,” Father Dennis said. “Evangelizing isn’t merely preaching to those who aren’t Catholic or Christian, but it is more on educating and enlightening the people who already believe and help them come to a deeper faith and a closer relationship with Jesus. … The priest is the representative of the church and sometimes, just by his presence alone, he can make a difference. The importance of presence cannot be understated.
“Priests of the past didn’t face as much of a challenge of reaching people, since faith was assumed,” he added. “In past times, people took the priest’s word as ‘gospel truth.’ They had inherent authority in the public realm by virtue of their office. That is not the case anymore, just because we live in different times. Therefore, I think there was less of a need for priests to win over hearts as there is now.”
Father Scott sees a trend of younger priests yearning pre-Vatican II traditions.
“The priests that I were around when I was being raised in the 1980s and ’90s were very much into social action, starting ministries, raising people’s consciousness to issues going on in the world, wanting people to take an active part in ending poverty, feeding hungry people, responding to climate change, things like that,” he said. “Today’s priests, my colleagues, are much more interested in people being consecrated for holiness and to live obedient and pious and virtuous lives.”
Father Scott said the reason for that is the situations in which they grew up.
“The younger priests tend to be very traditional, and there’s a lot of studies that show that’s likely to be because many of them were raised during a time when single-parent households were just as common as two-parent households, when both parents were all working and there was a lot of flux in the home situation, which causes them to hunger subconsciously for order. And the way of the church before Vatican II appeals to them because there was so much order. … Many people would say that today’s young priests are more old-fashioned than the older priests.
“I think the priests in the days of old — meaning the ’80s and the ’90s not so long ago — they were quick to say people’s sins are understandable. All of us struggle. Sin is not the most important thing to speak about. Justice is more important than focusing on people’s sins. Younger priests would say it all begins with sin, so encourage people to be very humble and self-effacing and contrite for their sins and then they will be all of justice will flow from that. It’s a different approach, and I can understand why either approach taken to an extreme is dangerous for balance.”
Predicting the future
With fewer priests and a changing dynamic in the church, what does the future hold?
“I see the priesthood in the future being similar what it is today,” Father Dennis said. “We may have fewer priests in the future, but I am hopeful and confident that God continues to call men to serve at the altar in persona Christi. In light of the current culture, which can be overly self-oriented, the call to the priesthood is a radical way of life that still attracts men who find a deeper meaning to life.”
Father Scott said the future is “unknowable.”
“I do think it’s interesting that Jesus said in the scriptures that the church would always find a way to survive, that the church would always prevail,” he said. “I think that’s beautiful, and I think it means that we need to be open and trusting that we will find our way.
“You know one of the things I love … is that life is an awful lot like a train. The engineer of the train may think that he or she is driving it, but the rails are actually what determine the direction of the train. No engineer can say, ‘Oh, that looks nice over there, let’s go that way.’ You’re going to go the way the rails go. Your job is not to choose where to go, it’s to stay on the rails, to not derail. And I think the church — we can all think that we’re going to have a role in deciding where the church is going — I think the church is going to go where the Holy Spirit leads the church to go. We are not driving; we’re the engineers responsible for responding to the conditions so that we don’t derail, but the church is going to go where the rails take her.”
The Rev. Scott VanDerveer
Education: Bachelor’s degree in journalism from St. Bonaventure University, master’s degree in education from Boston College; master’s in divinity from Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass.
Ordained: June 8, 2013.
Parish: Pastor of St. Mary’s in Glen’s Falls, which also has a grammar school.
The Rev. Dennis Walker
Education: Bishop Ludden High School, Le Moyne College for undergrad and MBA, St. Mary’s Seminary and University.
Ordained: June 5, 2021.
Parishes you serve: St. Rose of Lima Church, North Syracuse; and St. Margaret’s Church, Mattydale.