PROVIDENCE — Eight years ago, Father Ryan Simas embarked upon his new life in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Today, the pastor of St. Joseph in Woonsocket and chaplain at St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket has a new responsibility: Helping other young men to discover if their vocation leads to the priesthood like his. As of Aug. 1, Father Simas has taken on the role of vocations director for the Diocese of Providence.
What does it mean to be the vocations director? For Father Simas, it means taking a “grassroots approach, starting with the parishes and families, building from the ground up” to encourage more vocations to the priesthood. His plan includes working with priests and other parish leaders, chaplains, religious education directors and others to “build up … a culture of discernment in our diocese, keeping that on people’s minds, kind of raising vocational awareness,” he stated. This is particularly important within the family, where vocations originate.
Additionally, Father Simas hosts events for young men considering priesthood, restarting the “Pizza on the Patio” program at Our Lady of Providence Seminary – put on hold since the pandemic – an evening of prayer, conversation and of course, pizza, with current seminarians by the fireside. As the weather grows too cold for outdoor gatherings, the newly created Frassati discernment group meets monthly at the seminary and provides “an evening of prayer and fraternity for high school and college-aged young men,” according catholicpriest.com.
As he sees it, his job is not to act as a sort of recruiter for the diocese, but rather to walk alongside a young man “as he discerns God’s will for his life. And sometimes offering guidance or suggestions for hearing God’s voice more clearly.” Though this important role is not a numbers game, the number of young men in the seminary for the Diocese of Providence is strong, he reports.
What matters more, however, are the qualities Father Simas looks for in these young men. “The first thing I look for is whether or not the man has a good relationship with Jesus Christ. Especially as a priest, he’s going to be a man of the Eucharist and for God’s people, so I wonder if he’s attending eucharistic adoration, Mass obviously, if he’s participating in the life of his parish and basically if he’s a man of prayer,” he said.
He can also help these young men to grow in their faith life and active engagement in the parish life. Sometimes that even involves the difficult task of telling a young man that while he possesses admirable qualities necessary for the priestly life, he needs to work on specific areas before being accepted into seminary. Father Simas explains: “Just as much as he is discerning the priesthood, the diocese is also discerning him.”
And should a young man discern out of the seminary after a time of study, Father Simas sees no shame in that. “The priesthood is something that should be pursued in freedom, and seminary is a place for men to discern, that’s it.” Attending seminary in and of itself is not a lifelong commitment, he said, but rather a man’s means to seek his calling in life more deeply.
When asked what advice he would give to young men considering priesthood, he commented, “First of all, don’t be afraid. There can be a tendency for a man to discern very privately, not to talk about it. If God is calling you to such a great vocation, talk about it with other people, talk about it with your priest, make sure you’re praying regularly, have a deep prayer life. And don’t be afraid of where God might be calling you to go.”
Being vocations director has “been a great learning experience” for Father Simas. “As a priest, to work with men who are discerning priesthood, it really builds you up.” His greatest difficulty has been reaching a demographic that often relies more on virtual events and social media, so if a young man expresses an interest in priesthood, Father Simas adds him to the vocations office mailing list and places all announcements on diocesan social media accounts. Potential candidates are also welcome to visit the seminary or if they would like, he can arrange for a man to shadow a priest for a day.
In his own vocation story, Father Simas noted that the example of his parish priest at SS. John and James in West Warwick, where he worked as a sacristan in high school, helped spark his interest in the priestly life.
His parents were also instrumental in helping form his vocation. As the home is most often the starting point for vocations, he spoke of how parents should serve as good role models in the faith. Praying the rosary as a family, attending Mass together and being “authentic to their vocation to marriage” all serve as a catalyst to a child’s vocation.
For Father Simas, the most fulfilling aspect of his priesthood is best expressed in the poem “Thou Art A Priest Forever” by Father J.B. Henri Lacordaire, OP, which he sums up in this way: “Being in the midst of everyone’s lives at the most important moments and bringing them to God and bringing God to them.”
Although Father Simas professed his surprise at his appointment, Bishop Richard G. Henning stated that: “Father Ryan enjoys the regard of his brother priests and has experience in parish life and in working with young people as a high school chaplain. He models humble and Christ-like priestly ministry and is committed to this critical work of inviting young men to respond to the Lord’s call.”