DETROIT — St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. John Paul the Great, Fr. Solanus Casey — the Catholic Church has had many heroes over the years.
But for the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Office of Priestly Vocations, heroes don’t just come in extraordinary forms; sometimes a hero can be an ordinary priest who sets an example for others, especially for those who are discerning a vocation.
That’s why the office, headed by Fr. Joe Horn, is recognizing four Detroit-area priests it says have made a difference to those around them.
“We’re doing this because we want to help the priests in each region feel a sense of love and prayer from people,” Fr. Horn said. “We want to show their love and service in the Church in not going unnoticed.”
Highlighting heroic priests is an admirable goal, with one fallback: most priests are quick to shun the spotlight.
“We had to convince them we’re not trying to raise their pride,” Fr. Horn said. “The nominees are very humble about it. We told them why they were selected and how it was related to getting the message out.”
The first batch of hero priests — Fr. Horn is hoping to make it an annual award — is Fr. Tom Lumpkin of Day House in the Central Region, Fr. Joe Esper of Immaculate Conception Parish in Ira Township in the Northeast Region, and Fr. Socorro Fernandes, SAC, of St. Valentine and Our Lady of Loretto parishes in Redford Township in the South Region. Fr. Horn said the Office of Priestly Vocations is working on securing the nominee from the West Region.
“We want the laity to come forward with how they’ve been inspired by these priests,” Fr. Horn said. “That’s how community works, we work to help, serve and honor people in the community who do so much for others.”
Fr. Fernandes was one of the reluctant award recipients but admits the campaign might help encourage vocations.
“At first, I thought a heroic priest was supposed to be humble and not accept the award,” Fr. Fernandes said. “I don’t know about who nominated me or how the decision was made. I always show my priestly life being happy, and I tell others it’s a good life, and I never complain.”
Fr. Esper said he was also reluctant to accept the honor, noting there are many examples of heroic priests, and he hopes he can live up to the honor.
“We have seminarians studying in Detroit from foreign lands having no freedom of religion; they know that when they are ordained and return home, they’ll be ministering in an underground church,” Fr. Esper said. “These men are all heroes. Because I’ve had a relatively safe and easy priesthood, I don’t equate myself with them; instead, I hope I’m worthy of the title ‘faithful’ priest.”
The next step in the campaign involves the Office of Priestly Vocations taking pictures of the honorees and creating posters to be displayed across their region.
Naomi Vrazo, marketing and events coordinator of the Office of Priestly Vocations, said the idea surfaced from a series of social media posts focusing on saints who were priests. Fr. Horn and Vrazo purposively choose not to include criteria for the award; instead hoping parishioners across the archdiocese would submit their own stories of what qualifies as “heroic” virtues in a priest.
“There are priests who are laboring every day in the vineyard, and you don’t always hear about them,” Vrazo said. “That’s the idea behind this project. Not to puff them up and give them an ego boost, but to show them that being a priest is important.”
After receiving around 330 submissions, Fr. Horn and Vrazo took a week to select a priest in every region. The posters will feature a picture of each priest with descriptors of the priests’ heroic virtues in the background. Vrazo said the office plans to publish the posters and display them in parishes soon.
For the honorees themselves, don’t expect the new moniker to go to their heads.
“I associate heroes as people with capes, not really with what I do day to day,” said Fr. Lumpkin, who spends much of his week at the Catholic Worker Day House and serves at a soup kitchen. “We’re all called to be disciples, and the vocations office is trying to present some different examples of people who are giving witness to good discipleship, and that’s something all of us who are baptized are called to do.”