A ‘Dominican moment’

Dominicans Brothers Anthony VanBerkum, right, and Luke VanBerkum, center, longtime members of St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms, are pictured with their pastor, Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny. The two biological brothers are among a surge of seminarians in formation for the Dominican priesthood at the Priory of the Immaculate Conception — commonly known as the Dominican House of Studies — in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Bro. Luke VanBerkum, OP

Detroit — Stay faithful, and God will take care of the rest.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from a recent uptick in vocations to the Dominican priesthood and religious life, that’s it.

Since about 2007-08, enrollment at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., the seminary that forms men for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph for the northeastern part of the United States, has seen a steady increase, with more men showing interest in the intellectual and spiritual traditions of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Dominic.

Among the 66 priesthood candidates and 102 total students — including brothers and lay students — at the House of Studies, Bros. Anthony and Luke VanBerkum, OP, have felt God’s subtle nudge toward the life of the Order of Preachers, commonly known as the Dominicans.

Dominican friars lie prostrate while making their vows in August 2016 at St. Gertrude Church in Madeira, Ohio, near Cincinnati. Courtesy of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph

“Any vocation is a gift from God, and I’m thankful that He’s led me here,” Bro. Anthony, 25, told The Michigan Catholic. “I can see in this vocation a fulfillment of various aspects of my personality and the gifts the Lord has given me.”

The biological brothers — Bro. Anthony the elder of the two — are natives of St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms. The two oldest of seven children — with five younger sisters — they attended St. Paul’s grade school and De La Salle Collegiate High School in Warren.

On Feb. 10, Bro. Anthony will make his solemn profession with the Dominicans along with 12 others in the upper church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, while Bro. Luke is in his first year of studies, after completing his novitiate last year.

Bro. Anthony said he first met the Dominicans while in college at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where he said he fell in love with the order’s cohesive life of prayer, study and fraternity. Already discerning a vocation to the priesthood, it was that synthesis of community life and the active apostolate that stirred him to ask God whether he might be called to be a Dominican.

“I started attending daily Mass in college and gradually developed a love for and attachment to the Mass and frequent confession,” Bro. Anthony said. “It was nothing super dramatic, but just gradually feeling this call to a vocation that I had already started to love.

“As I found out later, in the Dominican intellectual and theological tradition, that’s how vocation is supposed to work — God knows what we love, and His vocation for us corresponds to what we love because He made us and our vocation.”

Learning the life

God willing, Bro. Anthony will be ordained to the diaconate next year, and a Dominican priest the year after that.

Bro. Luke, 24, is a few years behind his brother, but also is pursuing a vocation to the Dominican priesthood. He recently made his simple — or temporary — profession after completing his novitiate with the Dominicans in Cincinnati.

Bro. Luke was in college at the University of Notre Dame when Bro. Anthony made his simple profession, and remembers being inspired by the witness of so many Dominicans together in one place.

“It was the first time I had seen so many religious, with all the Dominican friars who were there, plus all the Dominican sisters and visiting religious,” Bro. Luke recalled. “I didn’t at that point say, ‘This is what I want to do,’ but I realized that I didn’t really know what a Dominican was. So I picked up a biography of St. Dominic, and in reading that I was very much attracted to the way he lived life — his life of deep prayer, contemplation and preaching. That was attractive to me.”

With the seed planted, Bro. Luke made up his mind to try religious life after attending a panel in which a religious sister quoted from St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (“Consecrated Life”).

“The way John Paul II described religious life really captured my attention and really presented a beautiful way in which to live life,” Bro. Luke said.

Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny, the brothers’ pastor at St. Paul on the Lake, watched both young men mature as they discerned what God was calling them to do.

“Too often, people spend time trying to decide whether they want to be a priest, and what they need to do is discern whether God wants them to be a priest,” Msgr. Halfpenny said. “If these two are emblematic of what’s going on at the Dominican seminary, then I’d say God is blessing them most assuredly.”

Both brothers say they appreciate the structured, Thomistic curriculum that grounds St. Thomas’ approach to philosophy and theology with the daily life of the Dominican community.

“In college, you get a more segmented life. You have chunks that don’t always fit together. But in religious life it’s really this cohesive unit, and it’s all meant for your salvation,” Bro. Luke said. “It’s not like you have your life split up between prayer and classes and study and fun — everything is together, and it all works together.”

The VanBerkum brothers aren’t the only Michigan connection to the Dominican House of Studies; Bro. Martin Davis, OP, a native of Monroe, also is in formation, and at least one current professor, Fr. James Brent, OP, hails from the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Bro. Anthony VanBerkum, OP, hands out rosaries as he and fellow Dominican friars engage in “street evangelization” in this 2016 file photo. Bro. VanBerkum says the combination of the active apostolate and contemplative life initially drew him to investigate — and ultimately to profess — life as a Dominican. Courtesy of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph

A young community of faith

Although not a Michigan native, Fr. Steven Boguslawski, OP, who was rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary from 2003-06, served as president of the House of Studies from 2007-13. For Fr. Boguslawski, the fact that the studium — the traditional term for the Dominican seminary — is bursting at the seams is a good problem to have.

“We’ve had an enormous uptick in vocations over the last 10 years, so much so that I was responsible for overseeing the building of a new academic center during my tenure as president,” said Fr. Boguslawski, who currently is moderator of the curia and vicar general for his home Archdiocese of Hartford. “I kept saying, ‘We’re building it too small.’ There’s not a spare room to be had, and the quality of the candidates continues to be high.”

Two of the seminarians’ defining characteristics almost seem to be at odds with one another — they’re both young and full of life experience. The latter is by design, Fr. Boguslawski said, while the former is a natural outgrowth of such a vibrant community of faith.

“Our policy is that we don’t accept anybody into the order until they already have a bachelor’s or equivalent degree, and preferably some life experience as well,” Fr. Boguslawski said. “We’re strong believers that the intellectual life is an apostolate; learning how to think about contemporary culture and contemporary problems and challenges that the average person faces, these are very important things.”

While a handful of candidates are in their 40s, the average age of the Dominicans’ novices is about 24, said Fr. Albert Trudel, OP, registrar for the House of Studies, with the highest percentage of candidates at the House of Studies between the ages of 25-29.

Brothers Luke, left, and Anthony VanBerkum, OP, are among three Michigan natives studying for the Dominican priesthood in Washington, D.C. Bro. Anthony will make his solemn profession on Feb. 10 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, while Bro. Luke recently completed his novitiate as a Dominican last year in Cincinnati. Courtesy of Bro. Luke VanBerkum, OP

“We’re getting a lot of young men applying for our order, and specifically for our province,” Fr. Trudel said. “All of that ultimately is the work of God. This just seems to be a particular Dominican moment, when a lot of young men are looking for what Dominican life has to offer.”

While no one — save God — can know for sure the reasons behind the Dominicans’ increased vocations, Fr. Boguslawski said it doesn’t hurt when young men see similarly motivated peers in a fraternal life of brotherhood and faith.

“We attained a critical mass about 10 years ago, so any candidate for the order would look and say, ‘Wow, there are 25 to 30 guys who are like me who have embraced this way of life and are happy,’” Fr. Boguslawski said. “They’re articulate and intelligent and highly motivated and fun to be with. We’re not the grim bearers of the good news.

“They want to look around and see people akin to themselves — highly motivated individuals dedicated to the Church — and realize that with all of us together, I don’t have to do everything myself,” Fr. Boguslawski continued. “That’s true whether we’re talking about the Dominicans or simply millennials in a parish.”