Fr. Peter Julia genuflects before the exposed Eucharist in the chapel at the Griffin Center in Milwaukie in 2020. (Sentinel archives)
Fr. Peter Julia genuflects before the exposed Eucharist in the chapel at the Griffin Center in Milwaukie in 2020. (Sentinel archives)
The vocations director of the Archdiocese of Portland passes the mantle July 1. Priests, most of whom aspire to parish life, don’t vie to fill this job, but it shapes the future of the local church.

Father Jeff Eirvin has been director of vocations for eight years and as of July 1 is assigned as pastor of St. Thérèse Parish in Northeast Portland. Father Peter Julia, ordained in 2019, will step into the ministry charged with recruiting and caring for seminarians of the archdiocese.

Priests are sorely needed in this era, Father Julia said. “In times of confusion we realize what Jesus says about himself: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ We see a world looking for all kinds of different ways to material happiness, and Jesus is telling his apostles to preach something different, to preach his way. Real freedom is only found in Christ.”

Father Julia has been shadowing Father Eirvin. A decade ago, it was a young Deacon Eirvin who urged a young Peter Julia to attend an archdiocesan vocations retreat.

“Personal invitation is important,” said Father Eirvin, who recalled that it was Father John Kerns who asked him to consider priesthood.

Father Eirvin has learned that much of vocation work is outside human hands.

“It is the Lord’s work and the Lord’s call,” he said. “The Lord already is doing something in the guy’s heart. Basically, it’s all about that relationship that man has had from all eternity with God. Of course, we should do anything we can to get young men in front of our Lord in the Eucharist.”

For his part, Father Julia feels trepidation at the weighty responsibility. He knows that he needs to cooperate with God. “In between the Lord’s work there is a whole lot of human work that has to be done,” he said. He explained that while a seminarian discerns life in the church, the church in turn must discern if the man is really right for the life.

The Archdiocese of Portland currently has 30 seminarians, more per capita than most U.S. dioceses. That despite a hiatus on recruiting overseas.

Going out and recruiting in groups is a challenge for the Father Eirvin, a one-on-one specialist who said Father Julia, by contrast, is an inherent networker, team organizer and encourager.

“I guess I am a natural coach,” said Father Julia, laughing. Before entering seminary, he worked as a rock climbing instructor, guide and bicycle mechanic and salesman. During seminary in Rome he was a master of cycling and bicycle repair, helping many fellow students explore la città and the region on two wheels.

Father Eirvin said a good vocations director collaborates with others and knows the church must make collective decisions about who becomes a priest. He thinks Father Julia will be superb at this aspect of the office, as well as the rest.

Father Julia is a man with big ideas. He even considered a vocations van marked up with quotes and logos to get people thinking about serving the church. But for now he’ll focus on the tried and true.

The annual vocations retreats led by archbishops have been fruitful for decades and Father Julia intends to double down on them.

“The archbishop is the best closer,” he said, using a baseball analogy in which a strong pitcher throws the last inning for the win.

Father Eirvin said that men don’t need to be certain about priesthood to try the retreat.

“We are just some guys getting together to talk about our faith and learn what the Lord is doing in our lives,” he said. “You’ll never know until you try.”

Father Julia quotes Mother Teresa of Kolkata, who told people interested in her ministry: “Come and see.” Father Julia also cites Archbishop Sample, who often tells young men: “If you feel the Lord might be calling you, you owe it to the Lord to at least give it a shot.”

Fraternity is an important and often overlooked aspect of priesthood, Father Eirvin said. Shortly after the interview, he was off to have dinner with a priest friend. He rides bikes and hikes with other clergy, including Father Julia.

“You need someone to make you more accountable,” Father Eirvin said.

“It is a brotherhood you really rely on,” added Father Julia. “We are all willing to help each other.”

Lay Catholics show strong interest in seminarians. About 800 new donors stepped forward in the last year for the archdiocese’s annual seminarian appeal. An entire club, Serra International, is dedicated to fostering and supporting vocations to priesthood and religious life.