WILMINGTON —For Mike Vogt, the running stops Jan. 27.
That’s when, in front of the Salesianum School community of which he has been a part for the past two and a half years, Vogt will be ordained a priest of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, completing a process he began almost 36 years ago.
Vogt, 53, joined the Oblates right after he graduated from North Catholic High School in Philadelphia in 1976 and, for the next decade, he was in formation with them and with the Diocese of Allentown. Then, as his ordination approached, he had second thoughts.
“Basically, I got cold feet and left,” Vogt said recently at Salesianum, where he is part of the campus ministry team and a theology teacher.
“I had some doubts about myself and my own worthiness. I guess you could say a lot of it was rethinking, some confusion. There were some personal crises in my life, and I think I needed to take a step away and catch a breath.”
In the interim, Vogt had a bi-coastal odyssey. He taught high school in Philadelphia for seven years, then moved to California, where he did some acting in commercials and worked in sales for CBS. He also ran two sober-living facilities for men.
Vogt said he used a lot of what he had learned in teaching and in community life at the sober-living houses. In a way, he was practicing his vocation in California.
“As somebody used to say to me, ‘You took off the uniform but you never really got out of community,’ he said. “I still had a sense of mission and I think of service to the people of God, but was just confused.”
In 2003, a priest friend from Philadelphia told Vogt he was the pastor of twin parishes in West Philadelphia and that he could use some help, so Vogt returned to his hometown and became a pastoral associate, eventually moving into the rectory. There, the pastor asked Vogt why he kept avoiding the call.
“He said, ‘It’s time to stop running,’” Vogt said.
The ‘call’ lingered
The Oblates accepted Vogt, and although he had already met the academic requirements and been ordained a transitional deacon, he had to go through formation and make his vows again. He had changed, as had the Oblates and, to some extent, the church, and both sides needed to know they were on the same page, Vogt said.
“I was never laicized, was never asked to, nor did I want to. Somebody told me I had the longest transitional diaconate in the history of the church,” he joked.
Throughout his life, he said, he knew something was missing. “No matter what I did, the call never went away. It was always on my shoulder.
“It was really good priests, brothers, nuns and my folks who were saying, ‘Maybe you didn’t make a mistake the first time. Maybe you were doubting yourself.’”
Oblate Father James Greenfield, the provincial, was the congregation’s vocations director when Vogt returned. They had known each other since 1979, when Father Greenfield joined the Oblates. He said the Oblates handled Vogt’s inquiry as they would any other and that they have no particular policy on the age of candidates.
“We did a review of what’s been happening over the years, we make sure the candidate’s been under spiritual direction and has been for at least the previous three years,” Father Greenfield said.
A gap of that many years is unusual, Father Greenfield said, but sometimes it takes a while to be certain.
“It’s a clear sign to really trust and believe in the slow work of the spirit. Sometimes we live in a world where we expect instant results, but vocation is something that happens day by day, we grow into it,” he said.
Vogt said he first felt the call at Holy Innocents School in Philadelphia, where he was an altar boy and would find himself drawn to the church, where he would sit in the back “and feel at home.” He liked the sense of mystery he felt.
He met the Oblates at North Catholic and was attracted to the brotherhood he saw among them. No matter what they did at the school — teaching, administration, staff the bookstore — they were happy.
“They truly believed you could live Jesus and follow the Lord now, and that was just as dynamic as following him in 33 A.D. in Nazareth,” he said.
Theologically speaking, his philosophy fits well with the teachings of St. Francis de Sales.
“De Sales believed in practical holiness, that it was not having to go into a monastery, that we’re called to be the best of who we are according to the Gospel of where we’re at, and to follow that. Francis was imminently practical and down to earth, and that’s what struck me about the Oblates,” he said.
Students part of journey
He is enjoying his campus ministry work and teaching theology at Salesianum, where the students just call him “Rev.” He wasn’t a reverend, and he wasn’t a mister. They were at a loss as to what to call him.
At Sallies, he leads retreats, such as one for the sophomore class recently in Camden, N.J., where they worked in a soup kitchen, helped the homeless and straightened up a park for neighborhood children. He is also involved in liturgy preparation and penance services, although until now he has not been able to hear their confessions. He is looking forward to saying Mass at the school and in nearby parishes.
In his free time, Vogt likes to take walks, see movies and “get lost” in bookstores.
He is also a familiar face at Salesianum athletic events and likes to be present in the students’ lives. He tells them all the time that they are part of his journey.
“They get to see someone, regardless of age, who’s in formation, who’s growing with them, who’s not arrived, who’s studying, who’s learning what priesthood and what religious life is all about,” he said.
Ordinations are usually in church
When Rev. Mr. Vogt is ordained to the priesthood on Jan. 27, it will mark a first for the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, Salesianum School and Bishop Malooly.
Instead of the Cathedral of St. Peter, where most diocesan priests are ordained, or St. Anthony of Padua Church, where the Oblates have held ordinations in the past, Vogt will complete his journey to the priesthood at Salesianum School, in front of the students, faculty and staff with whom he has spent the last two and a half years.
Because the students have been such a big part of Vogt’s life the last three years, the Oblates wanted to find a way to have them at the ordination. They talked about transporting students to one of the local churches, but decided, with Bishop Malooly’s permission, to hold the ordination in the school gymnasium.
“The idea was that this has been where I minister, and the transporting of the entire student body and faculty to one of those places would be a major problem,” he said.
He added that he is sure there are a few vocations among the student body, and if they see an ordination, perhaps someone else will realize he has a call. His parents, Albert and Mary, will be there, as will younger brothers Larry and Greg and their families.
Bishop Malooly said the suggestion came from the Oblates and he has no problem with the arrangement. Most students do not have an opportunity to witness an ordination, and this is a way to encourage vocations.
“Usually you would prefer to celebrate it in a church, but I was delighted to do it this way. And he’s part of the faculty there, so it will be very meaningful for them,” said the bishop, who will be doing an ordination outside a church for the first time.
“I love doing ordinations. Any time you ordain a priest, it’s most meaningful,” he said.
Oblate Father James Greenfield, the provincial, believes this is the first priestly ordination at Salesianum, although he was ordained a deacon in the school’s former chapel.
As unlikely as the gymnasium seems for an ordination, Vogt said it is appropriate. Students will be sitting across from each other and God is found in each other.
“The bottom line was, I don’t care what building it is as long as the people of God to whom I am going to serve are there. Buildings are wonderful, but the church is more than a building. It’s the people of God,” he said.