Hearing the call of God can happen at any age

Peter Finney Jr    Father Steve Bruno, vocation director of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, is not a new-media marketing executive. But in a Twitter world, where life comes at you in machine-gun bursts of 140 or fewer characters, the idea of a vocation to religious life is so easy to delete.
    That’s why the “awareness” component of National Vocation Awareness Week is such an important part of the celebration, held every January by the U.S. Catholic Church.
    For some, the call to religious life occurs as a child but is either crowded out by cultural norms or snuffed out by a parent. For others, it comes later in life when the job and the car and the savings account beg the question: “Is this all there is?”
    For the last year, Father Bruno has endeavored to raise awareness at the parish level about the priesthood by dispatching seminarians to every church in the archdiocese to deliver a brief talk after Communion– “three or four minutes tops” – about how they heard God’s call in their lives and are trying to discern it more clearly in the seminary.
    “It’s just to put a face on vocations,” Father Bruno said. “People can see there are real seminarians discerning the priesthood. These are people who left jobs or came to the seminary out of college or high school. It’s also to show that the priesthood is a viable option – this is not something that’s only for the strange and the old. These are people who were on the track team or who sing at praise and worship services.”
    Gary Copping, a 1985 graduate of Brother Martin High School, is an example of someone God has called early and often. He played “priest” as a 6-year-old, using the triangular table in his room in New Orleans East as an altar to re-enact Mass for his somewhat captive older brothers.
    “Then my mom needed the desk as a plant stand, and there went the altar,” said Copping, 44, now in his third year of theology at Notre Dame Seminary.
    Copping went on to middle school at St. James Major and then to Brother Martin, where as a senior he considered the idea of entering the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. His mother wasn’t really keen on the idea, so Sacred Heart Brother Lee Barker, a teacher at the school, advised him “to put it on the back burner.”
    After three years studying at the University of New Orleans, he heard the call again, and this time he entered St. Joseph Seminary College, where he graduated cum laude in 1991 and then went on for three years of theological studies at Notre Dame before deciding not to continue.
    “It wasn’t because I wasn’t called but because I wanted to have more life experiences,” Copping said. “But within three years, I was married.”
    Copping was married for 13 years to his wife Judy, who finally lost her battle with breast cancer in 2009. They did not have biological children of their own, but Copping has a stepdaughter and three step-grandchildren.
    The suffering his wife endured gave him a new perspective on life.
    “She had to have both breasts removed, and it was a very traumatic experience in the sense that many women equate their femininity with their breasts,” Copping said. “I always tried to make her feel more than a woman and tell her she was attractive. We worked through that, and I was by her side and took care of her.”
    They even discussed what would happen after she died.
    “We always spoke about the future,” Copping said. “She was part of my discernment process.”
    When Copping finally got a chance to investigate resuming his seminary studies, this time he met with Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who was the seminary rector when Copping left in 1994.
    “It felt like I was coming home, almost like I had never left,” Copping said. “Of course, there were a lot of new faces.”
    In May, Copping will be ordained a deacon, the final step before ordination to the priesthood in 2013. He sees his life as a devoted husband as a plus for his priesthood.
    “I was dealing with sickness and death, dealing with financial hardships that come with illness, dealing with marital conflict, dealing with stepchildren, living paycheck to paycheck,” Copping said. “I relied on God through the whole ordeal. He got us through the whole thing.”
    While it’s great to make young people “aware” of the possibility of a religious vocation, Copping says he knows there are many other middle-aged, single Catholics who need to have the seed replanted.
    “There’s this whole dimension of the second career,” Copping said. “People may be widowers or they may not have heeded the call when they were younger. There are members of the Knights of Columbus, some of the older guys who are not married, who we ought to be asking , ‘What about you?’”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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