Feature Story

'Cradle of Vocations'

Two families with a number of priests reflect on God's gift


In a day when few families have direct experience with vocations, there are two in New York who have a multiplicity of riches. When Deacon James F. Pilsner, a fourth-year student at St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie is ordained this May, he will be the third of four sons of Arnold and Marcia Pilsner to become a priest. Father Peter R. Pilsner is a religion teacher at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, and Father Joseph E. Pilsner, C.S.B., is formation director with the Congregation of St. Basil in Toronto.

The other son, John, is a college professor, married and living in the Bronx.

Both sons of John and Bernadette Higgins are serving as priests, Father John J. Higgins as a parochial vicar at Holy Rosary parish in the Bronx and Father Vincent P. Higgins, L.C., as assistant to the provincial of the Legionaries of Christ in Orange, Conn.

Neither family is aware of doing anything beyond the ordinary to promote vocations, yet as the members tell their stories, evidence of what might be called a "vocabulary of vocation" is revealed. Faith was first in each household as the children grew, priests were welcomed into the home as role models, and the parents had a positive attitude toward the religious state of life.

"My parents are religious people," Deacon Pilsner, who will be ordained a priest with his class by Cardinal Egan May 19, said recently. "They didn't talk about the priesthood much, but they did make sure that we were practicing the faith."

Father Peter Pilsner elaborated. "My parents placed a high value on spiritual life and faith. We prayed together as a family, but they never pushed priesthood on us."

Father Vincent Higgins has similar words about his parents.

"Their love of the Church and the Eucharist, and their reverence for the liturgy were passed on to us," he said. "They never pushed us to become priests. What encouraged us was the example of their faith."

Role models were not far from home, as two of Mrs. Higgins' brothers became priests, one of whom died a few years ago.

"They both have been excellent examples of what a priest should be," Father Vincent said.

Reflecting on the different paths he and his brother took to ordination, Father John Higgins said that too many young men think of the priesthood as restrictive rather than a way to new vistas. Father Vincent, who at 34 is two years older, was ordained in Rome this past January. He had entered the Legionaries in 1991, the same year his younger brother entered the New York Archdiocese's seminary system. Father John was ordained in 1996 and has served in the same Bronx parish. Father Vincent underwent a long formation process and was active in the work of his community while pursuing theological studies in Rome and different parts of the United States.

"I think this shows the richness and diversity of the priesthood," Father John said. "When a man places his life in the hands of God and follows his call, a whole new world of possibilities opens up."

He added, "In some ways it's a mystery to me how my brother and I both ended up as priests. It's the mystery of vocation, God's call, which is a gift given not only to an individual but also to a family. The Holy Father says that the family is the cradle of vocations."

Rocking the cradle are parents who provide a faith-filled environment.

"I have a deep faith and tried to share it with my children," said Arnold Pilsner, who for many years was head of religious education at Maria Regina parish in Seaford, Long Island.

"Your home should always be a sacred place, and the Church should be the center of your lives," said Bernadette Higgins, who lives with her husband in St. Joseph's parish in Millbrook.

She is a trained musician and plays the organ at a number of local parishes. "I made sure that my sons became servers and sang in the choir. It exposed them to the idea of service and the beauty of the Church's tradition."

Her husband knows that his sons will not have children to pass on the Higgins name but has no regrets.

"As priests, they will have many spiritual children, and I will be in that sense a spiritual grandfather," he said.

His daughter, Regina Syversen, is married and has two young daughters. She knows the unique benefits of having priests in the family.

"It's great to have them over to the house and celebrate Mass for us," she said.

The youngest Pilsner child, Mary, had a central role in the vocations of her brothers. She was born with a cancer that was successfully treated but came down with bone cancer as a teenager. She died two years ago at age 25, after earning a nursing degree with honors. The family says that her suffering through the years was an example of selfless love and a source of grace for her brothers' vocations.

"I sincerely believe that the primary message my family has to offer is that we can never overestimate the supernatural value of suffering united to that of Jesus," Mrs. Pilsner said.

Each priest is conscious of being a role model to others, especially coming from a "priestly family."

"I am grateful for my life and the vocation God has given me," said Father Peter Pilsner.