Jeff and Mary Gardner with their son, Tom Gardner

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Discernment and Seminary from a Parent Point-of-View: Jeff and Mary Gardner

Parents of Tom Gardner, while First-year Pre-theology, Pontifical College Josephinum

diocese of columbus ohio seminarian tom gardner baby photo discernment priesthood vocations“The Church has always been a big part of our life,” said Mary Gardner. “Jesus is at the center of our marriage, and in the last few years, we have experienced more deepening of our Catholic Christian faith.”

Jeff Gardner said he had an inkling of God’s plan for his son Tom even at his birth. “The day he was born, here was this little red-haired boy, our first son, and there was a little revelation in me that he would be a priest someday,” said Jeff.

But it was a long road to the birth of Tom and his brother and sisters.  “Five years, four operations, and three doctors,” said Mary.  Jeff remembers having Fr. Don Franks pray for them when they were newlyweds and lived in Holy Spirit parish.  They both feel that his blessing strengthened them to endure the years of infertility ahead, and now they love the connection that Fr. Franks has with some of their children.  “Our son Billy jokes that every time Fr. Franks sees him, he hugs him and says, ‘I prayed for your parents before you were born,’” Mary laughed.

diocese of columbus ohio seminarian tom gardner preschool photo discernment priesthood vocationsMary and Jeff both wanted their five children to experience a deep faith journey and to walk with Christ in their lives. “We wanted them to keep in touch with their Catholic roots. We wanted them to know Jesus. But at the same time, we felt called to put our kids in the Bexley public school system. I truly believe that some families are called to have their children in the public schools.  And we’ve been very blessed there too – for instance, all of our children had the same teachers for Kindergarten and First grade, and both teachers are members of our parish,” said Mary. “Also, many of their other teachers were men and women of faith.  We’ve really had the best of both worlds at the Bexley schools.”

Knowing that their children would not receive religious instruction in school, the Gardner family emphasized it at home, incorporating scripture readings and family devotions into their family life–particularly at dinner time when the family could be together.

At age 5 or 6, Tom enjoyed sitting in the front pew during Mass at St. Catharine so he could see everything that was going on.  “Tom liked to ask about what the priest’s job was,” said Jeff.

Jeff also taught 6th grade religious education at St. Catharine of Siena for 13 years, mainly teaching about the Old Testament.  One of his favorite memories is creating “The Abraham Rap” … to the tune of “We will, we will rock you!” This was a family project, with Mary helping write the lyrics and Tom downloading the music onto a CD.  It was a big hit with the students through the years – except with the younger Gardner siblings, who were embarrassed to see Dad “rapping.”

diocese of columbus ohio seminarian tom gardner graduation photo discernment priesthood vocationsIn recent years, Tom and his younger brother and sisters began to go to diocesan youth rallies, youth conferences, and began attending the Jesus Jams in the diocese.  Tom also got involved with a new organization called St. Paul’s Outreach (SPO) after he heard a family friend, Andrew Kebe, speak at a Catholic men’s luncheon. Tom was planning to attend Ohio State and he chose to live in an SPO men’s household with other young men active in their Catholic faith.

“It was about this time that we again had the feeling that Tom might have a call to become a priest,” said Jeff. “It was such an incredible blessing to think that God may be calling Tom to the priesthood.” Tom had thought about it a little bit while he was in high school, but didn’t begin taking his vocation seriously till he started at Ohio State.

Mary admits that when she first realized that Tom might have a call to the priesthood, she was very resistant to the idea.  “I thought that it would be a hard life, and I didn’t want Tom to be lonely,” said Mary. “But as I was praying about it, the Holy Spirit gently reminded me that He would take care of all of Tom’s needs for family and friendship.  After that, the matter was settled in my spirit and I never worried again.”

During the fall of his freshman year at OSU, the call to the priesthood intensified. The family sat down to talk about it with Fr. Jeff Coning, Vocations Director, and Tom even considered transferring to the Pontifical College Josephinum at the end of that year.

diocese of columbus ohio seminarian tom gardner college dorm loft at the josephinum discernment priesthood vocationsHowever, as he kept praying about what to do, Tom eventually decided to stay at Ohio State and finish his degree.  He and his parents agreed that God was using Tom in a positive way in St. Paul‘s Outreach and that through this dynamic, faith-filled organization, Tom could continue discerning. The men in household strengthened one another in devotion to daily prayer and Sacraments, as well as an ongoing commitment to Catholic evangelism.  Tom graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in Education.

When asked about what Tom’s seminary experience has been like during his first year, Mary and Jeff describe it as very positive. “Every time we see him, he is glowing from the inside out,” said Mary. “He likes the challenge of the Philosophy classes he is taking, and we can already see his faith and prayer life deepening through his experience there so far.  And it’s really a great group of guys there – you can tell they are having fun, too.”

diocese of columbus ohio seminarian tom gardner sitting in a tree discernment priesthood vocationsJeff and Mary believe that the rigorous study habits he developed in high school and college have helped Tom to balance the prayer and study of seminary. “Tom took honors and AP classes in high school and he was active with the school newspaper and in theatre. In college he was busy with SPO, so he’s learned to juggle lots of responsibilities,” said Mary. “He graduated from OSU Summa Cum Laude.”

Jeff and Mary laugh about how Tom has already ‘remodeled’ his room at seminary by building a loft.  And they are very pleased at the way that St. Catharine parishioners have “adopted” Tom.  “Every time we go to church, it seems like somebody will ask about him and tell us they’re praying for him,” Mary said.

The Gardner family is active at St. Catharine, where Mary is a cantor and Jeff is a Liturgical Coordinator.  All of their children spent years as altar servers, and now their youngest daughter Laura serves as a Eucharistic Minister.

Jeff has also been active with the St. Catharine chapter of the Knights of Columbus since 2004, and recently has gotten his sons Billy and Tom involved with it too.  He is now the Grand Knight, and Tom (age 23) and their younger son Billy (age 21) are First Degree Knights.  Jeff loves how the Knights support vocations and he describes it as a wonderful experience of brotherhood with men. “We pray and support the Church. We do whatever the pastor needs us to do,” said Jeff.

Jeff and Mary believe that the best way for parents to support their son or daughter who might have a religious calling is to start praying about it. “That way, if your son tells you he is called to the priesthood it is not such a surprise or shock, and your heart can be filled with joy knowing that God is calling him,” said Mary.

Jeff and Mary said they also gain strength through an active Sacramental life. “As parents we have to encourage and direct our children to get involved in their faith. We attend Mass together and also go to spiritual events together as a family,” said Jeff.

Mary encourages parents to look at the bigger picture “of how the Holy Spirit is flowing through the Church in a new way these days.” She is filled with hope. “We are excited for Tom and for his generation. God is reenergizing the Church with a fresh wave of active, faith-filled young people.  They are the hope of the Church, and really the hope of the world.”