More information about National Vocation Awareness Week

By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA – Eric Banecker of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in South Philadelphia received an early Christmas present this past December. The 21-year-old, presently a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, was informed that he has been accepted to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood beginning the fall 2011-12 term.

“It was one of those Christmas presents,” he said, such as in childhood when “you snuck into your parents’ bedroom and you know it’s coming.”

Banecker, who will graduate from Penn in May with a bachelor’s degree in English and classical studies, said he first heard the call to the priesthood when he was serving as a sacristan at Epiphany of Our Lord Church as an eighth-grader. {{more}}

“The first time I really seriously thought that this is something that might be for me was the end of my senior year of high school” at Roman Catholic in Center City Philadelphia. “There was no lighting bolt, no voice from heaven,” Banecker said. Rather, “it was a slow development.”

Priests from his parish and high school played pivotal roles in his discernment, he said. Although they encouraged him to consider the call, they did not pressure him. Instead, their dispositions demonstrated their love of the vocation.

By the time he was seriously considering the priesthood, Banecker had already been accepted to Penn, a recipient of the Mayor’s Scholarship.

“For me, it didn’t feel like the right moment” to apply to St. Charles Seminary, he said.

He decided to pursue his studies at Penn as planned and, at the same time, test his call to the priesthood.

“I’m so happy I did,” he said. For some men, going straight to the seminary from high school is a sound decision, Banecker said. “For me, it wouldn’t have been. I know that looking back.”

He said he has learned countless life lessons from his years at Penn. “Here, whether you’re a committed Catholic at Penn, an atheist or an agnostic Jew, you’re really never far from God. Everyone is really interested in God – even if they don’t want to admit it.”

In addition, “having the experience of being able to meet so many absolutely brilliant people from all over the world really opened my eyes, and makes going to the seminary that much more fulfilling in that I have in my back pocket all these great experiences and wonderful friends,” Banecker said.

After his junior year at Penn, as the summer of 2010 was winding down, Banecker applied to the seminary. “It’s a lot like applying to college. They want to see that you can express well your desire to be there, show some academic ability, personal discipline and room for spiritual growth and development.

“What I found as I went through the process was that I came to understand my vocation more and more,” he said. “Some people might look at the process as very tedious, but really it made me reflect and think. I guess that’s part of the goal.”

Banecker’s first visit to the seminary was as a junior at Roman Catholic High. It was a vocation discernment day for young men from across the Archdiocese.

“At the end of the day, they gave out a paper for us to indicate how interested we were in St. Charles Seminary. I circled zero on a scale of zero to five.

“At the time, I think that’s really how I felt. I said ‘I just don’t see myself here.'”

So what happened in between?

“God works,” he said. “That can happen in a minute, in an hour, in a day. But I’m very stubborn. It took a year, then actually it took four years after that before I worked up the courage to apply.”

Banecker served as a sacristan at Epiphany Parish in junior high and high school. He said that job afforded what he dubs his “Wizard of Oz opportunity:” a look behind the curtain, or altar, of the church. He was satisfied by what he saw. “The priests were real men; they were good men. That sparked my interest a little bit,” he said.

Banecker says the encouragement and examples of his two pastors at Epiphany, Father Dominic M. Chiaravalle and his successor, Father John J. Pidgeon, were instrumental in his answering the call to the priesthood.

A student leader, ardent Philadelphia sports fan and music and book lover, the eldest of three children of Eric and Joanne Banecker is a just regular guy. After almost four years at Penn, he feels he’s equipped to experience the markedly different atmosphere he anticipates he will encounter on the campus of St. Charles Seminary.

“The adjustment does come down to discipline,” he said. “Friday nights might be a little bit different at the seminary than they are at Penn.”

But, he said, he plans to work just as hard as he has at Penn, only this time, where his professors and formation advisors at the seminary point him.

“I’m ready for that,” he said.

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at 215-587-2468 or