Six months before Michael M. Romano was to be ordained to the priesthood, his father died. Bishop Joseph A. Galante asked then-Rev. Mr. Romano if he would rather be ordained at Saint Teresa Parish in Runnemede instead of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden as planned. It would be a way to make the family church a center of joy and celebration following the sadness of the recent funeral.
The priest-to-be was thrilled, both because his family would be happy and because he had felt so much support for his vocation from the Runnemede parishioners.
So Father Romano’s life as a priest officially began with an understanding that vocations can be nurtured by emotional and spiritual support, especially in times of hardship. That belief has been a hallmark of the still-young priest’s active ministry. As director of vocations for the Diocese of Camden since 2011, he has been a devoted mentor to men discerning a vocation to the priesthood during a stressful and challenging time for the church.
For the past eight years he has had an office in the chancery, but he has spent much of his 12-hour days on the road, traveling the diocese with Bishop Dennis Sullivan as his priest-secretary and working with young men who are trying to understand if the ordained priesthood is their future.
On July 17, he leaves Camden City to continue his vocation work in the Eternal City.
The Pontifical North American College in Rome states that its mission is “forming priests for Jesus Christ in the heart of his church.” Father Romano’s job title will be director of admissions, but his job will be similar to what he has been doing as vocation director in South Jersey: offering young men in formation the guidance, understanding, encouragement and constructive criticism they need. Unlike his diocesan ministry, where he has worked with one or two dozen area men, in Rome he will share in the formation of 25-30 of the school’s seminarians from throughout the United States, Canada and Australia. At the age of 37, he will be among the institution’s youngest faculty members.
Father Romano himself completed his theological studies while at North American College after earning a bachelor’s degree at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania. In fact, North American College, often referred to in church circles as the NAC, will be the second school he has returned to as a priest. Bishop Galante sent him to Paul VI in Haddonfield as its chaplain the year after he was ordained, only eight years after he had been a student there.
“Who is so lucky that they could return to two of their alma maters and have the opportunity to give something back?” Father Romano said.
He didn’t initially feel that way. He says the seminarians are probably tired of him telling them that as a young priest the two things he did not want to do were work in vocations or at a high school. When the assignments came, he said, he looked to them with “dread.”
He soon changed his mind, and his happiness is evident whenever he talks about students, young men in discernment and seminarians. In an essay about his vocation work for the Star Herald in 2017, he wrote, “I sometimes feel like the most privileged priest in the diocese.”
That privilege has come with challenges.
One was a physical challenge. When he started iRace4Vocations, a diocesan-wide 5K run and walk to draw attention to vocations, he told the seminarians they had to participate. Then they told him that he shouldn’t ask them to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself.
Father Romano used to run as a student, but he had given it up. Moreover, after accompanying Bishop Sullivan to countless confirmation dinners and other events that included eating, he had gained some weight. He was, he said, simply out of shape.
So he put the running shoes back on. He started slow, but he lost weight and improved his endurance. Last year he ran the New York Marathon.
A more formidable challenge has been fostering vocations to the priesthood while the church has been dealing with the issue of abuse of minors.
In 2003, when Father Romano was in formation, the Boston Globe won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its in-depth coverage of clerical sex abuse. Three months before he was ordained, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed a list of Camden Diocese priests accused of abuse. As he worked with seminarians, the church has been dealing with the fallout of allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and revelations from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report regarding abuses at dioceses in that state. Last month the New Jersey dioceses announced their independent compensation program for abuse victims.
Yet when Father Romano talks about the future of the priesthood, he remains not only hopeful but almost defiantly optimistic.
“Young men entering the seminary want to be a part of the solution and want to be priests formed in the image of the Good Shepherd,” he said in an interview with the Star Herald last year. “They have hearts of love for the Lord with a great desire to serve him and his church, the People of God.”
And people respond, he said. He holds up the annual prayer card the diocese produces with a picture of Bishop Sullivan and the diocese’s seminarians on one side, and the bishop’s prayer for seminarians on the other. The priest is always surprised, he said, at how many people say they have kept that card, some even carrying it in their wallets, and say the prayer.
In answer to a question, he looks at the image of each seminarian pictured in the photo. He knows each of them well. Almost all of them attended Catholic school at some time in their education, he says.
So did Father Romano, who attended Catholic grammar school in Pennsylvania before the family moved to South Jersey. It was there that Sister Miriam Michael, IHM, his third grade teacher, told him one day, “Michael, you will be my next priest.”
Sister Miriam was retired by the time Father Romano was ordained, but she made the trip to Runnemede to see the bishop lay hands upon him.
Father Romano was her 34th former student to be ordained.
She just invited boys to think about the priesthood, he remembered. “She allowed herself to be the Lord’s voice calling men to his service.”