Dressed in cassock and surplice, I stood in the work sacristy of Christ the King Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia on June 26. The air conditioning was either broken or was so tepid that the room was approaching eighty-five degrees. The humidity was high, the Cathedral was full, and the sacristy was packed with seminarians and Masters of Ceremonies. Six men, one after another, knelt in front of the bishop, who placed his hands on them. Then they knelt as some 100 priests from around the diocese solemnly processed by, placing their hands on their heads and sharing with these young men the great gift they had received. The bishop then recited the consecratory prayer and these six men stood, now conformed permanently to Christ the High Priest.
From where I was standing, I could really only see two of the men. When the final one stood -a priest forever,- I was immediately moved with an awesome thought: I’m next.
I looked at the men, all of whom I knew well, and realized that every single man who was in the seminarian program in Atlanta when I joined six years ago has now either left to pursue a vocation to the married life or has been ordained a priest of Jesus Christ. I’m the last one—the last man standing. This makes me the senior “non-ordained” man in the program, and it fills me with a sense of immanence that is palpable and quite exciting.
My summer has shaped up as follows: I will spend all of June and July in a pastoral assignment at the Cathedral. I will return to Rome in September. On October 7, I will be ordained a transitional deacon in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome along with about 40 of my classmates from around the United States and Australia. Then, God-willing, I will return to Atlanta after the school year to be ordained a priest in June.
Forgive a little bit of nostalgia, but after six years, I can’t help it.
I graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in finance in 1999 and began working in that field. Frankly, the idea of priesthood had never really crossed my mind in any serious way. I was not a practicing Catholic during college, having fallen away from the faith with my Mother when she was divorced shortly after my first communion. My father died when I was a senior in high school, so I was a little drifty in college. I found myself making horrible grades instead of the excellent ones I had made my entire life. I discovered the allure of drinking and partying way too much. Eventually, I failed out of Georgia Tech. I became an argumentative atheist. I was faithless. My father was dead. My mother was disabled and sick and was growing quite bitter about the whole thing. I was rebelling. I was arrogant and stupid (not the greatest combination). But as it turned out, I was not bulletproof.
I was arrested one evening for criminal trespass and underage drinking, among other things, just before I failed out of Tech. I spent a terrifying night in the Atlanta jail (which is a serious experience). The next day, my uncle was in the courtroom when I appeared before the judge. I vaguely remember thinking I might be better off staying in jail than dealing with him.
We had a “come to Jesus” meeting (without Jesus). My uncle was not directly interested in my faith at the moment. He was more interested in seeing that I not flush my life down the toilet, which was exactly what I was unknowingly doing. I owe him a lot—that (terrifying) experience changed my life. It was the first moment of my conversion.
I was readmitted to Georgia Tech. I left my fraternity (the problem was me, not the fraternity), and I moved in with my brother. I began doubling up on classes and excelling in them. And slowly I began to return to the faith. It began in “chat rooms” where I would debate with religious folks and would occasionally be bested. I learned that I had to know my enemy, so I began reading religious books. Lots of them. Eventually they took their toll on me. In fact, after about two years, I had reached a point in my reading where I knew that the Catholic Church had the whole thing right -except that God didn’t exist. But, if he did happen to exist, I knew the Catholics were right about the rest.
I was in a bookstore one summer afternoon and ran across a five-volume set of books that never should have been there. So, I figured I would give them a chance. It was thus that I began reading the first volume of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles. As I read, I could feel my legs giving out. I ended up sitting on the floor of the store tearing through the first volume. About fifty pages in, I sat back, exhaled like a man who has just been shot and is about to die, tossed the book away from me and began to sob. St. Thomas Aquinas had just proven to me that God exists.
And if God exists, the Catholics have it right.
Bingo. I return to Mass. Then I begin attending Mass daily. Then I begin hearing that voice: maybe you should be a priest. Why not ask? What can it hurt? After all, you’re too old and you’ve done too many bad things and they are going to turn you down anyway, so give it a shot.
Except they didn’t turn me down.
So here I am, a couple of months away from ordination. They still haven’t turned me down, and every year of my life gets better.
I don’t know how many young men read this column, but I know a whole lot of parents read it. Who better to have in your family than a priest? When I was a kid, I heard about doctors and lawyers and firemen and marine biologists, but priesthood was never mentioned on the same level. In fact, it was never mentioned. Your sons will only be generous with God if you teach them to be. Encourage your sons to think about priesthood, and your daughters to think of consecrated life—even the ones who seem like they could never want to do it! Your boys might surprise you. I sure surprised my family. From my seminary, recently ordained priests include doctors, lawyers, an NFL quarterback, and professional soccer players—God calls whoever he wills, and it does not always conform to our expectations!
I am so grateful for the blessings of the past six years. Please pray for me as I approach ordination. And pray for your own children, that they will seriously consider the priesthood or consecrated life.