You could say Deacon Anthony Craig had everything going for a priestly vocation.
“My parents showed me the way of charity, the way of loving God and neighbor above myself,” he said. He said he watched his father, Deacon David Craig, minister to people in hospitals and through food shelves and in parishes. He watched his mother sacrifice for her family, giving up things like new shoes for a period of years to enable the children to get them. He had faithful and joyful priests who led by example and also sometimes with prodding questions about whether he had considered the priesthood.
He had good Catholic friends, went to vocations dinners and had gone on a seminary visit to St. John Vianney, where he was impressed. “I saw the lives of these normal guys in the seminary and they were following Christ as best they could,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of that life, which brought these men such vitality and strength. I was attracted to live that life.”
Yet Deacon Anthony, who was ordained to the priesthood July 15 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary, said he entered high school and “rarely gave the priesthood half a thought.” And at the end of high school, the captain of his high school football team, recruited by several universities, he decided on joining the Division II football team at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn.
So he went and talked to his dad.
“He agreeably responded, ‘If that’s what you want to do with your college years, that’s fine,’” he said. “That phrase, ‘if that’s what you want,’ struck me for some reason. I reconsidered my decision and discovered that I did not want to play football anymore.”
More than that, at the end of three days of praying and reconsidering things, his surprising first thought was of that weekend at St. John Vianney, something he knows now was the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.
“It was a delightful surprise in the end,” he said. “I gave the Lord, basically, a shot.”
He went to the diocesan vocations director, filled out the application forms and soon was accepted as a diocesan seminarian.
That one-year shot for God turned into a journey that has led him to study at St. John Vianney Seminary at the University of St. Thomas, to the Pontifical North American College in Rome and soon will be serving as a priest in a Minnesota parish.
His first assignment will be at Blessed Sacrament in Hibbing as parochial vicar.
St. John Vianney Seminary was of particular importance, he said. “That seminary is the place truly where I believe the Lord saved my life by changing it in a radical way,” he said.
The particular influence there came from the rector, Father Bill Baer, who attracted Deacon Anthony by his joy and energy. “That was a very attractive thing, when I look back,” Deacon Anthony said. “He drew us forward by his own joy.”
He said Father Baer taught seminarians to be leaders and men of the church.
At the Pontifical North American College, Deacon Anthony has studied “just a few football fields away” from Pope Benedict XVI and had a chance to participate in Masses with him and pray the Angelus with him on Sundays. “I was blessed to have greeted him on two different occasions,” he said. “He is so very kind and genuine.”
Deacon Anthony also cites his seminary spiritual directors and diocesan priests, especially his pastor, Father George Zeck, for assisting him.
“I attribute all the good in my life to the grace and presence of our God,” he said.
And for all those many experiences, the ordinary life of a pastor is what Deacon Anthony is longing for. He said serving at parishes in Crosslake, Emily and Duluth as a seminarian only whetted that appetite. He is especially eager to visit the sick and homebound.
“I remember visiting with a man in the hospital several years ago,” he said. “He was dying of cancer in his 80s. After chatting a bit about fishing and other topics, I asked him if he would feel comfortable if we prayed together. I did not know if he was even Catholic, but I was just going to pray an Our Father with him. He said, ‘You know, I haven’t been to church since I was 18 years old. I left and never went back. Why would God want me to speak to him?’
“I told him the Lord has been with him his entire life and was eager to hear him that moment. He made the sign of the cross with his weak arm and we prayed the Our Father together. His eyes welled up as I departed after that.”
He’s “happy as a clam” to come back and begin pastoral work and become a spiritual father to many.
Deacon Anthony said that sometimes young men like him who don’t give the priesthood half a thought may miss the call of God in their lives, and he urged sincere young men to reflect on what God is saying to them. “Do not be afraid of what you hear in your heart, if there is a possible call,” he said.
Instead, he recommended praying about it and talking to a priest.
Printed with permission from The Northern Cross, newspaper for the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota.