The joy of priesthood

Kentucky retreat offers seminarians a chance to share discernment experiences

Story by Jim Wogan
Photography by Stephanie Richer

Back when he was first considering holy orders, it’s doubtful Mark Schuster knew that the path to the holy priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville would include a side trip to a remote state park in rural Kentucky in the middle of summer.

But that’s where Mr. Schuster traveled to in August to join about 90 other men who are discerning their role as future priests in the Catholic Church.

“The Joy of the Priesthood” provincial gathering at Barren River Lakes State Park allowed seminarians from five dioceses and one archdiocese in Tennessee and Kentucky to come together in an informal setting and build on the understanding of their vocation.

The retreat offered insight into the lives, motivations, and thoughts of those who might become leaders of the Catholic Church here, whether it’s at the parish level or beyond. It also revealed what makes the Diocese of Knoxville similar and, in some cases, unique in the makeup of its current group of seminarians.

The retreat was led by six bishops, including Bishop Richard F. Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of the Archdiocese of Louisville, and Bishop J. Mark Spalding of the Diocese of Nashville.

Eleven seminarians from the Diocese of Knoxville were present, including Mr. Schuster, who is now a transitional deacon and in his final months of study at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. He is expected to be ordained a priest in the Diocese of Knoxville in 2019.

Deacon Schuster’s steps into religious life began after he completed college at the University of Tennessee and was an intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Years before, a phone call created a spark that eventually changed his life.

“The first time I ever thought about the priesthood was when a seminarian called me and said, ‘Hey, would you like to come and visit this seminary?’ Before that, I didn’t remember thinking about being a priest, and I didn’t want to think about it,” Deacon Schuster said.

He remembers asking himself why he felt “terrified” by the thought of being a priest.

“It took many more years. It eventually came to another point of, it’s still there, that desire to serve the Church, that desire to serve the Lord, and that inkling, that love for priests, but love for something different, something sacred, that calling that He placed there in my heart and then through a lot of prayer and in a moment I just said, ‘Yes’, and I was at peace.”

Deacon Schuster was 35 when he entered seminary. He prays that he will be called to holy orders by Bishop Stika and be ordained a priest next spring. He will be 41.

“I remember when I first showed up at St. Meinrad Seminary, just being there and not knowing exactly what to do. Then we all gathered in the chapel and began to pray, and I realized, or maybe I confirmed, that this is where I should be,” he said.

“Thinking back on all that I have learned, or maybe even all that I have forgotten, that I need to continually go back and reread. But it is all there and it’s a great memory. I am amazed at how far I have been taken and how far I followed. It’s been a remarkable journey,” he added.

While Deacon Schuster is months away from his prayed for ordination, other Knoxville seminarians continue their studies at various institutions around the country.

Alex Hernandez and Zach Griffith are studying theology at Kenrick School of Theology in St. Louis, Mo. Matthew Donahue studies theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Joey Austin and Drew Crabtree are in pre-theology at St. Meinrad. Michael Willey and Danny Herman are in pre-theology at Kenrick and at Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving, Texas, respectively. Neil Blatchford is a collegian at Bishop Simon Bruté College in Indianapolis, while Bo Beaty and Andrew Hendershott are collegians at Holy Trinity. Wojciech Sobczuk, a seminarian from Poland, and University of Tennessee graduate Robbie Bauman, a seminarian applicant, are doing pastoral assignments in Knoxville.

Mr. Hernandez, 25, and Mr. Griffith, 26, are on course to be ordained transitional deacons next year. It is one of the final sacramental steps to priestly ordination.

If one were to paint a portrait of the formation of priests in the Catholic Church, it would take the skill and technique of an impressionist like Monet or Cézanne. The canonical blueprint for priestly formation may be clear, but the human element of discernment blurs the edges. The Center for Applied Research for the Apostolate (CARA), an organization that studies trends in the Catholic Church, says that since 1999, the average age of those being ordained a priest has fluctuated only slightly each year, from an average of 36 in 1999 to the current average age of 35.

As a group, the Diocese of Knoxville’s seminarians may skew slightly younger than other dioceses — a benefit that will help as older priests here prepare for retirement.

Not surprising perhaps, one characteristic that makes the Diocese of Knoxville unique is the number of converts to the Catholic faith, and in some cases eventually to the priesthood. CARA’s research shows that in 2018 about 90 percent of those ordained a priest in the United States were baptized Catholic at birth. In East Tennessee, a mission diocese located in the heart of the Protestant Bible Belt, the percentage of converts to join the seminary is higher than the national average — 25 percent. Three of the Diocese of Knoxville’s current seminarians are converts.

Drew Crabtree is one of them. He grew up in Madisonville and worked as a musician and in business management before deciding to study for the priesthood. He is still six years away from his possible ordination.

“I am older than some of these guys. You do see quite a difference between some of the older guys and some of the younger guys, especially in regard to how they see the world, how they see the Church, and it’s really exciting that there is a continuation of vibrancy and energy in the Church that is coming into Knoxville,” Mr. Crabtree said.

“I converted to Catholicism in 2015, so that’s only a short three years ago, and from then it has been a really quick ride into the seminary where I am now,” Mr. Crabtree noted. “I started seminary in January, so just a semester ago. At the same time, I look back and I see a lot of things in my life that have pointed me in this direction without any of my own intervention.”

Bishop Stika has ordained 17 priests to the Diocese of Knoxville since 2009, and he sees leadership qualities in the current group of seminarians.

“In this day and age, people will often say there are no vocations, that the Church is shrinking, and then it turns into an ‘Oh, woe is me’ moment for them. Yes, there are a lot of challenges, and things that are going on in the Church. We know that, but there are also some fine individuals who have heard the call and have professed a desire to respond to Jesus when He says, ‘Come and follow me,’” Bishop Stika said.

Father Joe Reed, director of vocations for the Diocese of Knoxville, says the leadership skills displayed by the current group of seminarians stands as a positive sign for the parishes they might serve someday.

“I think we are very blessed with priests who probably will be great pastors because many of them have a charism for leadership, they have the gifts that are there, they have humility, they tend to be collegial and collaborative in the way that they deal with others, they have a good sense of humor, and they are willing to learn. So some of them, all of them I think, really have that as a charism; many of them also have previous life experience. Some have been in management positions or they have been leaders in different ways,” Father Reed said.

While the discernment process is always ongoing and may lead some seminarians to choose another calling in life, many of the Diocese of Knoxville men express a profound commitment to their chosen vocation.

Mr. Herman, 25, whose home parish is St. Anthony of Padua in Mountain City, recently started pre-theology studies at Holy Trinity Seminary. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University and received an officer’s commission in the U.S. Navy before deciding to study for the priesthood.

“It comes through humility. There are moments in your life, no matter who you are, you are going to be vulnerable in terms of realizing that the world is not all about you,” Mr. Herman said.

“After I left Wake Forest University and gained a commission as a United States Navy officer to serve my country for a few years, in that moment it was a hard time because I was lonely, and although I was proud to serve my country, I just knew something wasn’t right. By going to prayer, I was able to understand that God was continuing to call me to a life of priesthood,” Mr. Herman added.

Mr. Sobczuk, 23, is a theology student from Poland who arrived in the Diocese of Knoxville at the recommendation of Archbishop Stanisław Dziwisz, who visited the diocese for the dedication of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in March. Mr. Sobczuk speaks several languages.

The first time I heard about Knoxville was around March 10 of this year,” Mr. Sobczuk said with a distinct Polish accent. “It was nice when Bishop Stika called me and he said, ‘I am from Knoxville.’ I said, ‘From where?’ It was funny because I had never heard of Knoxville, but I think this is a gift from God to be here. I needed to accept His invitation.”

Mr. Blatchford and Mr. Hendershott have family connections to the priesthood. They both have brothers who already are serving as priests in the Diocese of Knoxville. Mr. Blatchford, 27, attended Middle Tennessee State University and worked outside the Church before deciding to enter seminary.

“I was not a very mature person when I was younger, and I know God called me late for that reason. Going to seminary is very humbling for me at this age, but, at the same time, I know it’s where I need to be,” Mr. Blatchford said. “I know that this is His plan, but it would not be cool if I was ordained a priest tomorrow because I wouldn’t know what I am doing at all. I’d be so nervous. But yes, it’s a joy.” The enthusiasm for their vocational calling was evident in the many prayer services, Masses, Q&A sessions, and social events held for the seminarians in Kentucky.

“We are just normal people, but our goal is really to strive for the Lord’s will in our lives,” Mr. Crabtree said. “We have all taken that step, that scary and terrifying step out of our normal lives, out of our normal processes, and normal thought paradigms, into just doing His will and not our own.”

Father Reed credits the seminaries with helping form priests in a way that differs from when he was there.

“I find them now to be much more joyful. They’re also youthful, and not necessarily by age, and there is not an artificial grumpiness,” said Father Reed, who also serves as pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut. “It’s a joyful, hopeful, faithful, zealous, missionary, prayerful, pious place where guys are really growing in brotherhood, and there is a real genuine openness toward what God is calling that person to do.”

Mr. Beaty, 31, left a management career in the restaurant business to begin his studies for the priesthood at Holy Trinity.

“Seminary is kind of like a spiritual oasis. There is definitely a time for reflection and solitude, but, at the same time, it is very much like college in the sense of we are brotherhood, and so building fraternity means eating together, going to places together, playing sports together. For me, I think it was one of the biggest and best things I like about seminary,” he said. “Getting to meet people from all over, even though our stories are different, there is one common thread that runs through us: We are all seeking Christ and we’re all wanting to do His will.”

According to Bishop Stika and Archbishop Kurtz, the provincial gathering was the inspiration of the late Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville, who recognized the benefit of bringing seminarians together at the first retreat in Kentucky four years ago.

“It’s a struggle today in a secular society and dealing with all the issues we deal with as a Church to be able to be hopeful, truthful, and inspired, and I really believe that helping one another is a good shot in the arm before they go off to seminary and begin another year of formation,” said Archbishop Kurtz, a former bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, who led evening prayer on the opening night of the retreat.

“These are solid guys. These are wholesome young men, many of whom come from rather distinguished careers; we have a few people who have been teaching on a college level and have felt that nudge from the Lord to move toward the priesthood,” Archbishop Kurtz added.

On the second night of the retreat, Bishop Stika addressed the “reality” of the priesthood during his evening prayer homily.

“I hate to tell you this guys; this will be like the realization of not having recess in high school. Once you’re a priest, your formation is only beginning in some ways. Book learning has been done in the seminary, but reality starts, probably minutes after you begin blessing people at your Mass of thanksgiving,” Bishop Stika said.

Along with prayer, study, and service, seminary is supposed to be about discernment and determining whether that “nudge” you feel is actually calling you to the priesthood — or perhaps not.

Steven Hamby, 44, studied philosophy at Holy Trinity Seminary for four years and was one of Knoxville’s seminarians. He recently decided that his vocation won’t be as a priest.

“Steven is just one of the examples of how seminary works. He’s a wonderful guy who is going to be a great contributor to the Church, and he discerned that priesthood is probably not his call, or at least not at this time. And so he followed it and it worked. It took him in the right direction,” Father Reed said.

Mr. Hamby was recently appointed by Bishop Stika as director of the diocese’s Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton, Tenn.

“There is a joy that goes with being in the seminary, knowing that you are doing the will of God and you are, at that time, even if you are ultimately not called to the priesthood, you are where God wants you to be at that moment, and there is always a joy in that,” Mr. Hamby said.

“You are always discerning, all the way up until ordination. I am an older man and I have discovered a lot about myself through this whole process that is really quite wonderful. If you come to seminary and you think you’ve got it figured out, they will set you on the right path, don’t worry about that,” he added.

For Knoxville’s seminarians, the study and discernment continue. Bishop Stika expects to add at least one more potential seminarian to the group early next year, right around the time, God willing, he will ordain Deacon Schuster as a priest in the Diocese of Knoxville, the 53rd priestly ordination since the diocese was established in 1988.

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