‘What calls someone to the priesthood?’

Vocations Night at the basilica highlights stories of faith

By Claire Collins

A large crowd gathered at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga on Jan. 26 to be encouraged by the vocation stories of members of the Diocese of Knoxville.

Sister Mary Simone Haakansson of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., organized an evening filled with prayer, food, fellowship, and encouragement. Father Arthur Torres, director of vocations for the diocese, also was in attendance.

Two married couples and three people in religious vocations shared their stories of faith that led them to discern the particular vocation they are now in.

Father David Carter, rector of the basilica, emceed the evening. He began the night sharing his own vocation story following Vespers.

Father Carter talked about the three stages of a call by God: the initial fervor at the beginning when someone discerning is young, the call to persevere in a chosen vocation throughout the middle-age years, and the call to trust that during senior years when someone looks back, even mistakes are part of God’s eternal plan of salvation, and so trust in His providence.

Father David Carter, rector of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, shares his story of being called to the priesthood during a vocations event on Jan. 26 in the basilica’s Varallo Parish Hall. (Photo courtesy Beth Parsons)

“You ask, what calls someone to the priesthood?” Father Carter said. “I would say, what makes a young man say yes to a young woman? It’s attraction, love, a sense of purpose. I was drawn to it. And when you feel God speaking these things, even if you have doubts and worries, you have to make an act of faith and trust that He will not lead you astray.”

Sister Scholastica Niemann, who is a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia Congregation and currently teaches at Knoxville Catholic High School, next shared about the “plan of love” that God had for her life and how He brought her to consider joining the convent.

“I was so surprised to see that the Lord had a plan, and it was a plan of love for me. And it included all the circumstances of my life, all the graces and inspirations that I was given, even the mistakes that I made and the use of my own free will. Our God is so good.”

She said that unlike St. Paul’s grand story of conversion, “my own story was much more interior, much more a working on my heart over years of time, which enabled me to want to respond with everything that I had, all the love of my heart, for the Lord.”

She recalled always having an interior sense of God’s presence, but two defining moments changed her life’s direction, almost as if she was, “being picked up and turned around.” These moments were losing her father and attending World Youth Day in Denver in 1993.

After losing her father, she recounted that, “In that suffering … I was very much aware that the Lord was working not only in my life, but in my family’s life. I remember thinking ‘I am made for eternity.’” It made her start to ask what she could do differently if that was true.

Then, she encountered St. John Paul II at Denver’s World Youth Day, and his famous utterance of “Be Not Afraid” inspired her to truly change her trajectory. She started to encounter the person of Jesus, not just to know more about Him, and she felt her only response was to give her whole self to Him.

After visiting and discerning with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, she professed final vows in 2015.

“It is the greatest gift of my life to belong fully to the Lord,” she said.

Jack and Mary Cooper, who are basilica parishioners, next shared about their recently celebrated 64 years of marriage. After meeting at a Fireman’s Ball in December 1959, they found themselves civilly married two months after first meeting.

“Two kids doing everything the wrong way,” they recalled, “and life turning out as positive as it has for us. And we couldn’t be happier.”

Mr. Cooper, who wasn’t Catholic when they were married, started secretly taking faith classes while their oldest child was in preparation for first Communion. He was able to receive his first Holy Communion with his oldest son. They also experienced a big change in their marriage after attending a Marriage Encounter weekend 20 years into their life together.

The Coopers emphasized that one of the most influential decisions they made as a family was consistent prayer at night together, even if they had guests over. “We got down on our knees, all the kids, Jack and I. … We never missed a night.”

Brother Kevin Dierge, who is discerning with the Canons Regular of St. John Cancius, shared about his story of running from God and God’s call to finding peace and rest in his priestly discernment.

After falling away from the faith in college, Brother Kevin found himself feeling a longing and emptiness in his secular work. He found himself back at Mass and he prayed a bold and genuine prayer from his heart: “Lord, I don’t know if you exist, and if you do exist, I don’t know if it’s in the means that the Catholic Church taught me as a kid, but I know if you do exist that you would take delight in my service of the poor, so I pray for an opportunity to do that.”

At the next Mass he attended at the basilica, a visiting priest from Haiti invited the congregation to come to Haiti, and Father Carter launched a committee to organize trips to serve the poor there. This answer to prayer catapulted Brother Kevin’s full return to the faith and his eventual priestly discernment.

He stopped studying for his actuary exams and started studying theology instead. He felt a tug to the priesthood, but turned to Catholic Match and was engaged to a “wonderful” Catholic woman.

Eventually, though, he realized God was not calling him to marriage, and he broke off his engagement. He took some time to continue growing before finally deciding to apply to the Canons Regular. This included finding deep joy in sharing the beauty of John 6 and the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist with some friends in a Protestant Bible study.

He entered the order in June 2021, and he just professed his first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in August. In discerning a priestly vocation, Brother Kevin said, “If you don’t feel worthy, you’re not, but if you’re called He gives you the grace. You don’t have to fear. The Lord knows you better than you know yourself. When I finally surrendered and stopped trying to do the Lord’s will on my own terms, I’ve known a peace and a joy that I was chasing for many years in all the wrong places. Whatever your vocation is, the complete and total surrender to the Lord’s will is the only true path to happiness.”

The last couple to share their story, Lance and Ashley Truett, told of suffering after losing their oldest daughter, Lorelei, to leukemia in 2021. Their story showed how vocations, and life, will always be sources of great grief and great mercy from God.

The Truetts’ pediatrician sent Ashley and Lorelei to the hospital for further testing after Lorelei experienced a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. They received a diagnosis of mixed phenotype acute leukemia and began a series of treatments, none of which were as effective as the doctors had hoped.

Their family went from enjoying normal, everyday life to living part time in the hospital and barely being able to see one another. The protocols for COVID-19 only made this more complicated.

A last-effort trip for treatment in Houston unfortunately resulted in severe complications, and just before noon 11 days later, at 14½ years old, Lorelei passed away embraced by the love of her parents. Her two brothers were left without one of their best friends, and Mr. and Mrs. Truett were forced to face life without their firstborn and only daughter.

The pain they experienced that continues today as they still navigate being forever changed by losing Lorelei also has led them on a spiritual journey of grief and healing.

“At some point, we had to accept that there were answers we would never have this side of heaven,” Mr. Truett said. “We had to come to terms with the reality that God had allowed our child to suffer. That was a really hard thing to accept. … We looked at the smoldering ruins of our lives and decided that we had two choices. We could become a statistic and let this tragedy cause even more damage to what was left of our family. Or we could try to rebuild.”

“Without both of us,” he continued, “Lorelei would not have been born. Our two boys, Max and Clark, would not be here. Like in the movie ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ taking either one of us out of the equation changes everything. If we’d chosen a different path, we may have been able to avoid the utter heartbreak that losing Lorelei has caused. But we also would never have met her. We wouldn’t be who we are today without experiencing the unfailing love she had for us. And we willingly endure this lifetime of pain because she was worth it.”

At the end of 2022, the family joyfully welcomed baby boy Hollis into their family, which has also been a part of their healing journey.

“When we signed up for marriage, we made vows. But we weren’t expecting this. Nothing that happened to Lorelei was our choosing or in our control. We still have a long way to go in our healing, our family, and our faith. Every day a conscious effort must be made to honor the commitment that we made,” Mr. Truett said.

It is hoped that more faith-sharing nights happen throughout the diocese in the future.

Father Torres shared his hopes, saying, “Seeing that night at the basilica, so many families and young adults was indeed a blessing from God. Having done it in the context of adoration and then as a talk and fellowship made it seem very spiritual, special, and welcoming to the people that attended this event. The fact that it was divided by the different vocations we have in the Church—priesthood, religious life, and marriage—helped people understand that God in His wisdom has different ministries in which every Christian can participate for the sake of His kingdom. I hope and pray this can be done in other deaneries of the diocese.”

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