Last month more than 1,300 students donned caps and gowns to graduate from the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Thousands more graduated from smaller campuses around the state.
On June 23, another young Alaskan will don a different sort of gown — priestly vestments — in making a lifelong vow to serve as a priest for Christ and his church.
The man who gives up a wife, family and career to become a Catholic priest has always been in the minority, and this is certainly the case today.
While Deacon Robert Whitney’s decision to become a priest may be exceptional among the general population, it is not a vocation to be dismissed without genuine discernment.
To think that God merely populates seminaries by sheer force of his will, or only calls men in private visions and inner stirrings is a misconception which does not reflect the experiences of the vast majority of seminarians and priests.
For decades Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) has tracked the experiences of priests. Their research shows that most men discerned their calling with help from the wider Catholic community. This comes in many forms: parish priests asking young men if they ever thought of priesthood, families talking about the priesthood as a natural and possible calling, parishioners encouraging boys and young men to think about this option.
Many seminarians and priests cite serving at the altar with their parish priests, attending Catholic schools and growing up in families that pray together and attend weekly Mass as key to finding their vocation.
None of this is to suggest that God does not directly call men to the priesthood, but he often does so through the larger body of believers. Christ calls his church a body for good reason. We are made to live in communion with one another, united with Christ.
When it comes to the priesthood we each have a role to play. Very few will ever be called to actually make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the form of the Catholic priesthood. But many can be the friend, parent or relative who encourages our young men to keep this option open as they find their place in the world.
One concrete step we can take this month is to turn out in mass for the June 23 ordination of Deacon Robert Whitney. The 31-year-old is a homegrown Alaskan with a deep love for Christ and his church. Let us express — with voices raised and thunderous applause — our gratitude for Whitney’s bold step to follow where his Master leads.
The ordination takes place at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral on Friday, June 23, at 12 p.m.