Seminarian eager to hear confessions, celebrate Mass

Anchorage native Deacon Robert Whitney, 31, is on the cusp of one of the biggest moments of his life. On Friday, June 23, after six years of seminary formation, he will be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Anchorage. He graduated in May from St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota, earning a dual master’s degree in divinity and religious education.

For Deacon Whitney, this moment is more than the end of his formation.

It’s “a vocation first and foremost, so it’s exciting to finally be able to approach the altar where I’ve been called to serve the people of Anchorage,” he said.

Although it’s difficult for him to imagine what it will be like “on the other side of the altar,” he’s very excited to embark upon his vocation. As part of his final spiritual preparations for ordination, he is doing a 10-day devotional to the Holy Spirit, along with some Marian exercises.

He eagerly anticipates offering Masses once ordained, and already has his first several scheduled. But the ministry he is most looking forward to is being an instrument of God’s mercy in the confessional.

“Of all my classes at the seminary, that’s the one that struck the hardest. It confirmed for me the work of the priest and my call to that particular work, and I know that it’ll be an area of real fulfillment for me,” Deacon Whitney told the Catholic Anchor.

The confession class and practicum have given him both spiritual and very practical preparation for hearing confessions. He and his fellow seminarians practice confessing “fake sins” to one another under the supervision of a priest instructor. They started with venial sins, and as the course went on, they practiced hearing more grievous sins. He’s learned how to counsel penitents by recognizing that the most important thing is to see that God’s mercy works the same whether he is hearing a little kid’s first confession, or that of someone struggling with more serious sins.

“You’re just there to listen and be an instrument of God’s mercy,” Deacon Whitney said. “One of the things in particular that struck me was one of the teacher’s advice to listen carefully to try to hear where the pain is coming from, and this will help us to be good confessors.”

He has learned to zero in on whatever sins seem to be causing the most pain or guilt in order to help lead the penitents towards healing in Christ.

In addition to the excitement with which he looks forward to receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders, he feels a touch of apprehension as he nears ordination. One thing that has him a bit nervous is the change in community and structure of his day.

He explained that he is a person of habit and likes to maintain an ordered rule of life. Until recently he has lived at the seminary alongside his brother seminarians, maintaining a very structured life which revolves around prayer, liturgy, classes and fraternity.

“I guess if I’m apprehensive about anything, it’d be trying to find that rule of life over again in the parish as a priest,” Deacon Whitney said. “It’ll be different. I have a really strong desire for community and fraternity, and we’re in Alaska, so it’s going to look different. I hope that I’ll have a good relationship with my first pastor, and that we’ll be able to pray together and have that support.”

Before entering seminary, Deacon Whitney was a high school teacher at Holy Rosary Academy, as well as a substitute teacher at Lumen Christi and in the Anchorage School District. He hopes that in addition to his priestly ministries, he may return to teaching. This is why he requested to pursue the master’s in religious education. He was the only seminarian to receive this dual degree at Saint Paul Seminary.

“I hope to be a presence in schools, if the archbishop will allow that,” he said “I will be in dialogue with the archbishop about all these things, but I definitely hope to have involvement in the schools and with young adults. I think that we have wonderful, very faith-filled youth in Anchorage, and it’s been a joy to work with them in the past, and hopefully I will be able to continue that in whatever fashion the diocese needs.”

Deacon Whitney grew up in Anchorage, attending Mass and altar serving since he was in kindergarten at Holy Family Cathedral. He is very thankful for all the prayers that many people have offered for him. He said he wants to encourage people to continue to pray not only for him, but also for his five fellow seminarians who are still in training. Additionally he asked the faithful to pray that God will call many other men to serve as priests in the Archdiocese of Anchorage.

He has been assigned to serve as associate pastor with Father Tom Lilly at St. Benedict Church in Anchorage, the parish where he was baptized.

Upcoming Ordination Events

  • Vespers prayer service for Deacon Robert Whitney on June 22, 7 p.m., at Holy Family Cathedral
  • Ordination to the priesthood of Deacon Robert Whitney on June 23, 12 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral
  • First Mass for Father Robert Whitney on June 24, 9 a.m., at Holy Family Cathedral

'Seminarian eager to hear confessions, celebrate Mass'
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