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Class of the cloth: Christian DeCarlo's journey to priesthood culminates with graduation

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By Nancy Lavin | May 11, 2018

Msgr Baker and President Trainor with Seminary GraduateDeacon Christian DeCarlo wore a solemn expression as he approached the altar, hands clasped in prayer against his black cassock.

His face split open in a smile just as he reached to accept the navy-blue folder declaring him a graduate of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary. After returning to the front pew of the Mount’s Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, seated beside the other graduates, he opened the folder to study the piece of paper confirming his academic degree, a Master of Divinity.

The moment was bittersweet for DeCarlo.

The ceremonious presentation of academic degrees and certificates, part of an evening prayer service complete with Latin hymns and incense, marked the end of his time in Emmitsburg. After a post-graduation celebratory dinner with family and fellow graduates in the university dining hall, he would pack his things and leave the place where he signed his life over to God and the people with whom he’d shared that spiritual journey.

But in returning home to his native Indiana, a new story awaits, a life of service to God and to others as a Catholic priest that will fulfill for DeCarlo what has been a vocation 10 years in the making.

At 26, DeCarlo was one of the youngest graduates of the Class of 2018, if not the youngest. There was a 21-year age gap between the oldest and youngest of the 26 graduates of the Class of 2018, according to the Rev. J. Daniel Mindling, the seminary’s academic dean, who delivered the homily at graduation. They represented 14 Catholic dioceses across the country, where they will return to serve as priests. They join the 430 other men who will be ordained after graduating from Catholic theological seminaries in 2018, Mindling said.

Some came to the seminary after years working in secular careers. Others arrived straight from undergraduate colleges and universities, prepared to continue their studies through the six-year program of academic, spiritual and personal formation to become a priest.

Having graduated from an undergraduate seminary college, DeCarlo was one of the few students able to bypass the first two years of pre-theology in the program and enter the four-year Master of Divinity program directly. Though he didn’t go through the coming-of-age rituals and experiences of his peers who attended secular universities or had other careers, DeCarlo had no regrets, no “what ifs,” or wondering what he missed had he not chosen such an immediate and direct path into priesthood.

Becoming a man of God

His quiet confidence and self-assuredness set DeCarlo apart from his peers even at a young age, said his dad, Mark DeCarlo.

“He always related to peers with equal clarity and equal compassion,” Mark DeCarlo said. “And he was able to relate to older adults, too, even as a young child.”

He didn’t much worry what others thought of him, Christian agreed. When the priest of his family’s Catholic church asked him to join a special parish group for high school-aged boys, he was unconcerned with how his peers would react to his participation.

He was not, in his words, “part of the cool crowd — whatever that means” or a “gregarious personality.” And he trusted that the friends with whom he’d forged relationships — fellow members of the marching band and stage and tech crews for theater programs — would not end their friendships over his quest to explore spirituality.

Though Christian grew up Catholic, he wasn’t particularly committed to the religion outside the ritualistic Sunday Mass and prayers before meals and at bedtime — until he joined the Knights of the Holy Temple, that is.

Through prayer, being an altar server in Mass, and volunteering, he found a new perspective. And in discussing faith with the other 20-something members of the Knights — through the regular monthly meetings as well as occasional outings to amusement parks and paintball games — he gained a group of peers who shared that perspective.

“They were my best friends,” he said. “We all challenged each other, and we were challenged together by this idea of what we were called to be. At that point, no one else had ever challenged me to be great.”

Part of that challenge was to realize their callings as married men, brothers or even priests. Christian had never seriously contemplated the priesthood before, but in grappling with the idea internally, with fellow Knights and with the priest who led them, he found it appealing.

Prayer, in particular, proved a crucial way in which Christian discerned his vocational calling, a theme that carried through his spiritual journey.

“For me, God works in gradual stages,” he said. “There’s nothing flashy about my story. It’s the fact that it’s my story, my unique experience, that makes it special.”

Christian's Story

If joining the Knights was a turning point in Christian DeCarlo’s personal narrative, the next chapter of significance unfolded during the last semester of his senior year of high school. While his classmates sat listlessly through final classes, DeCarlo spent his weekday mornings at his church, where he was approved to do an internship.

He began each morning with an hour of prayer, followed by serving during Mass, and shadowing the parish priest in his daily duties. He returned to school each afternoon to complete the classes he needed to graduate.

Ever practical even as a teenager, Christian saw the internship as a chance to better understand what the life of a priest entailed. His school was “surprisingly open” to the idea, his parents perhaps a bit surprised by their son’s passionate interest in priesthood — but nonetheless supportive.

“Looking at how he changed from sophomore to senior year [of high school], it was clear that the Knights really energized him in a sense, gave him something positive, which, of course, we supported,” Mark DeCarlo said.

Despite their support and his own self-assuredness, Christian DeCarlo had some doubts: not in what he would give up to become a priest — relationships with a woman, a family — but in whether he could live up to the responsibilities.

“Do I have what it takes to do this?” was the question he asked himself often. Not ready to declare his intention once and for all, he decided to pursue a secular academic degree at Purdue University rather than at a seminary college.

“I didn’t have the courage to say ‘yes,’” he said. “I just wasn’t ready.”

It didn’t take long for him to realize that the lifestyle typical of students at a large state university was not for him. While others in his freshman-year dorm spent their weekends partying, Christian was more likely to be found watching a movie or hanging out with students he’d met at the university’s Catholic center.

He never drank before he was 21 because “it’s against the law.” He went to one or two fraternity parties, but realized after seeing his roommate stumble home and throw up on their floor that drinking and partying, because of the lack of control that resulted from them, not to mention the physical ramifications, held no allure, even to just try.

“I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything,” he said. “I didn’t ever want to be a part of something that made me not know where I was or what I was doing. ... I knew it would lead me away from the Lord.”

It was lonely at times, he admitted. But there were moments of meaningful connection: the Catholic center, the young men’s Christian group he helped start on campus, and his regular lunches with a priest from his home parish, which was just an hour away from Purdue.

It was over one such lunch near the end of Christian’s freshman year that the priest said the words they both danced around through so many conversations.

“He says, ‘Christian, you have to go to seminary,’” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, no.’”

“Oh, no,” not because he didn’t want to go, Christian clarified, but because he knew he had to make a decision, right there in the greasy spoon diner where they ate. In a sense, he had already made up his mind and had realized when signing up for housing and selecting classes that he would not return to Purdue the next year.

“I just needed a little firm talking to, but I said ‘yes’ freely, that very day,” he said.

Saying 'Yes'

The sense of peace he felt carried through his final weeks on campus. He was sad to say goodbye to the friends he’d made but excited for the next installment of his story. Life at St. John Vianney College Seminary, the undergraduate seminary at the University of St. Thomas where he was sent to study, was a world apart from Purdue. As with graduate seminary programs, prospective priests are assigned to a place of study by their diocesan bishops.

The St. Paul, Minnesota, campus was farther from his home and family than Purdue. The culture of the seminary, surrounded by other men also passionate about pursuing a life with God as Catholic priests, also differed from that of a large state university.

The seminary students lived together in a single dormitory, studying together, congregating for regular prayer services and mealtimes, in addition to the independent “holy hour” each was to observe daily. It was inspiring to be with others so motivated by God, Christian said.

“Everyone was just so filled with zeal and ready to conquer the world,” he added. “There was definitely a good sense of healthy competition. But it also taught me not to be a cookie cutter of someone else.”

Christian got to know many of the students in the larger university, too, particularly through the classes for his minor in Catholic Studies, a program that combined faith and culture of Catholicism. There were moments of fun and frivolity amid the studious and spiritual life: dining out, smoking cigars or drinking beer together — once of age, of course.

When Pope Francis was announced as the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the seminary exploded in celebration. Christian described students skating around on Rollerblades, confetti cannons mounted atop the university’s signature arches, the appearance of a flash mob, and one seminarian who dressed up as the pope and paraded around the campus.

A Servant Leader

His contemplative, thoughtful nature was one of the first things Monsignor Michael Heintz mentioned when asked to talk about Christian. Heintz, an assistant professor for the seminary as well as Christian’s formation adviser, met Christian when he started teaching at the Mount two years ago.

Though introspective, Christian also puts others at ease with his kindness and generosity, the epitome of a “servant leader,” Heintz said. He explained how he sees Christian perform small acts of kindness for other seminarians, not to be noticed or recognized but simply to help.

The Rev. Kevin Larsen, whom Christian has shadowed and preached alongside for the last year at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church in Leesburg, Virginia, also spoke of the traits that will make Christian a great priest.

In addition to the academic and spiritual requirements of the seminary program, students also have pastoral assignments in which they are sent to the wider community: local Catholic schools, prisons, hospitals and parishes where they can hone the ministerial skills they will later use in their own parishes.

Fourth-year students, who are ordained as deacons at the end of their third year, are always assigned to parishes to better study and learn the skills and duties they will soon take on in their own churches.

Larsen has known Christian since his first year in the program, when the young seminarian was sent to work in the school associated with Larsen’s parish. Christian struck Larsen as young, but enthusiastic and eager to learn, an attitude that remained clear when Christian returned for his final pastoral assignment in Larsen’s church.

Under Larsen’s guidance, Christian learned the practicalities of priesthood: preaching sermons, making house visits, performing baptisms and leading a local men’s church group.

“It’s their chance to flex their muscles as an ordained minister,” said Larsen, speaking both of Christian and the other seminarians he has mentored in previous years.

Though Christian didn’t seem to struggle with any of the challenges or responsibilities of those duties under Larsen’s watch, Larsen noted his progress, particularly in preaching sermons.

“He really came into his own,” Larsen said, adding that he tried to share tips based on his own experience, such as including personal stories and preaching without notes.

Christian named the administrative and financial advice Larsen offered as one of his biggest takeaways, a subject matter Larsen also taught as a class for seminarians including Christian.

“Finances, personnel management ... these are things they as parish leaders are responsible for,” Larsen said. “When I first started, I worked for a parish with 100-some people working for me, and I had no foundation for how to do those things.”

Asked what aspect of the priesthood Christian felt most drawn to — the social interactions, spiritual leadership or introspective, philosophical side — he said that he enjoyed all of it.

“At this stage, it’s being able to carry out the skills I’ve learned in an actual parish,” he said. “[The seminary] is somewhat of an artificial environment to really put that in context.

“There will always be questions,” he continued, “but the foundation is there, the things I’ve built over these last 10 to 15 years of praying and learning.”

Photo courtesy of Bill Green of the Frederick News-Post.

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