Whether ordained at 25 or 70, priests say Jesus can come calling at any point in a man's life — and he ought to be ready
DEARBORN — At 28 years old, Fr. David Pellican carries the distinction of being the youngest priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
He was very young when he first thought about the priesthood — 10 years old, in fact — and while the archdiocese wouldn’t accept a vocation that young, he began his studies at Sacred Heart Major Seminary four days after his 18th birthday.
“I was very young when I first thought about the priesthood,” Fr. Pellican, of Divine Child Parish in Dearborn, told Detroit Catholic. “Our family knew some priests that we had over for dinner and stuff. I didn’t know all that being a priest would entail. I think I told my parents when I was 10, but they didn’t think much of it, because I was a kid; who knows what I’d say the next week?”
On the other end of the spectrum, Fr. Joe Lang, 87, of the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, is among the most senior priests serving in the archdiocese.
Fr. Lang also entered the seminary after graduating high school in 1953, but unlike Fr. Pellican, his ordination didn't come until much later in life. He spent five years at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Cincinnati before discerning out in 1958.
“The main thing for me was it just wasn’t in my heart,” Fr. Lang said. “I missed dating, never dated much in high school. I spoke to my spiritual director, who said it seemed like I already made up my mind and it was best for me to leave.”
Fr. Lang went on to have a successful teaching career, met his wife, Mary, in 1961, and married in 1964. The couple had three children, and he was happy teaching at Thurston High School in the South Redford School District.
But after Mary Lang passed away in 1996, thoughts about ordination came creeping back.
“During the time I had together with my wife, I remember saying if anything happened to her, I probably would go back to the seminary,” said Fr. Lang, who was 61 when his wife passed. “I remember speaking to the vocation director of the archdiocese, getting accepted to the seminary with only two more years of studying to go. The most beautiful thing was, after my first class and during mealtime at the seminary, I sat down at the table and some of the younger guys came over to my table and talked. It was awesome; I was one of them.”
With his children grown, Fr. Lang rejoined the seminary, and was ordained a permanent deacon in 2002. Three years later, in 2005, he finally became a priest at the age of 70.
The two men’s vastly different stories show how God calls men to the priesthood in His own time, and in His own way.
Fr. Pellican remembers talking with Fr. Tim Birney, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Detroit at the time, about entering the seminary shortly after finishing high school as a homeschooler.
“I was talking to Fr. Birney, and you could tell he wanted me to be sure, but he wasn’t opposed to (me entering so young),” Fr. Pellican said. "He entered at 18 as well, but wanted to get to know me better. So he invited me to a day of discernment with the archbishop, and then a discernment weekend at the seminary. It was after those conversations with him, he said to the group, 'If anyone wants an application, they can come to talk to (me).' So, I went up and said I’d like an application.”
Sometimes, though, God's calling comes when least expected — like in the middle of an entrepreneurial venture.
Fr. Dave Blazek of St. Rita Parish in Holly was finishing up law school and was starting a business when he first felt God tugging on his heart. He had a career as a teacher in Iowa and later went to law school at the University of Detroit. One night, he went running before a big exam, and began praying for help on the test.
But God had another test in mind.
“I was running, getting ready for this big exam, saying, ‘Lord, help me with my exam. Help me pass it. Let me do my best,'” Fr. Blazek said. “And God answered back, ‘Yeah Dave, absolutely, Dave,’ but like a drum, God said, ‘But I want you to be a priest.’”
Fr. Blazek finished law school in 1990, worked a year as a lawyer to pay off debt, and entered the seminary at age 37. He was ordained in 1997 at age 44.
Fr. Bryan Shackett of St. Anthony Parish in Belleville was also in his college studies when the call to the priesthood came. The 19 year old had graduated from Marine City High School in 2006 and was in his first semester at St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron when he realized he didn’t have a plan for what he wanted to study in college. He did, however, feel the Lord calling him.
“My family had always been very faithful, went to Mass and everything, my mom and dad instilled the love of the Lord in my heart, and my grandmother had this great devotion to Mary, but I didn’t think about the priesthood when I was younger,” Fr. Shackett said. “The priesthood first seriously cross my mind my first semester in college, and I knew I had to explore it.”
The call to discern went against the plans Fr. Shackett thought he had laid out. He was going to finish college, get married, and have a family — pretty average stuff for a young man to be planning.
But this nagging feeling led Fr. Shackett’s parents to suggest he talk to their pastor, Fr. Birney, who happened to become the archdiocese’s vocation director no long after Fr. Shackett and Fr. Birney spoke. Fr. Birney invited him to attend World Youth Day in 2006 in Sydney, Australia.
“I had my life planned out; I wanted to be a paleontologist,” Fr. Shackett said. “I had the classes all picked out, thinking about the course my career would take. But then I realized that life wasn’t going to make me happy. And when I realized that, that’s when Fr. Birney invited me on a discernment weekend.”
No matter when they were ordained, or what shape their path took, the priests who spoke to Detroit Catholic all said trust in God's plan made the biggest difference.
Holding Fr. Blazek back in his discernment was a fear that he might not be "good enough" to be a priest, he said. Part of the discernment process, he said, was working through those fears, and that discernment in and of itself isn’t a final commitment.
“Most guys who enter the seminary say they are not sure if they are good enough to be a priest,” Fr. Blazek said. “But we are formed to be a priest, anointed to stand in the shoes of Christ. It is very humbling, certainly. I didn’t think I was worthy. But that is why you work with your spiritual director. Whenever you are called, and you really start exploring, you mature through the process. And it’s a process that can happen when you are 18, 38, or 58.”
Everyone’s discernment story and journey to the priesthood is different, Fr. Lang added. And what's more, each vocation story rarely goes according to plan.
“Let go of your plans and let God handle it,” Fr. Lang said. “When I was preparing for the permanent diaconate when I was still teaching at Thurston High School, one of the qualifications we had before ordination was to do a ministry. I chose prison ministry at Seven Mile and Ryan Road (in Detroit), but I wasn’t going to have all the stipulations to begin the ministry done (before) ordination. I came in really worried and went to the diaconate board all bothered. And they said, ‘For God’s sake, Joe, let go and let God.’ So let God handle it, keep it straight, keep your confidence, and all things will work out.”
Even when it seems the path of discernment is clear for a priesthood candidate, challenges still creep in.
Fr. Pellican completed four years of study at Sacred Heart Major Seminary to earn a bachelor’s in philosophy and four more years to get a master’s in divinity — eight years of study at one location.
“There is a challenge of perseverance of eight years in the same building where you sleep, eat, pray and go to class; that’s a long time in one spot,” Fr. Pellican said. “And as good as the seminary is, as many blessings as there are, this isn’t the vocation God created for me. He didn’t create me to be a seminarian for eternity.”
It was a different college experience than some of his friends his own age were having, figuring out careers, marriage, and where to live. Fr. Pellican watched his friends go down that path, reflecting on how it wasn’t the path God chose for him.
“At one point as a seminarian, I remember seeing one of my friends getting married, and I didn’t doubt I was on the right path,” Fr. Pellican said. “There is an element of giving that up, having a wife, having children, but I really can say thus far in my priesthood, I never doubted I was living the vocation I was created for. The Lord has given me great confidence that this is it.”
Discernment comes in ebbs and flows for a young man, Fr. Shackett said, recalling a discernment weekend at the seminary in which he had a powerful encounter with the Blessed Sacrament in Sacred Heart’s chapel. At the time, he didn’t realize it was a sign from God.
“I was praying, thinking this moment with the Lord is amazing; it was very overwhelming,” Fr. Shackett said. “I love to say that is when I heard the Lord and embraced Him, but that’s not what happened. I didn’t know what to do because I'd never experienced that before. So when my parents came to pick me up from the weekend, the first words that came out of my mouth were, ‘I had a great time, but it’s not for me.’”
Fr. Shackett wasn’t sure if the priesthood was meant for him or if he should continue studying at St. Clair Community College, but another meeting with Fr. Birney helped clear up his confusion. The two were talking about Fr. Shackett’s fears when Fr. Shackett realized he was putting up obstacles for God to clear.
So he made the decision to enter the seminary in 2008, at age 19.
“Ironically, I was the youngest in my class, but not in the seminary; Fr. Jacob Van Assche (of St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Pontiac) entered the seminary the same year, and he was younger than me by a few months,” Fr. Shackett said. “But I remember this peace I had when I made the decision, the confidence I had. I didn’t want to wait. Once you know this is what God wants for you, you can’t wait.”
Whether as a teenager or after a long career, or even marriage, God calls priests in His own time, Fr. Blazek said. And a man will answer only when they are ready, he added, because God will make them ready.
“In a lot of ways, my life experiences sharpened a lot of the questions that I needed to discern,” Fr. Blazek said. “I was much more self-aware and mature at 37 than I was at 20 or 21. But some men are ready when they are 20. Some are ready when they are 50. But it’s about focusing on who God wants you to be and when He wants you to be it. So turn to God, worship, pray, and give thanks.”