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Special Report
April 15, 2014
Ordained in their 40s, 50s, or 60s, these men offer a unique pastoral perspective to their flocks.
Father Jerry Brown, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the Diocese of Oakland, California

Many diocesan seminaries will not accept older applicants to the priesthood, and often with good reason. An older man can have greater difficulty in meeting the demands of the priesthood or giving up the freedom or material success of his single life, or find it a challenge to place himself under the authority of a bishop.  When people age, they often become more set in their ways, and might struggle in adapting to the life of a diocesan priest.

While some American dioceses will not accept men over 40 to study for the priesthood, others are open to older vocations. The following are the stories of five men—four priests and one transitional deacon—who were ordained in their 40s, 50s, and 60s and who have found great success and many blessings in their “second vocation.”  Each of their stories is unique, and each has contributed much to the life of the Church.

From Episcopalian pastor to Catholic priest

Father Jerry Brown (pictured above), pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Brentwood in the Diocese of Oakland, California, was ordained to the priesthood in 2001, at age 54.

He was born in Napa, Northern California’s wine country, to two non-religious parents.  He developed an interest in the Catholic Church through some friends, even considering the priesthood.  His father persuaded him to instead become a priest in the Episcopal Church. He was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1970, and served for 25 years.  He married, and had four children (two of whom are surviving; one died as a small child, the other as an adult in an auto accident).

In his years as an Episcopal priest, Father Brown saw the Episcopal Church change dramatically. “The church I left,” he said, “was a different one than the one I joined.” Socially, the Episcopal Church “embraced every liberal cause,” such as the ordination of women, acceptance of homosexual behavior, no-fault divorce, and abortion.  Theologically, it “had abandoned the historic faith, and is now getting in to New Age stuff.”

“The seeds were planted at the Reformation,” he remarked, “Society was changing, and the church didn’t stand against it, but went along with it.” He saw his church empty, growing unable to support a priest with a family.  With the church “imploding,” he left active ministry and took a job as a registered nurse.  He met a nun who ministered at his hospital, and decided to give the Catholic Church a second look.  He liked what he saw, and took RCIA classes through the Diocese of Oakland.  He entered the Catholic Church in 1995.

A priest friend suggested that, because of Brown’s training, he should consider the Catholic priesthood. His marriage had ended in divorce after the death of his child, and was eventually annulled.  The bishop of Oakland at the time, John Cummins, welcomed Brown to the seminary.  Brown went on a week-long retreat at the Carmelite House of Prayer in Napa, and decided to enter.

He was happy in the seminary, but also found it difficult.  “Formation is never fun,” he said.  “You place yourself under scrutiny 24-7.  It takes faith.  But, I found I was compatible with the lifestyle.” Today, most of his parishioners enjoy hearing his story.  He’s also found his practical life experience a help in his ministry: “I’ve had a job, I’ve paid bills and owned a house.  It gives you a different appreciation of what your parishioners are going through.”

His three children attended his ordination to the priesthood (one of them has since passed away), and were accepting of his vocation.  For years they’d seen him as an Episcopal priest, “so it wasn’t that much of a stretch for them to see me as a Catholic priest.”

Being a priest, he says, is “the fulfillment of everything I’ve done in life.  Priesthood is really the best-kept secret of a happy life.” He has maintained his nursing license, which has enabled him to volunteer at a local clinic, and take trips to Third World countries to volunteer.

Celibacy is a challenge, but to Father Brown, it makes sense.  As an Episcopal priest, he served a congregation of a few hundred, which was considered a large church.  As a Catholic priest, he serves a congregation of 5,600. He mused, “How could I fit in a wife and family?” He continued, “I think celibacy for priests is from God. If it can be embraced, it is a useful tool.”

For older persons considering a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, he suggested, “Pray.  Go seek the Lord’s face. See if it is something he wants for you.”

A former jet-setter finds what was missing

Father Steve Thomlison is a parochial vicar at St. Mary’s Church in Nebraska City in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.  He was ordained a priest in 2010 at age 41.

Father Thomlison is from a non-Catholic home in Nebraska, and attended a variety of non-Catholic Christian churches growing up.  He last attended the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod before converting to Catholicism.

Fr. Steve Thomlison

Before entering the seminary, Thomlison was active in Republican Party politics, both in Nebraska and Washington, DC.  He worked for candidates such as Representative Jon Christensen, Senator Elizabeth Dole, and Vice President Dan Quayle.  Working for a variety of political consulting firms, he ran campaigns for candidates in three different countries.  He said, “I had it all.  I was making six figures, I had a great girlfriend, and I traveled the country.  But, something was missing.  Like St. Augustine, my heart was restless.”

“I was on top of the world, but I wasn’t happy,” Father Thomlison continued.  “I prayed more, and discovered the answer: God wasn’t part of my life.”

His prayer life led him into the Catholic Church, and three years later, to the seminary.  Adjusting to seminary life in his mid-30s wasn’t easy, however.  He said, “I went from jet-setting around the globe with an expense account to rooming with 20-year-olds and having a curfew.”

He chose the Diocese of Lincoln because he had attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he was a member of the National Guard in Lincoln, the priests he had known while serving in the military were from Lincoln, and because the diocese “had a reputation of being faithfully orthodox.”

Father Thomlison suggests that single men in his situation get a spiritual director, work on their prayer life and “find a place at the top of the mountain where you can listen to the Lord in silence, and understand what he wants you to do.”

Many men make the mistake, he believes, of wanting to know for certain if they’re called to the priesthood before entering seminary.  A seminary, however, is a place of prayer and discernment.  “Going to the seminary doesn’t mean you’ll become a priest, but that you’ll have the chance to listen to God better,” he explained.

“If a man has an inkling, he should go,” Thomlison added.  “Remember, the devil never tempts a man to enter the seminary.  If that hidden thought keeps reoccurring, he has an obligation to go and explore it.”

Father respects men of good will who engage in politics as he once did.  He said, “They sacrifice, work long hours, and do the heavy lifting to make the country a better place.  They deserve a lot of respect.”

But he believes the priesthood is the right calling for him.  He said, “God created me for the priesthood.  And, that should be our goal, to be what God has created us to be.  If we do the right thing, happiness and peace will follow.”

“I’m in love with Our Lord”

Father Richard Huston is a priest of the Diocese of San Diego.  He was ordained in 1995 at age 69.

Father Huston was born in Los Angeles in 1926.  He attended Catholic schools, and recalled meeting a retired priest as a boy.  The priest prayed over him, and told him one day he’d be a priest.

Fr. Richard Huston

Huston went on to the high school (minor) seminary, studied there for more than two years, and “felt the urge” to leave.

World War II was in its final years, so he joined the US Navy, where he served as a cook.  His ship was sent to fight the Germans; while in route, Germany surrendered.  The ship was then sent to fight the Japanese; while in route, Japan surrendered. 

In 1946, Huston was discharged and got married.  He recalled, “I felt compelled to marry this girl.  We had a wonderful, 43-year marriage.”

The union produced three children, two of whom survive today.  Huston worked as an architect, and eventually moved to San Diego.

In the final years of his marriage, Huston and his wife visited Medjugorje, where he had a “premonition” that his wife would pre-decease him.  Upon their return home, she was troubled by stomach pains, which were discovered to be pancreatic cancer.  The doctor predicted she’d survive six months; she lived another six months and one week.  She died in 1990.

Well into his 60s, Huston approached the bishop and asked him if he could enter the seminary for the diocese.  He made an offer the bishop couldn’t refuse: 1) he’d pay for his own seminary education, and 2) he wouldn’t be part of the diocesan pension plan.  Father said, “The bishop had nothing to lose!”

He entered Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Massachusetts, which specifically serves older men studying for the priesthood, and was ordained a priest in 1995.  Nearly 20 years later, Father Huston knows he made the right choice: “I’m in love with Our Lord, and I enjoy being a priest.”

Father Huston does parish work, and also has engaged in a variety of apostolates.  For 17 years he was chaplain for the Divine Mercy movement, and has also been chaplain to Courage, a group which helps people with same-sex attraction live according to the Church’s teachings. 

But his chief ministry is marriage preparation and counseling, using the experience of a successful, 43-year marriage to help him.  Most couples he encounters are ignorant of or unwilling to live by Church teaching on marriage: “Most are products of our society, having premarital sex, living together, and having babies out of wedlock.”

At age 87, Father Huston is physically slowing down, but still maintains a full schedule as a priest.  He said, “I don’t know when I’ll retire.”

Finding happiness in doing God’s will

Russ Mower, 62, is a transitional deacon for the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth.  He is scheduled to be ordained a priest in 2015.  He is widowed, with three grown daughters and four grandchildren.  His wife died suddenly in 2009 of a pulmonary embolism.  Deacon Mower recalled, “We were talking about retirement, and then she was gone.”

Dn. Russ Mower

Before entering seminary, Deacon Mower had been a 24-year resident of Allen, a suburb of Dallas.  He is a US Air Force veteran, and had worked in a variety of positions in the local fire department.  He had also long been active in his parish, St. Jude Church, in a variety of roles.  “Part of our retirement plans included things we’d be doing for the Church,” he said of himself and his late wife.

After his wife’s death, the idea of becoming a priest “kept nagging” at him.  He noted, “I kept thinking I was too old, and I wouldn’t be able to go back to school after so many years.”

At a friend’s suggestion he spoke to his pastor.  His pastor asked him, “What do you want me to do about this?” Mower responded, “Tell me I can’t be a priest and I’ll go back to work with a clear conscience.”

The pastor told him he couldn’t do that, and referred him to the diocesan vocations director.  Unlike some dioceses and religious communities that will not accept older men for seminary, Dallas welcomed him.  “They told me that ‘second vocations’ are normal, and that there was a seminary in Massachusetts that specialized in them,” he said.

Like Father Huston, Deacon Mower was sent to Blessed John XXIII National Seminary, where he entered on his 60th birthday.  He studied alongside men in his age range, some widowed and some never married.  Deacon Mower said, “I felt welcome.  I sat down and talked with the other seminarians, and we bonded.”

Unlike his undergraduate days studying engineering, the environment was not competitive.  If someone was struggling academically, he said, the other seminarians helped him.  He found the studies challenging, but said, “I did better than I expected.”

Obeying authority was not a problem for Mower, but leaving his nice four-bedroom home in Allen for a small dorm room was a challenge.  But, it proved to be an education. “Divesting myself of all that I accumulated made me realize how little I needed to be happy,” he explained.  “A career or material things is not the key to happiness, but doing what God wants you to do.”

The deacon has already been involved with pastoral meetings with parishioners discussing family issues, career problems, and child-rearing matters.  His many years as a husband and father have proven beneficial to him.  He said, “I listen and I understand what they’re going through.  They’re wrestling with the same things I’ve wrestled with my whole life.”

Deacon Mower encourages older men who have never married or are widowed and are interested in the priesthood to talk to their pastors and diocesan vocations directors.  If their diocese does not accept older men, “ask for a referral to a diocese that does.”

Deacon Mower has enjoyed his time in the seminary, and the many unique and unexpected experiences he has had later in life.  For example, he recently walked the Way of St. James (El Camino del Santiago), a 475-mile pilgrimage through the north of Spain (featured in the Martin Sheen movie The Way).  He said, “I had an amazing time there talking with God, meeting others, and visiting religious sites.  It was an affirming, incredible experience.”

The deacon went seeking a divine confirmation that the priesthood was right for him.  He concluded, “I spent over a month there with God.  I knew I was on the right path.”

“Be persistent!”

Father Steven Henriksen is associate pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Louisville, Kentucky.  In June, he will be reassigned as pastor of Ascension Parish, also in Louisville.  He was ordained in 2013 at age 53.

Fr. Steven Henriksen

Father Henriksen was born in Iowa, and has since lived in seven US states.  He was raised Lutheran, and converted to Catholicism.  Prior to entering seminary in 2007, he worked in government for the State of Illinois and as an administrator for higher education.  He never married, and, as he entered his 30s and 40s, he developed an interest in entering the priesthood. “It was an opportunity to minister to people in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances,” he explained.

Father Henriksen did not have any difficulties being accepted as an older seminarian, or any significant problems in adapting to the life of a priest.  He has found great happiness in his first year of priesthood: “There are great ups, and a few downs.  But overall, I’ve found great fulfillment and satisfaction.”

He encourages other older men who are interested in the priesthood to be open to the possibility.  He said, “Follow your heart!  Follow that call with which God has graced you!  Be persistent!”

 
About the Author
Jim Graves 

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.
 

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