Denver Newsroom, Jun 12, 2020 / 12:02 am (CNA).- Peyton and Connor Plessala are brothers from Mobile, Alabama. They’re 18 months— one school grade— apart.
Despite the occasional competitiveness and squabbles that many brothers experience growing up, they’ve always been best buds.
“We’re closer than best friends,” Connor, 25, told CNA.
As young men— in grade school, high school, college— much of their lives centered around the things you might expect: academics, excurriculars, friends, girlfriends, and sports.
There are many paths the two young men could have chosen for their lives, but ultimately, last month, they arrived at the same place— lying face down in front of the altar, giving their lives over in service to God and the Catholic Church.
The brothers were both ordained to the priesthood May 30 at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile— in a private Mass, because of the pandemic.
“For whatever reason, God chose to call us and he did. And we were just fortunate enough to have had the foundations from both our parents and our education to hear it and then to say yes,” Peyton told CNA.
Peyton, 27, says he is most excited to begin helping out with Catholic schools and education, and also to begin hearing confessions.
“You spend so much time in seminary preparing to be effective one day. You spend so much time in seminary talking about plans and dreams and hopes and stuff that you’ll do one day in this hypothetical future…now it’s here. And so I can’t wait to begin.”
In Southern Louisiana, where the Plessala brothers’ parents grew up, you’re Catholic unless you declare otherwise, Peyton said.
Both Plessala parents are medical doctors. The family moved to Alabama when Connor and Peyton were very young.
Though the family was always Catholic – and raised Peyton, Connor, and their younger sister and brother in the faith – the brothers said they weren’t ever a “pray the rosary around the kitchen table” kind of family.
Apart from taking the family to Mass every Sunday, the Plessalas taught their children what Peyton calls “natural virtues”— how to be good, decent people; the importance of choosing their friends wisely; and the value of education.
The brothers’ consistent involvement in team sports, encouraged by their parents, also helped to school them in those natural virtues.
Playing soccer, basketball, football, and baseball over the years taught them the values of hard work, camaraderie, and setting an example for others.
“They taught us to remember that when you go and play sports, and you have the Plessala name on the back of your jersey, that represents a whole family,” Peyton said.
‘I could do this’
Peyton told CNA that despite going to Catholic schools and getting the “vocation talk” every year, neither of them had ever really considered the priesthood as an option for their lives.
That is, until early in 2011, when the brothers took a trip with their classmates to Washington, D.C. for the March for Life, the nation’s largest annual pro-life gathering in the U.S.
The chaperone for their group from McGill-Toolen Catholic High School was a new priest, fresh out of seminary, whose enthusiasm and joy made an impression on the brothers.
The witness of their chaperone, and of other priests they encountered on that trip, moved Connor to begin considering entering the seminary straight out of high school.
In the fall of 2012, Connor started his studies at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, Louisiana.
Peyton also felt the call to the priesthood on that trip, thanks to the example of their chaperone— but his path to the seminary was not quite as direct as his younger brother’s.
“I realized for the first time: ‘Man, I could do this. [This priest] is so at peace with himself and so joyful and having so much fun. I could do this. This is a life that I could actually do,’” he said.
Despite a tug toward the seminary, Peyton decided he would pursue his original plan to study pre-med at Louisiana State University. He would go on to spend three years there in total, dating a girl he met at LSU for two of those years.
His junior year of college, Peyton returned to his high school to chaperone that year’s trip to the March for Life— the same trip that had started the tug toward the priesthood several years earlier.
At one point in the trip, during adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Peyton perceived God’s voice: “Do you really want to be a doctor?”
The answer, as it turned out, was no.
“And the moment I heard that, my heart felt more at peace than it had in… Maybe ever in my life. I just knew. In that moment, I was like, ‘I’m going to go to seminary,’” Peyton said.
“For a moment, I had a life’s purpose. I had a direction and a goal. I just knew who I was.”
This newfound clarity came at a price, however— Peyton knew he would have to break up with his girlfriend. Which he did.
Connor remembers the phone call from Peyton, telling him he had decided to come to seminary.
“I was shocked. I was excited. I was extremely excited because we were going to be back together again,” Connor said.
In the fall of 2014, Peyton joined his younger brother at St. Joseph Seminary.
‘We can rely on each other’
Though Connor and Peyton had always been friends, their relationship changed— for the better— when Peyton joined Connor at the seminary.
For most of their life, Peyton had blazed a trail for Connor, encouraging him and giving him advice when he got to high school, after Peyton had been learning the ropes there for a year.
Now, for the first time, Connor felt in some ways like the “older brother”— being more experienced in seminary life.
At the same time, although the brothers were now pursuing the same path, they still approached seminary life in their own way, with their own ideas, and approaching challenges in different ways, he said.
The experience of taking on the challenge of becoming priests helped their relationship to mature.
“Peyton’s always done his own thing because he was the first. He was the oldest. And so, he didn’t have an example to go follow then, whereas I did,” Connor said.
“And so, the idea of breaking from: ‘We’re going to be the same,’ was tougher for me, I think…But I think in that, in the growing pains of that, we were able to grow and really realize each other’s gifts and each other’s weaknesses and then rely on each other more…now I know Peyton’s gifts a lot better, and he knows my gifts, and so we can rely on each other.”
Because of the way his college credits transferred from LSU, Connor and Peyton ended up in the same ordination class, despite Connor’s two year “head start.”
‘Getting out of the way of the Holy Spirit’
Now that they’re ordained, Peyton said their parents are constantly bombarded with the question: “What did y’all do to have half of your children enter the priesthood?”
For Peyton, there were two key factors in their upbringing that helped him and his siblings grow up as committed Catholics.
First, he said, he and his siblings attended Catholic schools— schools with a strong faith identity.
But there was something within the Plessala’s family life that, for Peyton, was even more important.
“We ate dinner every single night as a family, regardless of the logistics required to make that work,” he said.
“Whether we had to eat at 4 p.m. because one of us had a game that night that we were all going to go, to or whether we had to eat at 9:30 p.m., because I was getting home from soccer practice late in high school, whatever it was. We always made it an effort to eat together, and we would pray before that meal.”
The experience of gathering every night as a family, praying and spending time together, helped the family cohere and support each member’s endeavors, the brothers said.
When the brothers told their parents that they were entering the seminary, their parents were extremely supportive— even if the brothers suspected their mother might be sad that she would likely end up having fewer grandchildren.
One thing Connor has heard his mother say several times when people ask what the parents did right is that she “got out of the way of the Holy Spirit.”
The brothers said they are extremely grateful that their parents always supported their vocations. Peyton said he and Connor occasionally encountered men at the seminary who ended up leaving because their parents did not support their decision to enter.
“Yeah, parents know best, but when it comes to your children’s vocations, God’s the one who knows, because God’s the one calling,” Connor commented.
‘If you want to find an answer, you have to ask the question’
Neither Connor nor Peyton ever expected to become priests. Neither, they said, did their parents or siblings expect or predict that they might be called that way.
In their words, they were just “normal guys” who practiced their faith, dated throughout high school, and had a lot of varied interests.
Peyton said the fact that they both felt an initial tug to the priesthood is not all that surprising.
“I think every young guy who really practices their faith has probably thought about it at least once, just because they’ve known a priest and the priest probably said, ‘Hey, you should think about this,’” he said.
Many of Peyton’s devout Catholic friends are married now, and he’s asked them if they ever considered the priesthood at some point before discerning marriage. Almost all, he said, told him yes; they thought about it for a week or two, but it never stuck.
What was different for him and Connor was that the idea of the priesthood didn’t go away.
“It stuck with me and then it stayed with me for three years. And then finally God was like, ‘It’s time, man. It’s time to do it,’” he said.
“I would just encourage guys, if it really has been a while and it just sticks with you, the only way you’ll ever figure that out is to actually go to seminary.”
Meeting and getting to know priests, and seeing how they lived and why, was helpful to both Peyton and Connor.
“The lives of priests are the most helpful things in getting other men to consider priesthood,” Peyton said.
Connor agreed. For him, taking the plunge and going to seminary when he was still discerning was the best way for him to decide whether God was really calling him to be a priest.
“If you want to find an answer, you have to ask the question. And the only way to ask and answer that question of priesthood is to go to the seminary,” he said.
“Go to the seminary. You will not be worse off for it. I mean, you’re starting to live a life of dedicating prayer, of formation, diving into yourself, learning who you are, learning your strengths and weaknesses, learning more about the faith. All those are good things.”
The seminary is not a permanent commitment. If a young man goes to seminary and realizes the priesthood is not for him, he won’t be worse off, Connor said.
“You’ve been formed into a better man, a better version of yourself, you’ve prayed a whole lot more than you would have if you were not in seminary.”
Like many people their age, Peyton and Connor’s paths to their ultimate vocation was a winding one.
“The great pain of millennials is sitting there and trying to think of what you want to do with your life for so long that your life just passes you by,” Peyton said.
“And so, one of the things I like to encourage young people to do if you’re discerning, do something about it.”
In the days ahead we can expect to see more on the issue of armaments and morality. Here’s a look back, and a related hint about future “synodality”:
In 1983 three national Episcopal conferences produced non-doctrinal pastoral letters (not yet “binding synodal paths”!) on nuclear weapons. Major DIFFERENCES were on the nature and framing of the threat itself, and then (1) the risk of collateral damage or the “slippery slope” to Armageddon and “nuclear winter” (the American), (2) the strategic imbalance of armaments on the eastern front with the Soviets hold a decisive 3:1 advantage in mobile tanks (the German), or (3) the intrinsic threat of Marxist ideology (the French).
PRIOR TO all three of these pastorals, in 1982, Pope John Paul II had clarified the Church’s prudential judgment (no loose-end “binding synodal paths” in a Polygon Church) to the Second Special Session of the United Nations dedicated to disarmament. One KEY LINE: “In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable” (p. 10).
THREE QUESTIONS, as we approach the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki holocausts:
(1) Will the challenging DISTINCTION between the possession and the actual use of nuclear weapons be respected (under new and complicating conditions: proliferation of nuclear and rogue states, tactical-level weapons and high precision targeting compared to 1945, and the merit or not of a “defensive” space shield)?
(2) Will continued and troublesome deterrence/balance be prudentially scrutinized OR ambiguously BRANDED as, say, “inadmissible”? Instead, are there astute ways that the Church might help foster “progressive disarmament”?
(3) And—within the Church—will the SUPPOSEDLY PATH-BREAKING SYNOD on “The Church and Synodality” (2022) find clues from the (above) real-world case study already on the books?
(See (a) “The Challenge to Peace” [Pastoral Letter of the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1983]; and in one-volume (b) James Schall, S.J.: “Out of Justice, Peace” [Joint Pastoral Letter of the West German Bishops], and “Winning the Peace” [Joint Pastoral Letter of the French Bishops] [Ignatius Press, 1984]; and (c) Pope John Paul II, “Negotiation: The Only Realistic Solution to the Continuing Threat of War” [Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1982]).