By ANDREW NELSON | Published June 20, 2013
ATLANTA—Standing in the ornate sanctuary of Holy Spirit Church, Father Tom Shuler prepared the altar and celebrated his first Mass. He was surrounded by priests who had prepared him for this ministry. Friends and family crowded the pews, much like they did after his wife died.
“I said my Mass for her. We taught each other a lot. She was such a good mother, a good wife, and a teacher. We really helped each other in many different ways,” he said about his wife, Sandra. “Most of the people, if not all, a significant portion knew her.”
Her funeral was held in the same church where he celebrated his first Mass. Her remains were buried in this church’s memorial garden.
Father Shuler was married for some 35 years before Sandra died from breast cancer in 2007. He is a father to a daughter and a grandfather to a 10-year-old.
“The joke is I am Father Dad and my granddaughter calls me Father Papa.”
Father Shuler is one of the newest priests in North Georgia. Seven men were ordained Saturday, June 8, to serve the people in the 69-county Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Some 90 other priests, along with three bishops, and two-dozen deacons participated in the ordination Mass, the scent of chrism oil and chants filling the Cathedral of Christ the King on Peachtree Road. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory led the ancient rite, as the men promised to live a celibate life and obedience to him and his successors and received the sacrament for a life of priestly service in the laying on of hands.
Said Archbishop Gregory, “Through the selection of the church, we now confirm this calling and we all join you in praising God for placing it within your hearts.”
The new priests are Father Shuler, Father Dennis Dorner Jr., Father Feiser Munoz, Father Cong Nguyen, Father Michael Revak, Father Gaurav Shroff and Father Richard Vu.
Every vocation story is different, just as each priest is different. One was born in India, another moved to the United States from Colombia, another was born in upstate New York. Along the way, someone inspired the men to follow their hearts to the priesthood.
Born in India and raised in Washington, Father Shroff was encouraged by a campus minister at the University of South Carolina. It was as an older teenager that he came to the Christian faith and then to ministry.
“The campus minister at the University of South Carolina, Father Tim Lijewski, both fostered and encouraged my priestly vocation and helped me persevere. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been huge inspirations. When I was 19, I had a very powerful encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ at a Good Friday service in my first year of college. It was in the context of my conversion to Christ, and becoming a Christian, that I heard the call to follow Christ and make Him the center of my life. This eventually led to the discernment of a call to the priesthood,” he wrote.
Father Revak, 29, credits Father Brian Higgins, now the pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church, Dawsonville, as one of two priests who inspired his vocation even when he had doubts. The other was Msgr. Terry Young.
“Father Higgins, the vocations director at the time, not only accepted me to the program and very quickly became an inspirational mentor, but he also never doubted me or my vocation when I left the program saying, as I walked out of his office, ‘You’ll be back.’ Thank God for those prophetic words. Both of these men still have a big influence on me, for which I am very thankful to God’s loving providence,” he wrote.
Friends and loved ones guided Father Munoz, a native of Colombia, to serve as a priest.
“A seminarian friend of mine invited me to put the vocation to the priesthood as an option in the menu. However, my family, relatives, and many friends from different places where I have been serving always encouraged me to this beautiful vocation to the priesthood. I entered into this vocation because little by little I have discovered that God is calling me to be an instrument for his wonderful love and mercy in this world,” the 28-year-old wrote.
Permanent Deacon Before Priesthood
The Shuler family was Southern Baptist. His family, however, was just as likely to watch on TV Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who had a national program during the 1960s, as evangelist Billy Graham, although Father Shuler said the family was anti-Catholic. The son of a boat builder, he never told his father he became a Catholic in his early 20s.
He met Sandra, who wasn’t Catholic, after his graduate school and they were married in an Episcopal church, with wedding vows later repeated in front of a Catholic priest. She joined the church several years later. He had a long career in marketing and management with trade associations.
He became a permanent deacon in Atlanta in 1995. His ministry was at Holy Spirit Church, where he worked as a staff member. Father Shuler said he never saw the diaconate as a route to becoming a priest. He served as a permanent deacon, with an emphasis on the word permanent. And he loved it, from preparing couples for marriage to baptizing children.
“I really took care to do that,” he said.
While he served as a deacon, Sandra Shuler was a leader in the ministry to bring adults into the church. Many of the people who attended Father Shuler’s first Mass were people his wife helped on their journey to become Catholic
He went on a few dates after his wife died, he said, but quickly found he was not interested in another relationship. He and his wife never talked what he should do with his life or ministry after her death. His work as a permanent deacon was very satisfying, yet he had this inkling of serving as a priest. Close friends encouraged him to think and pray about it. An informal trip to Blessed John XXIII National Seminary, in Weston, Mass., a program for older seminarians, convinced him it was right.
“It’s like it washed over me. This is right. It was just the funniest feeling I ever had,” he said.
He called his daughter the day he returned, telling her he wanted to apply.
Ashley Shuler Lengkeek, a public school teacher, watched her father’s priestly ordination three years after the phone call. She answered enthusiastically when he questioned her about him studying to be a priest.
“I am very excited for him. This is something he has been praying about, talking with his close friends about, and made a decision about three years ago,” she said.
His ministry will be enhanced by his years of ministry as a deacon, a bachelor’s degree in music and a graduate degree in family counseling, she said.
“Having a daughter and a family and with all the schooling background, he is going to make a fabulous priest being able to talk to people and show them the way,” she said.
Father Luke Ballman, an Atlanta priest and former vocations director now serving in Rome, Italy, is a longtime friend of Father Shuler. He said in an email, “God will use Tom’s life experience in ministering to others, especially families and those who have lost loved ones. He has personally experienced many of the challenges that life offers, and I’m certain will use that wisdom to help others.”
‘Training Wheels’ Are Off
During his homily, Archbishop Gregory said priests have a special role in the church, although other Catholics also have encounters with God “often at even more profound levels than do we.”
“A priest is a man who constantly lives with mystery—the mystery that is God himself—this God who loves each and every one of us unconditionally in spite of our unworthiness and then calls us into his friendship. Priests are called to mediate the mystery that is God for his brothers and sisters.”
New priests must cultivate prayer and frequent reception of the sacrament of reconciliation to be effective men of God, he said.
“Today, you take the training wheels off. You must become a man who prays because he realizes that without a constant and deep conversation with God, you will be an ineffective and meaningless priest.”
The ministry of the priesthood is shared with others “with sincere and true reverence,” he said. “Anoint the sick with a tenderness that reassures them that Christ himself is still in our midst healing the sick and strengthening those who are heavily burdened. Care for those who seek your counsel and guidance, as would Christ himself always with gentleness and compassion,” he advised.
The call to a vocation didn’t begin at seminary and formation doesn’t end with ordination, Archbishop Gregory said.
“It takes an entire lifetime to complete a priestly vocation—from the first moments when a man begins to sense the call of the Lord until his final breath when he completes his identity in Christ. When those moments might begin is usually shrouded in mystery, but how they end is grounded in faith, hope and love. May the Lord who has begun a good work in you bring it to fulfillment. Amen,” said Archbishop Gregory.
Father Shuler’s ministry is going to be some 130 miles north of Atlanta, just on this side of the state line with Tennessee. He was named pastor of Our Lady of the Mount, in Lookout Mountain, which includes St. Katharine Drexel Mission, in Trenton.
He’s a familiar face there. He spent the summer of 2012 up there, serving the 175 families. He returned at Christmas and Easter. He was named the community’s pastor, which is unusual for a new priest.
“In my gut, I feel prepared. I do not feel overwhelmed by the tasks that lie ahead,” he said.
“Lookout Mountain, Our Lady of the Mount, St. Katharine, that will be my home. I promise to be a visible, active member of the community. I want those folks to see me as one of them.”
Folks there know he has a family. He expects his daughter and family to be regulars in the pews. “I think it’s good for all of us to have that part of my life up there,” he said.
He is full of ideas to promote the Catholics in the rural community on Facebook and Twitter, and other social media, to engage the local civic leaders, and befriend the local ministers. He joked he’ll be working on converting the UGA fans to supporters of Louisiana State University, his alma mater.
“I really want to reach out, connect to people on the mountain, who may have drifted away from the church, who don’t go, whatever. I want to celebrate the faithful. Those are our disciples.”
Father Shroff, who will be serving at St. Joseph Church, Athens, wrote that during his time at seminary, an idea “took root and grew … the priest as the spiritual father of the community.”
He said, “Every father wants to see his children grow and flourish. A priest should want to see his spiritual children grow in Christ and flourish in their own vocation, to be disciples, to be holy, and to also be apostles sent to bring Good News to the world around them. The priesthood does not exist for itself, but for the people.”
Father Munoz, a native Spanish-speaker and “learning English every day,” said that he learned in seminary “what it means to be a priest.”
He added, “I learned from my personal relationship with Jesus Christ who is my central model, but also from my academic, spiritual, community life and pastoral life. Also, through those wonderful priests that God put in my life to show me the essence of the priesthood, which is love. I want to be God’s instrument in each particular place where I will work and serve God’s people.”