Fr. Leo Walsh
This National Vocation Awareness Week we thank God for the many priests who have responded to the call to serve the Church in persona Christi.
Today Fr. Leo Walsh shares his vocation story:
I was born and grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, the last of eight children. This was a frontier church and the Archdiocese of Anchorage was not founded until 1966. Mom and Dad were pretty resolute about their Catholic Faith. Some of my earliest memories of church were all of us piling into the big green sedan and driving downtown to Holy Family Cathedral (which seats a whopping 400 people!), and scooting into the third pew on the right. Dad used to say that the closer you sat to the front “the more graces you got!”
Then in 1972, the Archdiocese founded the new Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Since we had no building, we met in a variety of places for the next eight years. First we met in a public elementary school gym, then later in the local Methodist Church, then back in the elementary school. Finally, when I a freshman, we built and moved into a multipurpose building which served as church, hall, and classroom. The experience bonded us founding families as a community of faith in a unique way; that, and the fact that we all had to deal with the founding pastor.
He was a devoted, but difficult, man. His love for the Eucharist and Our Lady was evident, but it was forced to shine through a very gruff manner. To his credit, he did allow us to have a youth group and would bring up a dynamic priest from San Francisco to give the annual youth retreat. If the pastor taught us about the fear of God, then the mercy of God was incarnated by Sr. Kathleen O’Hara, RSM, my childhood nun.
Between my parents’ piety, the prayers of Sr. Kathleen, involvement in the youth many youth group activities and spirit of personal and corporate stewardship that permeated the parish, my faith and my vocation grew. Sometimes in the pew, as the pastor ranted from the pulpit about one or all of his four favorite peeves, I would begin to envision myself giving the sermon on the scriptures of that Sunday. At other times, as I watched him, I would wonder what it would be like to celebrate the Holy Mass or other sacraments. I see now that the Holy Spirit was subtly motivating me and gently prodding me towards the priesthood, if even by the broken vessel of a priest that was my pastor of my formative years. Much later in life, I was to learn that, unbeknownst to most of us, he suffered terribly from diabetes, including diabetes induced neurosis. He has since passed from this life, but I am sure that God has reserved a special place in heaven for this priest, who despite the many things he suffered in his life, strived to serve his people in the best way he know how.
Since there were no Catholic schools in the archdiocese at that time, I figured I would go to a Catholic university. I applied and was accepted at the University of Notre Dame. I thought that perhaps in the environment of faith which I found there I might be able to find a priest who would be able to help me make sense of this inkling towards priesthood. Well, the environment certainly helped my faith grow. I was involved in campus ministry, and although there were many good Holy Cross priests there, I found that I was not particularly attracted to religious life. At that point, Alaska was my home and I could not imagine calling anywhere else home. This abiding sense of place is something which is endemic in the spirituality of the call to diocesan priesthood. The diocesan priest is first called to serve the Church in a particular place, and even though he may leave there, he will always identify with it.
I spent my summers during college working as a laborer for a contractor in the heavy construction projects for the U.S. military on the islands of Adak and Shemya at the very remotest ends of the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific. Unknown to most people, the far western part of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, including Shemya, are actually in the Eastern Hemisphere. It was in the harsh beauty of this environment, far removed from the business of university life, that I was able to actually pray and meditate upon the call to priesthood which continued to grow in my heart. I attended Mass at the military chapels, and we were blessed by the presence of very dynamic and faith-filled Air Force and Navy chaplains. Their example was truly an inspiration and positive example of priesthood.
I had been having tentative conversations with the Vocation Director of the Archdiocese who had once been the Associate at my home parish. He was a rather timid fellow, so I had to initiate most of our conversations and actually guide him through parts of the process. But by the end of my final summer, I had decided that there must be something to these promptings of the Holy Spirit and during the Christmas break of my senior year, I completed the application process. I felt good about my decision as I headed back to my final semester.
Then, I promptly fell in love with a wonderful woman and she with me. I call it my “great spiritual curveball” because it certainly was not what I was expecting at the time. She also came from a family of great faith and for the next two years we explored whether or not it might be the will of God for us to enter into married life. For a variety of reasons, we discovered that it was not. Part of it was geographic, part of it was that the call to priesthood never went away, and part of it was simply that we realized that it takes much more than being in love to get married. We both grew up a lot in those two years and I know that I am a better priest for the experience. She actually wrote one of my letters of recommendation. We remain friends and keep in touch to this day.
Soon thereafter I rather sheepishly reapplied to the Archdiocese and was accepted. Formal discernment in the seminary environment, first at Mt. Angel in Oregon and then at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, continued to deepen and confirm the attraction and call to priesthood. Like many things in life, it was not necessarily what I expected, but definitely what I needed for Our Lord to get me where he needed me to be.
So finally, when I stood with my classmates before Cardinal Baum in St. Peter’s Basilica to be ordained a deacon, I knew without a doubt that Christ was calling me to serve Him as a priest of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. The joys and challenges of every day since has brought new confirmation of that vocation.
On my road to the priesthood, I have known dynamic priests and broken priests, fervent priests and struggling priests. This gives me great hope in my own vocation because I know that even when I am not at my best, Christ is still at His best and can still use me for the building up of the Church and the salvation of souls. I love being a priest and thank God every day for the life of service to which I have been called.
Fr. Leo A. Walsh, S.T.D.
USCCB Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs