A tourist riding one of the fleet of buses exploring Alaska this summer might be surprised to learn that the personable young tour director enthusiastically reciting the state’s fun-facts is actually a seminarian studying for the Catholic priesthood.
But that’s exactly what Spencer Hodgson, who has been in formation since 2014 to become a priest for the Anchorage Archdiocese, is doing during the summer of 2016. He’s putting in his third summer as an Alaskan tour guide, hoping to polish off the nearly $100,000 in student loans he accrued obtaining his undergraduate degree at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
And after that, the young seminarian is off to an adventure, beginning four years of studying theology at the North American College in Rome.
It’s a big step for the young man who publicly declared his desire to become a priest on June 1 at his home parish of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in South Anchorage in a ceremony called the Rite of Candidacy.
All candidates for the priesthood take part in this rite, but not all are able to do it in their home parish or diocese. Hodgson found the experience profoundly moving.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to stand up in your home diocese and proclaim your desire to be a priest,” he said. “There’s a lot of meaning because you can feel it, it’s palpable. They’re seeing someone on his way to priesthood, and you’re seeing the people you may someday serve.”
For Hodgson, one of the most striking moments came at the conclusion of the opening prayer.
“It said, we’re ‘called to be an ardent but gentle herald of the Gospel,’” he recalled. “It really hit me, the beauty of that. I’m called to be fully on fire, but realizing that that involves a certain tenderness as well. We’re all called to that.”
Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, who presided over the liturgy, said that having it in Hodgson’s home parish was “a really great experience.”
“It’s good for the local parish to have a sense of the seminarians as they move towards the priesthood,” he said, adding that he is encouraged that so many youth and young adults attended the event.
Hodgson is a graduate of South Anchorage High School, and during his years at St. Olaf’s, a Lutheran college where he studied psychology and religion, he was active in Catholic campus outreach where he first felt the call to the priesthood.
During his senior year, he was accepted to become a seminarian for the Anchorage Archdiocese to study philosophy at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, the graduate school of St. Thomas University in Minnesota.
Now, the archdiocese is sending Hodgson on to study in Rome, a trip no archdiocesan seminarian has taken in 20 years, since Father Leo Walsh studied in Rome on his way to ordination.
Why now, and why Hodgson?
“It’s very enriching for someone to get a broader sense of the church,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “And it brings a different perspective which is really helpful.”
The archbishop said the choice of Hodgson for the four-year sojourn was based on many considerations done by the formation and seminary staff and others. He said factors taken into consideration include intellectual talent, adaptability, and ability to work within a new culture and learn new languages easily.
Hodgson said he fully expects to “fall in love with the church in Rome, but that’s not where I’m called to serve.”
He’s happy that Father Leo Walsh will also be in Rome studying canon law, and grateful that seminarian Jake Brownlee, a junior at St. Thomas University, will be spending the first semester there. Both of them will keep him “grounded” in Alaska, Hodgson said.
For the first two years Hodgson will not be allowed to return to Alaska. During that time, he expects his parents to visit. And although he may get plenty of questions about his home state from others in Rome, his days as an Alaskan tour guide will be over. Having paid off his undergraduate debt, Hodgson, like all Anchorage seminarians, has his educational expenses for the priesthood covered by the archdiocese.
Meanwhile, he will proceed with the ongoing discernment about his vocation which all seminarians continue until they are actually ordained.
“I feel called, but I have my days when I ask whether I can handle this,” Hodgson said. “But the rite of candidacy has taken it to a whole new level for me.”