Two more young Alaskans are heading off to train for the Catholic priesthood this fall. The development continues a vocations surge in the Anchorage Archdiocese and will bring the total number of men in formation for the priesthood to five.
Spencer Hodgson will graduate from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., this spring, and will enter Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.
Jay Brownlee, a senior at Chugiak High School, will begin undergraduate studies in philosophy at St. John Vianney Seminary on the campus of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn.
Father Tom Lilly, director of seminarians for the Anchorage Archdiocese, said he sees the renewed interest in the priesthood as a sign of the times.
“I’m impressed by the way the next generation seems to be very deeply spiritual,” he told the Catholic Anchor, adding that he sees a real spiritual search unfolding among the younger generation.
For Hodgson, that search was accelerated at college.
“When I came to St. Olaf, at that time I wasn’t really very Catholic at all,” said the graduate of South Anchorage High School and a long-time parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage.
Hodgson went through the parish confirmation program and occasionally attended high school youth group events “primarily because there were girls there.”
But when he arrived at St. Olaf’s, which is a Lutheran college, he became involved in St. Paul’s Outreach, a Catholic campus organization. There a married layman, who was a volunteer in the program, had a deep effect on Hodgson’s spirituality.
“He showed me what it meant to be a Catholic man, that real men can still love God and see beauty in the church,” Hodgson recalled. “Being a regular guy doesn’t mean you can’t be radical in your faith.”
If Hodgson had a “light bulb” moment about his vocation, it may have taken place during his sophomore year when he attended a retreat with St. Paul’s Outreach. There, a young priest named Father Craig Vasek spoke about his vocation to the priesthood.
“He was very hip, cool, down-to-earth and still vibrantly Catholic,” Hodgson remembered. “It was the first time I’d ever considered a vocation to the priesthood.”
Hodgson has taken plenty of time since then to think and pray over his decision. He decided to remain at St. Olaf’s to complete his undergraduate degrees in psychology and religion, and he is a dorm group leader in St. Paul’s Outreach.
Hodgson feels called to parish work in the Archdiocese of Anchorage. He looks forward to accompanying people on all stages of their spiritual journey, from the joys of baptism and marriage to the sorrows of death.
He also feels great optimism about the church.
“Personally, I think things are really on the way up. We have great leadership from Pope Francis,” he said. “You can feel the Spirit moving.”
For 18-year-old Jake Brownlee, the journey began when he was younger and it has taken a different course. Although he is a cradle Catholic, the idea of becoming a priest began to take root only when he went through his confirmation preparation.
“Something clicked in my mind,” Brownlee said. “Every time I prayed about it, I heard those words, ‘Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’”
Eventually he confided in his pastor, Father Tom Brundage, of St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, and in Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz.
“They’ve helped me tremendously,” said Brownlee, who is a standout athlete at Chugiak High School, and the captain of both the basketball and football team, a member of the track team and an avid downhill skier.
“Sports were my thing,” Brownlee said, “but this past year it hasn’t been where my heart is.”
Seminarians are accepted on a case by case basis, Father Lilly explained, and sometimes it’s best to have some years of experience under your belt before making a commitment to try the seminary, he said.
“But Jake is incredibly mature,” Father Lilly noted. And he, like Hodgson, understands that the seminary is a period of discernment and continued prayer about a vocational decision.
Brownlee is also a Pope Francis devotee, and jokes that the pope “stole my confirmation name” as Brownlee had already chosen Saint Francis of Assisi for his confirmation name when the new pontiff was elected and became the first pope named Francis.
“He’s awesome. I love how he’s targeting youth,” Brownlee said. “He’s what we need right now.”
But Brownlee is also deeply influenced by Blessed Pope John Paul II and appreciates his past admonitions to “Be not afraid.”
Currently, the archdiocese has three other seminarians at various stages of studies for ordination: Arthur Roraff will be ordained a transitional deacon this June and will continue theology studies at Saint Paul Seminary; Kevin Klump is completing his fourth year of undergraduate studies at St. John Vianney, and will be in first year theology at Mundelein Seminary in the fall; and Robert Whitney will be in theology at Saint Paul Seminary.
Both Hodgson and Brownlee suggested that if someone believes they might be called to a vocation to religious life or the priesthood, they should continue to pray about it and then act.
For more about vocations to religious life or the priesthood, contact Father Leo Walsh, director of vocations for the Anchorage Archdiocese, at (907) 243-2195.