By Kristen Miller
It wasn’t until his senior year in college when Aaron Wessman, a 2000 Dassel-Cokato High School graduate, started considering entering the priesthood.
Now, seven years later, Wessman is a newly ordained deacon with one year left of seminary before becoming ordained as a Glenmary mission priest.
In 2004, Wessman was in his final year of college at St. John’s University, on his way to obtaining a degree in mathematics, when he met a priest from Glenmary Home Missioners.
Based out of Cincinnati, OH, Glenmary Home Missions is a Catholic society of priests and brothers dedicated to establishing a Catholic presence in rural areas of Appalacia, and the southern and southeastern states.
After graduation, Wessman worked for one year as a youth minister at Cokato Evangelical Lutheran Church.
“This strengthened my faith and my resolve to become a Catholic priest,” Wessman said. He also enjoyed working in and around his church and wanted to live out his faith.
In 2005, Wessman joined Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, in St. Meinrad, IN, and now is in his final year. He is set to be ordained as a priest next May.
The last six years have basically been training for the priesthood, which involves a lot of prayer, hands-on ministry, and support from friends who are also on the same journey, he explained.
There are two categories of priests in the Catholic faith those who join a diocese and those who belong to a religious community.
“I felt a specific calling to work in mission areas and in non-Catholic communities, and thus I joined a religious, missionary group,” Wessman said.
Becoming a deacon
This past May, Wessman made his perpetual oath to his religious community of Glenmary, where he has “joined a lifetime covenant to this community and this way of life,” he said.
For this, he took the four oaths of chastity, poverty, obedience, and prayer.
In June, he was ordained a deacon, which brings a person into the clerical state of the Catholic church.
A deacon allows him to assist a priest at Mass, though he can’t celebrate Mass (consecration of bread and wine). He can preach homilies, celebrate weddings, officiate funerals, and baptisms. He cannot confirm, hear confessions, or anoint the sick.
For the official ordination ceremony, Wessman, along with a fellow classmate, Crispine, were granted permission to travel to Crispine’s native home of Kenya.
This was so that Crispine’s family and friends could be a part of one of the big celebrations since the ordination into the priesthood will take place in Cincinnati, Wessman explained.
Wessman, along with his mother, Roxanne, and brother, Tyler, traveled to Kenya for this special ceremony.
“The faith of the people in Kenya is pretty hard to find words to describe,” Wessman said.
Their expression of faith is much different, he said, noting the there is dancing and exuberant music as part of the Mass. The music, and therefore the Mass, is much longer than in the US. For example, they sing a 20-minute entrance hymn at the beginning of Mass.
As part of the ordination ceremony in Kenya, Wessman was also expected to perform a traditional Kenyan dance, for which he received no prior instructions.
“It’s baptism by fire,” he said of the celebratory dance. “You learn on the spot.”
After experiencing the gracious hospitality of the Kenyan people, and the overall experience, he has no regrets, nor would he hesitate to do it all over again.
The response by the native people was overwhelming, said his mother, Roxanne, who noted the estimated 5,000 people who traveled (mostly by foot) near and far for the ceremony.
“I was taken aback by [the response of] the people in Kenya and their great love for their church,” she said, adding the high level of respect they showed toward Aaron and Crispine.
“It was very emotional, I must say,” said the proud mother, who wasn’t necessarily surprised to hear of her son’s decision to become a priest. “I could see the change in him . . . and where his calling was.”
When he began working with Glenmary, “I could see it was a wonderful choice for him. He seemed happy and I think that’s all you can hope for as a mother,” Roxanne said, who was raised in the Silver Lake Catholic Church of St. Adalberts (now Holy Family) and currently attends St. John’s Catholic Church in Darwin.
Next May, in the weeks following his ordination as a priest, Wessman will return to his home parish of St. John’s to conduct what is called a Mass of Thanksgiving. He will also be visiting his grandmother’s parish, Holy Family.
Life as a mission priest
Though rewarding in the end, there are a lot of chances one has to take as a Glenmary Mission priest, particularly when going into a community where there may be a lot of biases surrounding the Catholic church, Wessman explained.
It also takes courage in building a relationship with a stranger that can sometimes lead to rejection.
For him, it’s a blessing to have the chance to learn about a new culture. It provides an opportunity to grow, in addition to strengthening one’s faith and identity, he said.
Being a mission priest is challenging and requires patience and a lot of listening.
“My goal is to learn to appreciate and grow from their experience or expression of faith,” Wessman said.
Mission priests go into an area with a lot of different goals.
A typical mission area is one where roughly 50 percent of the population doesn’t belong to any church, Wessman said.
The goals emphasized all encompass the overall goal to “bring about the kingdom of God.” They are to:
• see where the Holy Spirit has already been working in the area and identify ways to contribute to that work.
• better the lives there who may be living in poverty. This could include opening food banks, clothing pantries, and repair or rebuild housing.
• establish a vibrant Roman Catholic presence, and eventually create a church and return it to the local diocese.
In the last 70 years, Glenmary has established/nurtured more than 100 mission communities to maturation, and currently has 40 missions and ministries throughout Appalacia and the South. All of this is done entirely by donations.
For more information about Glenmary, or to donate to the mission, visit www.glenmary.org/missions.