By Don Clemmer
For Father David Wheeler, one of three men ordained to the priesthood for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington on June 29, each stage in the journey of his life and his response to his vocational call has allowed him “to look back and see with more clarity” the ground he’s already covered—“the origin story, if you will,” he explains.
Father Wheeler, like his ordination classmates Father Marc Bentley and Father Aldrin Tayag, has a story that is heavily influenced by his place of origin. And with all three men, those origins and the paths they’ve found themselves called down — however diverse — together tell the story of the present and the future of the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Kentucky.
THE MOUNTAIN PATH
Father Marc Bentley, 30, is, as far as he knows, the first Catholic priest with a master’s degree in Appalachian studies. Raised in Pike County, Bentley’s mountain roots go back generations.
“When I was growing up, I tried to get out of Appalachia,” he recalls. “I would look up at the sky and see the airplanes flying over the mountains, thousands of feet up, and just imagine them … landing, picking me up and taking me away.”
Raised but not baptized in the United Methodist Church, Bentley began looking for a new church home in his teens. But he initially ruled out Catholicism. While he found Catholics perhaps weird, he does recall his own mother correcting him when he reported grade school classmates saying Catholics worshipped Mary. She told him that, no, Catholics simply ask Mary to ask Jesus.
“I don’t know how she knew that, but it’s something that I remember,” Bentley says.
When he was 16, the events of the death and funeral of Pope St. John Paul II had an impression on Bentley. “’Maybe there’s something to this Catholicism,’ I thought,” he recalls.
A high school friend accompanied him to the 2005 Pentecost Mass at St. George in Jenkins, which Bentley admits was a disorienting experience. A nosebleed at the end of Mass sticks in his mind — like a moment out of a Flannery O’Connor story — as the Holy Spirit trying to get his attention. After the experience, he says, “I kept coming back.”
Bentley came into the Catholic Church with his maternal grandmother that year. His sister and parents joined a couple years later. Last summer, he performed his first baptism, on the first cradle Catholic ever in their family.
“Becoming Catholic in Eastern Kentucky was difficult,” Bentley recalls, saying it was common to run up against anti-Catholic sentiment and the opinion that Catholics aren’t Christians. As he grew more deeply committed to this new aspect of his identity, Bentley also found himself discovering the richness of his Appalachian roots, which he first tapped into by reading southern authors as a student at Centre College, but also later in his master’s studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where he delved into the history, music and religiosity of the region.
“Just because you have an accent doesn’t mean you don’t have something to say,” he notes. “Being able to minister in the mountains — that’s really exciting to me,” he adds. Bentley’s first assignment after ordination is St. Michael in Paintsville. While he sees very much the need for the Bluegrass and Appalachian regions of the diocese to live in harmony, value and learn from one another, he knows his roots are deep in the mountains.
“They’re in my bones. They’re everything that made me who I am. I think of my ancestors looking at these same mountains. I don’t know what they would think about having a descendant who is a Catholic priest.”
Father Aldrin Tayag, 33, followed a path to the priesthood far removed from Father Bentley’s. Despite their graduating together this year from St. Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana, their journeys began thousands of miles apart and in profoundly different religious environments. Tayag is originally from San Luis, Pampanga, in the Philippines, the only majority-Catholic country in Asia. “Back home, everything was Catholic,” he recalls. “I remember my mother telling me that when she was pregnant with me, she was craving for the smoke of the incense.”His mother also told him that, as a young child, he would point to the seminary near their house and say he wanted to go there. He recalls seeing live television images of St. John Paul II’s 1995 World Youth Day visit to the Philippines, being overcome with emotion
and thinking, “I want to be like that person.”
However, pursuing the priesthood was never considered an option because his family didn’t have the money to pay for it. But the journey for Tayag has repeatedly seen a rocky, crooked path suddenly becoming straight and drawing him forward. This includes a friend fronting the money to help him get into seminary and, later, his visa application to come to the United States being accepted — much to his surprise.
Since arriving in the Diocese of Lexington in 2014, Tayag has found himself feeling like a missionary in a place where Catholics are a minority. After ordination, he will be assigned to Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary in Lexington, a parish with much diversity and many immigrants.
Tayag sees joy and mercy as inseparable, as so many people feel weighed down by personal baggage: “The assurance of God’s mercy is what gives us hope. And because you have that hope, that’s what gives you joy.”
In addition to spreading happiness, rather than grumpiness, Tayag sees the journey of priesthood ahead of him in terms once used by his home country’s Cardinal Luis Tagle: something that at once intimidates a person but also inspires overwhelming happiness.
“The faith that was given to me was a gift,” Tayag says. “But I know very well that a gift isn’t only for you to enjoy. It is also a responsibility.”
Like Father Bentley’s, Father David Wheeler’s journey began in Appalachia, growing up in Manchester. But like Father Tayag, Wheeler, 29, had a Catholic context. The middle of seven home-schooled children, Wheeler belonged to St. Ann Mission, a Catholic community of 23 families made up of 40 people.
“Being nine of the 40, we were kind of influential in the parish and took on a lot of the different roles and ministries,” he recalls.
Wheeler’s father is a cradle Catholic from Pittsburgh, Pa., while his mother is a convert from South Dakota, but the family always felt accepted in their Eastern Kentucky community. His family and community nurtured his vocation, but as Wheeler followed the journey toward priesthood, he began to see how his experience was just one part of a universal whole.
“What I had grown up with was beautiful, and it was very much an authentic Catholic experience,” he says. However, as his studies took him from Kentucky to Ohio and eventually to Rome, he saw through the people he encountered “how many different experiences play into the Church, how rich the Church’s tradition, not only in history but in breadth, is.”
Studying in Rome, Wheeler says he realizes, “The world is the Church’s mission sphere. There is nowhere outside of where the Church will go.” He will spend another year following ordination completing a degree in marriage and family from Rome’s John Paul II Institute.
“The real formative influences in my faith journey, in a lot of ways, have been my family,” Wheeler says of his decision to pursue studies involving the family, adding that his family also provided “an authentic witness of how to live out family life.” He says that being a minister of the sacraments is what most excites him about the priesthood, of “allowing people to experience the love and mercy of God.”