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Answering the Call: A Young Man's Journey to the Priesthood

By Michael Terheyden
3/14/2011 (7 years ago)
Catholic Online (

The law of love, the Cross, is the answer to the messiness

Father David Carter brings the idealism and energy of youth to the priesthood; yet, he also has a maturity and wisdom far beyond his thirty-one years. He is a holy priest. He could have been whatever he wanted in this life, enjoyed everything that the secular world has to offer. So why did he give it up and become a priest?

Father David Carter in front of Chartres Cathedral in France

Father David Carter in front of Chartres Cathedral in France

P>KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - My first recollection of Father David Carter was when I heard that he was going into the seminary around thirteen years ago. He was a teenager. Father Carter represents the best of his generation. Unlike so many, he was not beguiled by the shallowness of this age or its false promises. Although he has grown much over the years, he brings the idealism and energy of youth to the priesthood; yet, he also has a maturity and wisdom far beyond his thirty-one years.

Father Carter is a holy priest. He offers the Mass with the utmost reverence. He is accessible and kind. He has the voice of an angel, and he is intelligent. He also has a Bachelors Degree in philosophy and advanced degrees in theology and canon law. He could have been whatever he wanted in this life, enjoyed everything that the secular world has to offer. So why did he give it up and become a priest? I interviewed him because I wanted an answer to that question. I found the answer informative and surprising. The interview is as follows:

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): What kind of environment did you grow up in?

Fr. Carter: I grew up in a conservative environment. I lived in Shreveport, Louisiana until I was eleven-years old. Then we moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. We had a strong sense of family and religion growing up. Other people in my life, such as neighbors and teachers, shared many of our values. They were moral people. As a result, my environment was healthy and stable. I wasn't exposed to a lot of the detrimental thinking and confusion of our time.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): When you were a child, did you or your parents have any idea that you would become a priest?

Fr. Carter: No. I had a very normal childhood. My desires were like most young people my age. I wanted worldly success. I wanted to get married and have a family. When I was about fourteen, my religion teacher told us that God has a plan for us, that He created us and has a vocation for us. She told us not to be afraid to ask God what He wants us to do with our lives. I took her comments seriously and prayed about it. I thought about flying planes and being an architect. I also thought about public service jobs like being a fireman or a policeman or joining the military.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): But I presume you were an angelic child?

Fr. Carter: Not really. During religious education classes, I was put out in the hall a couple times for cutting up in class. I even got into huge trouble once. My parents put me into a Catholic school when I was in the fourth grade. I guess because I was the new kid, I became a target of bullies. It got to the point that I could not take it anymore, so I fought back. But the principal caught me going ballistic on the other guy, and I ended up being expelled over the incident.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): Well, then, did you have some sort of a conversion experience?

Fr. Carter: It was not any one experience. First of all, my parents always took us to Church on Sundays and holy days of obligation. I also remember those times when we prayed as a family. I was an altar server for many years. I was also involved in a youth group and the Boy Scouts. I became an Eagle Scout. Being in these organizations trained and molded me for a life of service. They gave me a strong desire to serve.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): Did your desire to serve others influence your decision to become a priest?

Fr. Carter: Yes, but there were other experiences that influenced my decision as well. I remained an altar server throughout my high school years. When I was sixteen, I would usually carry the cross. It was heavy. After holding it a while, my muscles would fatigue. But I did not falter because I was doing it for the Lord. My pastor noticed my attitude and my effort, and on one of these occasions, he suggested that I might have a calling to the priesthood. I was flabbergasted. My first thought was no thanks. I was thinking about marriage, family and worldly success. However, I later met with the Associate Pastor. He was a young priest, and he had a strong influence on me. I also remember a sign on his office door encouraging vocations to the priesthood. It said, "For God's sake do something with your life."

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): Are there any other experiences you want to mention?

Fr. Carter: My high school civics teacher had us write an essay about where we wanted to be in ten years. The assignment helped me realize that I wanted things like peace, joy, and fulfillment, that is, happiness. So I wrote my essay on happiness. I decided that I was willing to go wherever the desire for true happiness led me. It was like giving up my will, like receiving a grace that opened me up to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. After that, I would sometimes get the idea that God might be calling me to the priesthood, especially when I served at Mass.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): Was there any particular aspect of the faith that contributed to your decision?

Fr. Carter: Most definitely! My understanding of the Eucharist and its significance had a great influence on me. But it was more than just a cognitive experience. I also had a profound affective experience when I received Holy Communion. I not only knew that the Eucharist was God, I felt His presence and His warmth. I attribute this experience to God's grace.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): How did your desire for service and these experiences relate to the priesthood?

Fr. Carter: It occurred to me that a fireman can save a person's body from a burning building, but a priest can save a person's soul from eternal fire; and a policeman can help bring people peace, but a priest can help people achieve peace of heart. Likewise, a soldier fights his nation's enemies, but there is also a spiritual enemy that needs to be fought. These thoughts made me realize that service is noble, but serving God is more noble. It is the fullness of nobility. We are made to help others, and the priesthood is the ultimate expression of a person being for others. It is where I could give my all. While I was not yet ready to make a commitment, I was open to the possibility that my desire for fulfillment and happiness might be leading me to the priesthood.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): So when did you know that you had a calling to the priesthood?

Fr. Carter: When I was preparing to graduate from high school, the Bishop gave me the opportunity to attend Conception Seminary in Missouri, where I could get my college degree and continue the discernment process. In college, I began to see the logical connections between the Eucharist, moral truth, justice, and the culture of life. Studying the Protestant Reformation also had an impact on me. It helped me see the resilience of the Church through men like St. John Fisher and St. Thomas Moore, who were executed by order of King Henry VIII in 1535 for their Catholic faith. Thus, I realized that some things are worth my all, even my life. It was then that I decided to give my all and my life to the priesthood.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): What happened after you said, "yes" to  God's call?

Fr. Carter: The Bishop sent me to the North American College in Rome for four years for my priestly formation. During my formation, I also acquired a Bachelor of Sacred Theology. It is equivalent to a Masters of Divinity Degree. Then on July 1, 2005, I was ordained into the priesthood. However, it was not long before I was sent back to Rome in order to complete a three-year program in canon law.

Catholic Online: (Michael Terheyden) What are your duties now?

Fr. Carter: I am the Associate Pastor at All Saints Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. I am also the Assistant Vocation Director for the Diocese, and I am the Vice Chancellor for Canonical Affairs.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): Have you found the happiness and fulfillment you wanted?

Fr. Carter: Yes. I love to celebrate the sacraments, especially confession and the Mass. Anointing of the sick is also very special to me. I find deep fulfillment in the knowledge that through the grace given to me at my ordination, I can give the world something that no one else but a priest can give. When people come with the burdens of this world--sin, suffering, despair, and death--I have the words of hope and life. I can give them Jesus.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): Would you give us an example of the sacrifices you encounter as a priest?

Fr. Carter: When someone calls in the middle of the night because they need a priest, it can be very tough to get up. It is a real suffering. I do not like suffering, but that is the vocation--the love I am called to. Yet, while it requires sacrifice, I know that suffering can be meaningful, beneficial and fruitful. In this sense, our suffering can also be the best of times. It is bittersweet.

Catholic Online (Michael Terheyden): Can you give us some final words of advice?

Fr. Carter: In any major commitment we make, we come to a point where our idealism must give way to a certain messiness in reality. This is natural. In the beginning, we love the ideal, but then we must learn to love within the reality. It is in the concrete messiness of reality that we find our salvation. We do this when we learn to love through the imperfections in ourselves and others. The Christian message of hope and faith answers and speaks directly to the messiness we find ourselves immersed in. The law of love, the Cross, is the answer to the messiness. It is the difference between selfishness versus selflessness, between eventual despair versus happiness.

Perhaps now we can surmise some of the reasons why Father Carter gave up the false promises of secular society and became a priest: He was and remains showered in grace. He comes from good, decent people of God and a moral environment. He was also born with extraordinary gifts that he developed, and he acquired discipline in the process. In this way he grew into a man capable of offering himself to God. Thus, he became a priest with the power to bring truth and love into a messy world. 

Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.


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