January 8, 2010

Religious Vocations Supplement

Seminarian’s journey is an affirmation of the gift of life

Seminarian Jerry Byrd directs the choir of St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood during a Nov. 22 Mass at the parish’s church. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Seminarian Jerry Byrd directs the choir of St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood during a Nov. 22 Mass at the parish’s church. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

OSGOOD—In his relatively short 28 years, seminarian Jerry Byrd has had an adventurous journey of faith.

Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition in southeastern Indiana, he recalls telling his fellow grade-school students who were Catholic that they would go to hell because they worshipped Mary.

“I repeated what I heard,” he said.

In his high school years, Byrd developed his musical talents and put them to the service of his Baptist congregation.

But before the end of his junior year, he became convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith and was received into the full communion of the Church.

During his college years, he majored in music and was involved in music and youth ministry at two parishes in the Cincinnati archdiocese.

After graduating from Mount St. Joseph College in Cincinnati in 2003, Byrd served as a youth minister for a year at St. John the Baptist Parish in Dover and at St. Louis Parish in Batesville for two years.

For the past three years, he has been an archdiocesan seminarian at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad while continuing to serve in parishes during the summer and on breaks from his studies.

Now Byrd is looking forward to the day when, God willing, he will be ordained a priest.

Such a journey of faith would have been stopped before it even started, however, if it weren’t for a crucial decision that his mother, Rose, made while he was still a baby in her womb.

The gift of life

While pregnant with Jerry, Rose’s doctors told her that he had Down syndrome and tried to persuade her to have an abortion.

“I’m dead set against abortion for any reason,” Rose said. “They tried to be [forceful]. They had me watch a film and showed me all of this stuff about Down syndrome babies. But it didn’t change my mind, and I told them it wouldn’t.”

As the pregnancy progressed, the doctors told Rose that her child was losing weight and experiencing other physical problems.

After a difficult labor, Jerry was finally delivered by Caesarean section.

“I saw them deliver him,” Rose said. “And here’s this big, fat, healthy, red, screaming, loud-mouthed baby. And in my mind, I’m hearing all the things the doctors said, that he was sick, that he was going to be a little tiny, sick baby.

“And from that point on, it just reinforced everything that I knew that the Lord had a purpose for him. I just always knew that he would serve the Lord in some way. But I just always felt like it would be in the Baptist Church.”

“She chose to say ‘yes’ to life,” Jerry said. “She chose to say ‘yes’ to whatever God had in store for her and for me. And it was in that moment that her ‘yes’ enabled me to say ‘yes’ [to God’s call].

An encounter with Jesus

It would take a while for Byrd to finally discern what he believes is God’s vocation for him.

Throughout his childhood and early teenage years, he held the Catholic faith in contempt.

But one night in 1997 as a high school junior, he went to a Mass with a friend who was seeking to become Catholic.

“I had no idea when I was walking into that church that night that my life was going to change,” Byrd said.

Up until then, he thought the Mass was just an empty ritual. But that night, something happened.

“When [the priest] elevated the host, I knew that that was Jesus,” Byrd said. “I didn’t know how. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t figure that out. There was just something inside me that said, ‘Jerry, this is Christ.’

“And from that moment, I had a strong desire to receive the Eucharist. I wanted to receive Jesus. I wanted to have that encounter with him.”

Despite the misgivings of his mother, Byrd entered into the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) at St. John the Baptist Parish in Harrison, Ohio, in the Cincinnati archdiocese. He was received into the full communion of the Church in 1998.

Hints and affirmations of a vocation

While still in RCIA, Byrd heard his pastor preach a homily in which he challenged the young men in the congregation to consider the priesthood.

“It was like I couldn’t shake the thought,” Byrd said of the powerful homily. “I couldn’t get rid of it.”

It took eight more years and a few periods where he felt that God was calling him to marriage before Byrd was ready to discern a possible call to the priesthood in a seminary.

Since he has been at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, Byrd has continued to develop his musical talents, composing liturgical music that has been sung at St. John the Baptist Church in Osgood. He often stays at the parish rectory when on breaks from his classes.

Rebecca Oelker, a homeschooled eighth grader, is a member of the parish and sings in the choir that Byrd directs from time to time.

“He’s a lot of fun to be around,” she said. “He brings out the best in our voices somehow. Something about him just makes us want to try our best. And so we always end up sounding good.”

“He’ll be a great priest,” said Jesse Weidner, a member of the parish choir and a freshman at Marian University in Indianapolis. “He loves the Mass. He loves Jesus. He loves God.”

Father Shaun Whittington, the pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish, values Byrd’s musical talents and his love of Catholic culture. But he also sees other attributes in Byrd that will serve him well in priestly ministry.

“He understands what it means to be in relationship with other people and to speak the truth in charity,” Father Whittington said. “I see it from [his] openness and honesty in working with youth to the compassion and concern given to those who have lost loved ones. It’s all across the board.”

Although still a young man, Byrd looks back in wonder at the various twists and turns in his vocational journey.

“Every time that I’ve come to a crossroads, it’s just been a constant affirmation that God is calling me to the priesthood,” he said. “This is where I’m supposed to be.”

(For more information about vocations to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, log on to www.HearGodsCall.com.)

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