May 27, 2005

Pope John Paul II was an inspiration
to Deacon Shaun Whittington

Editor’s note: Deacons Shaun Whittington and Bill Williams will be ordained to the priesthood on June 4, 2005.

By Sean Gallagher

Deacon Shaun Whittington’s vocational journey began when he was a young boy growing up in his family’s home in the hills of southeastern Indiana.

At 10 a.m. on June 4 at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis, he will arrive at the milestone in this pilgrimage to which he has looked forward for so long when he is ordained to the priesthood. His Mass of Thanksgiving will be celebrated at 5:30 p.m. the same day at St. Michael Church in Brookville.

Deacon Whittington’s journey leading up to that day has taken him far afield—from the wilderness of New Mexico to the mountains of eastern Turkey to the tomb of St. Peter in the heart of Rome.

He also from a young age followed an interior pilgrimage, plumbing deeper and deeper the truths of the faith with the help of great spiritual and theological writers from throughout the history of the Church.

Throughout it all, he has remained faithful in prayerfully listening for God’s call and nurturing a deep love for the priesthood and the Church.

Deacon Whittington, 27, is a member of St. Michael Parish in Brookville. His family moved there from Harrison, Ohio, when he was preparing to enter the eighth grade.

This move coincided with the family’s decision to homeschool him and his four younger brothers.

According to Deacon Whittington, he will be the first homeschooled man to be ordained to the priesthood in the archdiocese in modern times.

The shift to homeschooling allowed Deacon Whittington and his brothers to explore deeply their own desires. For one of his brothers, that turned out to be mechanics. For him, it was delving into classic philosophical and theological texts, including portions of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and some of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

His interest in theology coincided with his love of liturgy, one that involved the whole family through the boys’ pretending to celebrate Mass together.

According to Deacon Whittington’s mother, Patricia, all her sons eventually took part, but her eldest was the instigator.

“They’ve all played [Mass] throughout growing up,” she said. “They started in lower grade school and they’d take turns. [Shaun] would be the boss because he was the oldest.”

Although Patricia Whittington recognized that there was an element of fun for her sons in their play, she also knew that it was a chance for them to learn as well, describing the little pretend liturgies as “a way of learning about Mass.”

It was through these re-enactments that his mother recalled Deacon Whittington on occasion casually mentioning to her and her husband, Neil, an interest in the priesthood.

“We were calmly excited and interested in how this possible desire would pan out in the future,” she said. “As I recall, we just planned on seeing how his interest would increase or wane over the following years as he pursued his academic career.”

Deacon Whittington’s learning interests weren’t limited to theology and philosophy, however.

In his high school years, he followed the lead of his father and served in Franklin County’s volunteer emergency medical services, eventually becoming certified as an emergency medical technician.

Deacon Whittington’s involvement in the Boy Scouts also opened to him many different vistas of learning. He persevered to earn Eagle Scout, discovering a variety of fields of knowledge along the way.

But he also opened himself through Scouting to geographic fields and horizons as well. One of the most significant Scouting camping trips that he took was a two-week trek in the wilds of New Mexico.

Deacon Whittington described this trip in spiritual terms, comparing it to a retreat he would take several years later after he became a seminarian.

“To be out very much in the wilderness for two weeks can be a time of deep spiritual renewal, even if it only happens on a natural level, getting away from the busyness of everyday life,” he said. “Its amazing the similarity between two weeks of backpacking and an eight-day silent Ignatian retreat. What one is on a natural level, the other is on a supernatural level.”

Not long after camping in New Mexico, Deacon Whittington began his undergraduate studies at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.

Majoring in philosophy there, he continued his reading of St. Thomas Aquinas that he had begun in high school, focusing his studies on the scholastic philosophy of the medieval saint.

A significant turning point in his vocational discernment occurred after his junior year at Christendom when he affiliated with the archdiocese as a seminarian.

Deacon Whittington said that although the thought of being a priest had occurred to him as early as the second grade, he only began to speak about it publicly in a significant way after he became a seminarian.

The adventures that began for him in Scouting camping trips continued when he started his priestly formation at St. Mary of the Lake University Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill. Some happened far away. Others were closer to home.

Starting in the spring of his second year, Deacon Whittington spent six months at St. Luke Parish in Indianapolis, participating in a variety of the faith community’s ministries.

Jean Zander, a St. Luke parishioner, was a member of an advisory committee at the parish that, according to Deacon Whittington, helped him learn “what the people in the pews care about and what they’re looking for in a priest.”

He got to know her family during his time at the parish and has maintained his relationship with them since then.

She sees in him a valuable combination of good interpersonal skills and enthusiasm for the truth.

“He’s very kind,” Zander said. “He’s a good listener. He also has a tremendous love for the truth and passion for the truth and the truth of the teaching of the Church.”

In the middle of his third year at Mundelein, Deacon Whittington went on a pilgrimage sponsored by the seminary to Turkey, Greece and Italy that allowed him to follow the steps of St. Paul and St. Peter.

He also visited the locations of five of the seven churches mentioned at the start of the book of Revelation.

Following the celebration of a Mass at the ruins of Laodicea, Deacon Whittington pondered the meaning of its disappearance.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s no guarantee that this won’t be Indianapolis in 500 or 1,000 years,’ ” he said. “What we have to do is we must, we must preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. There is no guarantee that the faith will stay in a particular place, only that it will stay alive. And it’s up to us to preach Christ and him crucified to keep the faith alive here in Indianapolis, here in the United States.”

Deacon Whittington viewed the burial place of St. Peter, two levels below the main altar of the basilica named after him, and the next day met the first pope’s 263th successor, Pope John Paul II.

On the same visit to Rome, he also met then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“He was so gracious, just a humble, simple man,” Deacon Whittington said. “He was still kind of surprised that people wanted their picture with him, even at that stage.”

Although he admires Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II has served as the inspiration for the priestly vocation of Deacon Whittington, who was born the same year that the late pontiff was elected.

“The reason that he has been such an inspiration to me in my vocation was his deep sense of spiritual fatherhood, the love and the compassion that he showed,” Deacon Whittington said, “not just to the faithful, not just to Catholics, but in his outreach to the whole world.”

On the day the pope died, Deacon Whittington was having a practice Mass at the seminary. He knew that the pontiff was near death and as he said in the eucharistic prayer, “for John Paul, our pope,” he realized at that moment that he would never be able to say that as a priest.

As he completed the practice Mass and said, “The Mass is over, go in peace,” the tolling bells in the seminary’s chapel rang, announcing the death of the pope.

On June 5, just over two months after the death of the pope, Deacon Whittington will be ordained to the priesthood.

Patricia Whittington said her son’s ordination will be a humbling experience for her and her husband.

“Sometimes I say he’s going to be a priest in spite of us,” she said. “It’s a humbling experience because it’s not anything that we’ve outright done. Getting to ordination and afterward is not so much what we did. It’s him listening to the call and accepting it. So give the credit to the Holy Spirit.” †


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