February 8, 2013

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

An Alaskan cruise, a path to priesthood

Matthew Bearth was 17 when he set out on an Alaskan cruise that changed the course of his life and led him to the seminary. Today, the 20-year-old college junior loves to recount that northern voyage.

Matthew didn’t have a passport when his family decided to take an Alaskan cruise the August before his senior year of high school. It was a time when an onslaught of questions was beginning to come from every direction.

What college are you going to attend? What kind of career are you planning?

He didn’t know the answers.

As a young boy, he’d considered being an astronaut or an NFL punter. Now the Burnsville, Minn., teen was thinking practical—a business degree from a college where he would have good odds of meeting a nice Catholic girl.

“I was definitely assuming marriage,” Matthew told me.

The Alaskan landscape stunned him—soaring mountains, calving glaciers, gliding eagles. He saw brown bears snatching salmon and whales engaged in bubble netting, a feeding technique in which a dozen humpbacks surfaced with mouths full of flopping fish. To Matthew, it was all a vibrant reflection of the Creator.

The cruise also provided a close encounter with Scripture, providing him time to study the Gospel of Matthew and glean new insights.

Most significant, the cruise introduced him to Father Mike Schmitz, a young priest from another Minnesota diocese with a magnetic personality, enough athleticism to complete an Ironman triathlon, and movie-star looks—dark hair and dark tan, searing blue eyes and dimples.

“He’s ripped,” Matthew said.

Here was a man who could have scored any job or wooed any woman, and he chose to sacrifice it all for priesthood. And he wasn’t just coping or content. He was happy. He had chosen this vocation above all others, recognizing its nobility, adventure and joy.

Matthew was intrigued.

He could see there was no ego at work. Father Mike drew people in, only to point them to Christ.

He made deft references to “The Simpsons,” “Twilight” and Miley Cyrus in his homilies, yet when it came time for consecration, he demonstrated a reverence that Matthew had never before witnessed.

“He celebrates the Mass as if he was in heaven,” Matthew said. “It’s as if he’s talking to God—and you know he is.”

The teenager resolved right then and there that, no matter what vocation he pursued, he would lead the same kind of life—totally centered on Christ, directing others to him. After seeing such an amazing example, why aim any lower?

“I knew I could live an excellent life,” he said.

Back home, Matthew downloaded all of Father Mike’s homilies onto his iPod and quickly devoured them. Senior year started, bringing other changes. He cut back on pizza and dessert and reduced his portions, shedding 30 pounds over the course of the school year. He began praying a decade of the rosary every day, logging it in a notebook he kept by his bed. He wanted to be a better man.

Time passed, and faith remained the center of Matthew’s life. A year ago, he decided to enter St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. He met Father Mike at his parents’ cabin up north, where the two men had a heart-to-heart talk in the garage about priesthood. Now halfway through his first year as a seminarian, Matthew still keeps in touch with his mentor, texting back and forth and getting together when Father Mike is in town.

“God placed him in my life for a reason.”

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She can be reached at www.ReadChristina.com.)

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