By Mary Rezac
Deacon Drake McCalister is many things that most men about to become Catholic priests are not.
McCallister is 50 years old; the average age of men being ordained as Catholic priests in the U.S. this year is 33.
He is a husband and a father of five; most men about to become priests will promise never to marry, and will never have biological children.
He is a former Pentecostal preacher and Catholic convert; 89% of men about to be ordained were baptized Catholics as infants, according to data from CARA, a research center at Georgetown University.
“Why do you need to be a priest?” McCalister said he is asked many times, sometimes even from leaders in the Church.
“I don’t,” McCalister told CNA. “My only desire is to be obedient to Jesus Christ, period.” And McCalister believes that Jesus has called him to the priesthood.
It’s not the first time the Lord has asked him to do something radical, he said.
McCalister’s long and winding vocation story begins in his early 20s, when he, as a young Pentecostal, asked the Lord in prayer what he should do with his life. After high school, McCalister had started working; the idea of college just hadn’t appealed to him. But after a few years, he knew it was time to seek God’s plan.
“I was always ministry-minded,” he said. “I walked into a prayer meeting asking God: ‘What do you want me to do?’ And as clear as the Lord has ever told me anything in my life, it was there during that prayer session that the Lord made it clear: ‘Get equipped for full-time ministry and give me the rest of your life.’”
“So I literally walked out of that room with a singular purpose,” McCalister said. He knew the call was from God, he added, because he found himself suddenly excited to go to college to get a theology degree – something that had never been part of his own plans.
Had McCalister been Catholic at the time, he told CNA, he would have become a priest – he was young, unmarried and childless at the time. But since he was not Catholic, “I went on with life and got married and had some kids,” he said.
After getting a theology degree, McCalister began a 13-year stint of Pentecostal ministry, becoming a youth minister, then a music minister and director, then an associate pastor, and finally the senior pastor of a church. He started his ministry in California, but moved to Seattle after about 4 years, where the rest of his Pentecostal ministry took place.
It was there, starting in 1999, that he first felt drawn to the Catholic Church – through the radio.
“It began through EWTN radio, that was my main source to the Catholic Church, I didn’t really know any Catholics,” McCalister said. He listened to an hour of Catholic Answers Live, and was drawn in — not by what was being said, but how it was being said.
“I disagreed with all the theology,” McCalister recalled. “But they were charitable, evangelistic, they were Christ-centered, they knew their Bible, and they were Catholic. And I’d never encountered a Catholic that had all those (qualities).”
“I tuned back in the next day, not because I was interested in their content, but to find out if they were just the only two excited Catholics on the face of the planet or what,” he added.
He kept listening, and the more he listened, the more he felt drawn to the Catholic Church. He started doing his own research, reading Church documents, Church fathers, and writings from the popes and the Saints.
“I was less interested in what people had to say about Catholicism than what Catholicism said about itself in official documents and Church history,” he said.
After talking with his wife, and five years of study, the McCallisters decided to come into the Catholic Church with their children.
He calls himself an “Inter mirifica” convert – the title of a Vatican IIdecree on the importance of media and social communications in evangelization. He also credits Mother Angelica in his conversion, for starting EWTN.
“We need to use the media to advance the Gospel and the mission. I’m here because of that, because I didn’t meet one real live Catholic in person through my whole five years of study,” he said.
Even though he and his wife were intellectually won over to the Catholic Church for some time, McCalister said, actually becoming a Catholic felt like a giant hurdle for a previously-Protestant family.
“There was a week, probably about 6 months before we resigned (to join the Catholic Church), where I was literally sick to my stomach and begging God: ‘Don’t make me become Catholic, I’ve never refused you anything, Lord, I’ve said yes to everything, but don’t make me become Catholic!’” he said.
The identity shift was a big one, he said.
“When you’re Protestant you’re defined by what you’re not, and that’s not Catholic,” he said. “It’s not just an apologetic data point, it really requires a reforming of the mind and the outlook in a unique way.”
Another big hurdle was the issue of authority, McCalister said.
“It really comes down to: ‘Ok, who has the authority?’” he said. In the Catholic Church, the Magisterium – the bishops and the pope – are understood to teach with authority in a way that is not found in Pentecostal theology.
“What that requires is surrender,” McCalister said. “I take myself off the throne as the final arbiter of faith and morals and I surrender to the Church as the final arbiter of faith and morals.”
In 2004, after much prayer and study, the McCalister family joined the Catholic Church.
Shortly thereafter, McCallister and his family moved to Steubenville, Ohio. McCalister earned a graduate degree in theology and catechetics from Franciscan University, where he now works as the coordinator of catechetical practicum in university’s catechetics department.
It wasn’t until 2010 that McCalister considered becoming a clergy member, when his diocese began its first diaconate program for permanent deacons.
“I want to be serving the people of my parish, so when the diaconate presented itself, I presented myself for the diaconate,” he said. “I thought – this is great, I can do this as a married man.”
But the Holy Spirit “kept prompting me that I needed to ask the question if I qualified for the dispensation of the celibacy requirement” for the priesthood, McCalister said.
A dispensation from the obligation of celibacy, or being unmarried, can be granted to men seeking the priesthood in limited circumstances, such as when someone who was formerly an Anglican or Episcopalian minister becomes Catholic and wants to become a Catholic priest. Such petitions are considered on a case-by-case basis, McCalister said.
When his bishop said that a dispensation could be possible in his case, McCalister started to consider the priesthood more seriously.
He told the director of his diaconate program, who responded: “Why do you need to become a priest?”
“I said that my only desire is to be obedient to Jesus Christ, period,” McCalister said. “That’s why I left everything from my denominational background to enter the Catholic Church, it was my love for Jesus Christ, and the Lord is opening this door and putting this on my heart. I don’t need to be a priest as if this is fulfilling some kind of desire I had, my desire is simply to be obedient.”
There were some natural pauses in the process, McCalister said – a transition of bishops, waiting for permission from Rome, further prayer and discernment. It took about 10 years in total to prepare for his upcoming priestly ordination – scheduled now for June 21.
When asked if the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, including those of the past year, had affected his willingness to join either the Catholic Church or its priesthood, McCalister said that his background as a Pentecostal pastor had prepared him well.
“In my previous ministry, we had some unbelievably difficult years, of submitting to the Lord and church infighting and church split,” he said.
“Once you’ve been on the inside, you realize that if people are present, sin is present,” he said. “The Catholics don’t have the corner on sin. Nobody does.”
McCalister said he believes his unique background and vocation story will serve him well as a priest, in different ways than if he were coming into the priesthood as a “cradle Catholic.”
“There’s things that a cradle Catholic and our young men that enter the priesthood are able to bring that I’ll never be able to bring because I have a different background,” he said.
“There’s a way that I see life and ministry and the Church that is just different, because I had to wrestle with different things to get into the Church.”
One way that he differs from some others is “my desire for evangelism and to reach the people on the fringes. That was very much a part of the denominational soup that I was raised in. We were all about reaching the lost, and how we can articulate the Gospel in a way to draw people,” he said.
The Catholic Church has had a strong emphasis on evangelization in the years after the Second Vatican Council, he said, but some Catholics may not have had as much first-hand experience with it.
“Some people who grew up in the Church are still learning how to use words like evangelism without feeling like they’re being Protestant,” he said.
As for being married, he’s not sure what impact that will have on his ministry, other than that he plans on drawing from family life in his homilies. It is an unusual thing for Latin Catholic priests to be married, he said, though he noted that other ritual Churches in the Catholic Church do allow for married clergy.
“I’m not an activist,” he added. “Namely, I’m not here to advocate for the end of celibacy in the priesthood, anyone looking for me to jump on that bandwagon needs to look elsewhere. I’m here to serve Christ and lead people to Jesus.”
When asked what he’s most excited for in his priesthood, McCalister said: “Can I say everything?” “Mass and mission,” he added. “Life in the spirit and engagement in the mission, those are the two things that I’m most excited about.”