By Senior Airman Matthew Gilmore, 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 31, 2019
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- For a Catholic Priest, a vocation is the moment an individual feels the calling to serve God in the priesthood. That calling, as is life, is a journey. An endless web of paths laid out just waiting to be explored. The exact destination isn’t always known and it most certainly doesn’t come with step by step directions on how to get there. It is that fact that makes it so easy to get lost along the way, it happens to everyone. Whether pursuing the priesthood or one’s own goals, it is the trials and tribulations that accompany that journey which make getting to our destinations all the more satisfying.
For 2nd Lt. Tyler Harris and 2nd Lt. Madison Hayes, both Air Force Reserve Command chaplain candidates out of Robins Air Force Base, GA, their paths to the priesthood may have begun with a calling, but it is their respective journeys through life and service that has placed them each right where they need to be, firmly on the road to the light.
“I first felt the call to the priesthood at U.S. Air Force Basic Military Training in May of 2001,” said Harris. “I was attending Mass and in watching this chaplain inspire others it just hit me, this is what I want to do with my life. This man was taking struggling trainees and instilling hope in them and that hope had power. In that moment I knew God’s will for me was to have a positive impact on peoples’ lives just like that chaplain had had on my own.
“Immediately after the service I asked him what I needed to do to become a Catholic Priest and needless to say it was a pretty daunting task. It takes nine years of Seminary school and training to serve as a clergyman but nevertheless, he was the first of many people to encourage me to explore God’s invitation to serve.”
In continuing to explore that invitation, Harris would go on to interview and be selected for a chaplain’s assistant position straight out of BMT. While not the priesthood, it was still in the realm of helping others. His first assignment would be Rammstein Air Base, Germany, where he would go on to work at a chapel with one very heavily involved family, the family of a young Madison Hayes.
“Once I was at Ramstein Air Base Madison’s mother Karen really helped me learn what my role was as a chaplain’s assistant,” said Harris. “The Hayes family was incredibly involved in the church and they really took it upon themselves to make sure I was welcomed and settling in at my new home. Through our many times working together I had ample opportunity to talk with Mrs. Hayes about my aspirations of becoming a priest and she was always so encouraging about it. She would constantly tell me she knew I would be a priest one day and it really gave me the confidence to start Seminary and truly take my first few steps towards my dream.”
For Hayes, Ramstein was just the beginning. Through his family’s work with the chapel, Hayes himself was a part of the community and regularly attended events, one of which was a confirmation retreat that he now classifies as his calling to the priesthood.
“Much like Harris’ vocation, I felt my calling after watching our chaplain inspire and I wanted to have that same effect on people,” said Hayes. “After speaking with the chaplain about my invitation to serve God, my chaplain told me to continue praying on that calling and eventually the doors to that path would open up.”
For Hayes, Like Harris and all other Catholic priests, that moment of vocation is a gift but also a mystery. Without the answers he needed, Hayes would not jump straight into Seminary school but rather go on to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. He would serve as an airborne mission systems specialist on E-3 Sentry aircraft before finally finding the answers he prayed to find. For in serving his country, his longing to serve in a higher capacity only grew stronger with time. As the years passed his prayer, or in this instance, inability to pray, would shine light on his path to the priesthood.
“The moment that I decided to completely accept God’s invitation was when my brother and I tried to go to Mass but it had to be cancelled,” said Hayes. “Mass was cancelled because the priest agreed to go hold mass for a more remote church once a month and it just broke my heart that this was happening in more places than just here. It really highlighted the Catholic priest shortage and that moment was the call to action that I couldn’t ignore. I knew I wasn’t going to solve the problem on my own but I could certainly do my part.”
It was that lack of priests that also became blatantly apparent to Harris while deployed as a chaplain’s assistant. Without a priest the spiritual needs of service members in forward operating locations were not being met, a reminder of what he was originally called upon to do, provide hope for the people.
“In flying from FOB to FOB with Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy Broglio for Christmas Mass and seeing the way people would flock to him to be spiritually filled, it was just hard knowing they didn’t have access to this need all the time. Seeing what he was doing for these people, how he carried himself and just lived his life was the last bit of inspiration I needed to complete my theological studies and work towards fully accepting my calling.”
Today, years later, Harris and Hayes are well on their way to entering the priesthood. Neither may have had the most direct route, but they each made it where they were meant to be, on the road to the light.
“I definitely didn’t take the most direct route to my goal,” said Harris. “I was demoralized to find out that it would take me nine years to become a priest but so many people encouraged me to tackle that challenge. I wasn’t the best student and I definitely struggled in Seminary to start, but the fact that I was working towards something I love and have a passion for kept me going.
“No matter how long it takes, how many disappointments you face, failures suffered, just be perseverant. As long as you know where you want to be, don’t let anything stop you from getting there. I was a chaplain’s assistant for 16 years before I finally was ready to make the leap and begin the process of becoming a priest. The only thing that matters is that I am going to be priest and I am determined to be the best chaplain I can be. When someone walks through my door seeking help, I’m going to know my journey is exactly what it needed to be because that is what put me there to greet them.”
As the chaplains before them inspired them to accept their callings, both Harris and Hayes fully embrace their role of encouraging others to find their own good in life.
“Everyone has a mission, a calling, a purpose and it’s a hard question to answer,” said Hayes. “For us, our light is to inspire and serve. If you feel your calling is to be a chaplain of any denomination, the Chaplain Corps could use your help. If not, discover what is true, good and beautiful for you. Once you find that light that fulfills you, pursue it. Sometimes it may take a little longer than you might think, but if your journey is anything like our journey, have faith you’ll get there.”