Jennifer Barton
May 22, 2021 // Diocese

Family, spiritual connections encouraged priests

Jennifer Barton

Mark Hellinger and Brian Isenbarger, the two Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend seminarians being ordained May 22 to the diaconate, may have taken different paths toward their goal of serving the Church through the holy priesthood. Nevertheless, they share many commonalities of the journey. 

Mark Hellinger

Both were educated entirely through Catholic schools and, notably, both were influenced by priestly examples both outside of and within their families. Several of the diocesan men currently going undergoing formation in the seminary have expressed that the witness of strong, faithful priests helped foster their own vocations as well. And sometimes, multiple religious vocations have emerged from large, extended families. The late Father Don Isenbarger was Brian Isenbarger’s great-uncle, and his cousin is Father Glenn Kohrman; Mark Hellinger is a cousin to Father John Delaney.

Brian Isenbarger

Isenbarger remembered his father, Bob, taking care of his great-uncle when his uncle’s health began to fail. He stated, “He had a love for Father Don; he took care of Father Don when (Father Don) was older and failing in health, so one of the early influences was just seeing him.” 

The care his father showed to his uncle spoke volumes to the younger man. To him, the example was “a moment of fatherly love taking care of fatherly love. That was really beautiful.”

Though he was been assigned to parishes in South Bend for many of Hellinger’s formative years, Father Delaney’s vocation has been a witness for his first cousin once removed. “He’s kind of always been around in my family,” Hellinger remarked.

Other diocesan priests also have served as role models for the men; the priests at the parishes to which they were assigned, certainly, although others stand out in their minds too. Both Hellinger and Isenbarger recall, for example, how the positive example presented to them by Father Benjamin Muhlenkamp roused their inclination toward the priesthood. 

Hellinger shared that when Father Muhlenkamp became a chaplain at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, “he and I became close, just talking about the priesthood and things and his just being kind of a joyful witness of someone who had just been ordained and was loving his life.” 

Father Muhlenkamp blessed Isenbarger’s engagement, and later went on to write his entrance letter for the seminary.

Beginning their studies at seminary brought them into contact with a larger circle of inspiring priests. 

“Your horizon of influential priests just exponentially increases,” Hellinger explained. “It’s been a great blessing to get to know a lot of the priests and just be encouraged by being slowly brought into that really close fraternity of priests serving our diocese, but also priests and seminarians from other dioceses.”

Having a brotherhood of priests who can support and assist each other emotionally, spiritually and practically is critical for them to be able to fulfil the role God has given them, the two seminarians said. Even though they have been studying half a world away from each other, Hellinger and Isenbarger maintain one such close friendship. Isenbarger says that Hellinger, “is one of my best friends.” They take part in a fraternal group together and remain in close contact through phone calls and texts.

Hellinger stressed the need for the fraternal bonds that are created in seminary. “During the summers, people might be shocked to find out exactly how much we hang out. I think that sometimes we seminarians, some priests and also laypeople can picture priests as the “ubermensche”: totally independent. My seminary experience has been one of recognizing exactly how human priests are and how much of a benefit that friendship is.”

“That’s one of the things we really want to try to continue into priesthood is building a culture of priestly fraternity,” Isenbarger commented. “Without the fraternity at seminary, it’d be a pretty tough road to go.”

Because of his previous work with youth groups, Isenbarger understands how critical it is for priests to serve as role models for potential priestly candidates. “That was very big for me also vocationally, seeing the priest at retreats and youth group stuff. Just being there and being present was big.

“If we get a lot of young priests out there in parishes, I think we’ll continue to see more and more guys discern a vocation and enter seminary.” 

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