It was early in life that Mark Hellinger, who will be ordained to the diaconate May 22, first felt the call to the priesthood: Probably too early to guarantee a future in Roman collars.
“When I was really young, I think maybe three or four, I started telling people I wanted to be a priest,” he recalled. Preschoolers are infamous for changing their minds, but Hellinger also asked to receive chasubles for Christmas when he was in the second grade. He began acting out the Mass in his home.
Through his years of schooling at St. Joseph-St. Elizabeth School in Fort Wayne — which later separated into St. Joseph School and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School — intellectual pursuits dangled other career options before him, including lawyer and software engineer. But the pull toward the priesthood returned when he was a student at Bishop Luers High School.
“In my junior year, some things started coming back up. I’m grateful for the theology department I had at Luers. The teachers helped me to intellectually fall in love with the Church.”
There were a couple of events that Hellinger recognized as defining moments in his discernment process.
While helping one of his teachers after school one day, he met her brother, Father William Sullivan, for the first time. As the young Hellinger went to shake the priest’s hand, “He just looked at me and kind of stopped and said, ‘Oh, this one’s going to be a priest, I can see it in his eyes.’ Unbeknownst to him, I had been having this existential crisis about what to do with my life and the fact that I thought I was being called to be a priest, but at the time I didn’t want to be a priest.”
That same year, he attended the events of the National March for Life and felt a stirring in his heart watching the seminarians, priests and bishops process into the Mass for Life. After that, he began having monthly conversations about his potential vocation with the pastor of his home parish of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who at the time was Father Jim Schafer. Father Schafer had a positive impact on his discernment process.
“Father Jim was actually my childhood image of priest, along with Father Timothy Wrozek, who was pastor at St. Joseph,” Hellinger said. During his last two years of high school, Father Benjamin Muhlenkamp was assigned to be a chaplain at Bishop Luers and became another example of priestly virtue; a “joyful witness of someone who had just been ordained and was loving his life.”
Hellinger went from high school to the seminary, spending two years each at the Pontifical College Josephinum and Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary before being asked by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades if he would like to study at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Studying in Rome has been a great blessing, Hellinger said. During his time there he has been able to view the final resting places of saints such as St. Philip Neri, and study in Italian. It is challenging at times, he said, but the intellectual life has always been a great draw.
“I love the intellectual patrimony of the Church and so I like investing in that heavily. I love talking with people, explaining things or dealing with questions or problems; it’s something that gives me a lot of life.” In fact, one of the things he looks forward to as a priest is having those deep conversations with his parishioners and being able to explain to them the truths of the faith in a way that they can understand and relate to.
Normally, priestly candidates who are studying in Rome are ordained to the diaconate there in the fall. But last July Hellinger’s father, Mark, passed away. That, combined with pandemic travel restrictions, prompted Bishop Rhoades to allow him the option of being ordained at home. This way, his mother, Karen, and his three older sisters could attend.
Even though his father will not be physically present on the day of his ordination to the diaconate, “He’ll be there in my prayers. I’m very aware of the ways in which he kind of formed me as a man, for good and for bad, as any parents do. So, I think that his presence is still known to me in the way that I am, the way that I see things, the way that I kind of ground my identity as a man: as a son of him, and also the Father.”
Hellinger has been guided in his discernment by his confirmation saint, Thomas More, whose views on individual holiness struck a chord. “We don’t pursue priesthood or pursue religious life or pursue marriage because we think it will make us holy; we pursue it because God is asking us to do it. He’s calling us there, and that’s what the opportunity for holiness is,” Hellinger said.
He eagerly awaits the opportunity to serve the people of God as a priest, though with a full understanding of the difficulties a priest faces in the modern world.
“It gives me a lot of joy to spend time with people, to find out about them, listen to their stories and their experiences, but also to offer them the concrete grace of the sacraments. To be able to do that full-time — living out the vocation — I look forward to that.”
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