Baseball and marriage seemed to lie in Brian Isenbarger’s future, until several years ago God tapped him on the shoulder and sent him in a different direction.
Isenbarger attended St. John the Baptist School and then Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne. As a college student playing baseball for the University of Saint Francis, he began to hear the stirrings of a calling to the priesthood on a trip to Florida.
“I always wanted to be playing baseball down in Florida in college, and I had this moment of thinking ‘something’s missing,’” stated Isenbarger. He is now a candidate for ordination to the diaconate.
What was missing was God’s will for his vocation. But it wasn’t an immediate step from that moment to the seminary, however. Returning to Fort Wayne, he became more involved in campus ministry at USF and with the youth group at Our Lady of Good Hope Parish. He even switched his degree from health and physical education to theology. “I realized I needed to give my life a little more to the Lord.”
He became so involved in his faith, including attending daily Mass on campus, that others began to ask if he was going to become a priest, which he adamantly denied. He confessed that he was running from God’s call.
“I was putting priesthood off, but I look back and remember that even when I was in eighth grade, my classmates would call me ‘Father’; they could see it in me.” At the time, he still saw himself getting married and teaching or working in ministry. In fact, while in adoration one day, he remembers asking God why he couldn’t date both of the female USF students who were also present in the chapel and seated in the front row.
“His response in the depths of my heart was, ‘Well, Brian, you can love them both as a Father.’ It was just — jarring.”
Still, he soon found himself in a serious relationship with one of them. The couple was six months away from their wedding when the call to priesthood came back, stronger than ever.
“It wouldn’t go away, so we eventually called off the wedding. I told her I think God wants me to be a priest. To her credit, she said, ‘Brian, if God wants you to be a priest, you need to go be a priest.’”
Isenbarger had no idea how to go about becoming a priest. After a trip to Assisi, Italy, his senior year of college, he considered joining a Franciscan order, though he eventually decided against it. After working in youth ministry at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Carmel and earning his master’s degree online through St. Joseph’s College of Maine, he returned to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and spent a year as a substitute teacher in the Catholic schools. In 2016, he began his seminary studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Ironically, coming into the seminary a little older than some of his peers put him in the position of having known several of the other seminarians when they were youths, having mentored them as a college student. Father Spenser St. Louis and Deacon Logan Parrish were both involved in youth group retreats that he assisted in, and Father Thomas Zehr participated in Wildcat baseball when Isenbarger first started coaching.
Looking back, he said he can see the role Catholic education played in his vocation.
“You were just kind of immersed in that environment, and it really did become kind of second nature. I’m a big beneficiary of it. I’m very grateful to my parents because they made sacrifices to make it happen. I’m very thankful to them.”
A native of New Haven, Isenbarger is the second son of Bob and Nan Isenbarger. They have been very supportive during his discernment process as well, he added, from his engagement to joining the seminary.
Throughout his life, God used different influences such as these to nudge him ever closer to his vocation, Isenbarger said. “The Lord was always consistently leading me along, kind of asking me for more.”
He expressed feeling a certain restlessness before coming to the seminary. “It’s not paradise out here, but it has been a place of peace as far as knowing where I’m supposed to be.”
As a future priest, he longs to say Mass and hear confessions. At a conference he attended years ago, he received a prayer card: “It was the story of St. Francis kissing the hands of a priest because those were the hands that brought heaven to earth in the Eucharist. I remember being very moved by that.”
He plans to engage heavily in youth programs after ordination, since he has already spent so much time working with young people and benefitted from similar programs himself.
What he loves most about the Catholic Church is that it professes the truth of Jesus Christ.
“We have 2,000-plus years of history. Obviously it hasn’t been a perfect history by any stretch of the imagination, but that the Church is still here and that it is still Christ’s body working in the world … . Christ is still alive, and He’s working in His Church.”
He and fellow seminarian Mark Hellinger eagerly look forward to their ordination day. Isenbarger stated, “It’s what we’re meant to do, so we want to do it. It’s going to be one of if not the happiest day of our life.”
He will be ordained to the diaconate during a Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne, at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 22. To view a livestream of the Mass, visit diocesefwsb.org at that time.
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