Late vocations answer God’s call

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Father Howard Adkins, one of the priests in the Diocese of Baton Rouge who entered the seminary later in life, is shown, above, in a photo from when he served in the Marine Corps, and as a priest, below. Photos provided by Father Adkins

 

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By Barbara Chenevert

The Catholic Commentator

Father Howard Adkins laughs that the psychologist who evaluated him for the priesthood asked if he wanted to be a priest because they take orders and wear uniforms just like in the Marine Corps where he spent six years of his life.

Father Al Davidson said he “messed up the first 42 years of his life” in the secular world, but has now given control over to God.

Father Cary Bani loves it when a parishioner asks him to look over an X-ray, an opportunity to put his skills from a previous life to good use.

These three priests, who entered the seminary late in life after years in the business and professional world, say their previous experiences have been a major advantage in ministering to the people of God.

“My counseling abilities are different. I lived and worked by the sweat of my brow. I have been married … I have broken all the commandments … I can compare and reflect with them. I have been them,” said Father Davidson, pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Pierre Part, who was ordained at the age of 58.

Father Adkins echoed that, saying he has been better able to identify with people after experiencing marriage, the birth of a son, the loss of his wife, a military stint and a life in the business world at a soft drink equipment company. “Having these life experiences has made it easier for people to come to me,” said the pastor of Mater Dolorosa Church in Independence, who was 61 when he was ordained seven years ago.

Six years in the military, where he served in Vietnam, gave him a life of discipline and an understanding “that you do something until it is finished,” Father Adkins said. But that military background may also have raised some concerns when he asked to be accepted into priesthood. “Bishop (Alfred) Hughes cautioned me not to jump on the Ladies Altar Society for doing something I don’t like,” he said with a laugh. “He told me I have to be open minded and collaborative and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

“Friends who knew me before say I have mellowed. I’m not so black and white,” he said.

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Father Cary Bani says he is happy as pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in St. Francisville although he misses his previous life in medicine. Photo by Barbara Chenevert | The Catholic Commentator

 

Ordained in 2007 at the age of 48, Father Bani, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in St. Francisville, said the transition from radiologist to priest has been an easy one in some respects. “There are many similarities between medicine and theology. It’s about working with people, helping them with their problems whether they are spiritual or physical. You have a certain set of skills to help them live better lives,” said Father Bani, who has been a radiologist, as well as a computer executive at the world headquarters of Frito-Lay Co.

Father Bani said his background in business has also been a bonus, since a pastor has to manage his church parish and deal with budgets and employees. “They don’t teach you that in the seminary,” he said.

These priests who are in their second – and in some cases third – vocations in life say they are happy in their priesthood, although they may have taken round-about paths to get there. Fathers Davidson and Adkins were each married and worked in the business world for many years. Father Adkins, a widower and a Vietnam veteran, has a son who now lives in West Virginia. Father Bani is in his third vocation – going from computer executive to doctor to priest.

Fathers Davidson and Adkins agree going back to school was the hardest adjustment for them.

“Having been self sufficient for 40 years, and now I was signing my life over – that’s the transition that most concerned me – giving up control, and money was a controlling aspect of my life,” said Father Davidson, who owned a construction company before entering the seminary.

“It is less concerning now. Now I know the more you give away, the more that comes to you,” he said. Father Davidson has opted for a simpler life, doing away with Internet connections, cable TV, DVD players and other electronic luxuries in the rectory where he lives near the church. He holds up two flip-top cell phones that he carries instead of the more up-to-date smart phones. He said he does that for simplicity and to save the church parish money. He even washes his own clothes and cooks for himself.

For Father Adkins returning to the academic demands of the seminary after 30 years was tough, especially the first semester. “I had a good support group, and Sister Janet Bodin took me under her wing and guided me, helped me and tutored me,” he said.

But he said the seminary was meant to be for him. Some of the authorities there told him “some seem to know they are supposed to be here, and you are one of them.”

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Father Cary Bani, far right, is shown with his colleagues at Ochsner Hospital where he served as a radiologist prior to entering the seminary and being ordained a priest for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Photo provided by Father Bani

 

Father Bani, who has earned four college degrees, had a different experience. “I love to learn,” adding he would go back to school tomorrow if he could. Father Bani earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science, a master’s in business, and a medical degree where he specialized in radiology before he entered Notre Dame Seminary.

He said he misses the practice of medicine “more than I thought I would” and continues to maintain his medical license for the state of Louisiana. He gave up his license to practice in Texas and North Carolina.

He does have a few opportunities to “practice,” he said. “Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me about a medicine. Just last week after Mass I looked at an x-ray of a broken finger on someone’s iPhone.” Although he usually tells parishioners to see their doctor, he said he “doesn’t mind at all” being asked medical questions. “I thoroughly enjoy medicine. There’s always something new,” he said.

Father Davidson said people who knew him before can’t believe he doesn’t miss his previous lifestyle, where he had money, women and a fast-paced life. “But I have found something so much better,” he said. The now 60-year-old priest recounts a lifestyle where he was away from the church and God from the age of 17 to 42. After being married and divorced he said, he dated many women.

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As pastor of St. Joseph the Worker in Pierre Part, Father Al Davidson, 60, says he went without Jesus for 50 years and is not about to let go now. He credits his previous life experiences with helping him in his ministry. Photo by Barbara Chenevert | The Catholic Commentator

 

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Father Al Davidson says he “messed up” the first 42 years of his life. Here he is shown in his early 20s. Photo provided by Father Davidson

 

“At the age of 44, I met someone who changed my life because I came to understand what is was for God to love me,” he said. “I understood how someone else could love me, but I was still incapable of loving another.” When that relationship broke up and during the next 15 years, he said he has come to learn what it is to love another – how simple it is to love someone. Father Davidson was helping out at St. Agnes Church and attending daily Mass when he heard God’s call to the priesthood. Before that he said he “hadn’t been inside a chapel more than six times in 25 years, and those times were for weddings.”

But Father Davidson said he has no regrets. “You want to forget your sinful past, but God turned my past into wisdom that we can use to minister to his people. I wouldn’t be who I am without having lived the life I led,” he said.

Father Adkins, who is now 68, said sometimes when he reflects on his life, he wonders why he did not become a priest in his 20s. But “a voice always says, ‘I need you now.’ I would do it all again in a heart beat,” he said. “I’m pretty happy. People have always welcomed me, especially at Mater Dolorosa, even with my quirks and my demands.”

He said when Bishop Hughes accepted him, the bishop asked if he could make it to age 75. “I said if my health holds out, I will be here,” Father Bani said.

Father Bani considers his career in medicine and his life as a priest “both as gifts from God. I love celebrating Mass. I love being a physician. I love school and learning, and I don’t apologize for it. It’s a good thing. He said he has particularly been touched by the study of Scripture and likes to pass that knowledge on in his homilies.

He recalls that he had inklings of priesthood while in high school but ignored them, although he admitted the thought would crop up from time to time. He graduated from LSU in computer programming, received a master’s degree in business, worked for Frito-Lay and attended medical school in Texas. But as he began practicing medicine, he found himself frequently attending daily Mass, and the pull toward priesthood became more relevant. “I would look at a film, and think about priesthood, look at another film and then think about it again,” he said. Finally he decided to enter the seminary.

Father Bani said he would like to focus on teaching bio-ethics, a field he believes he is uniquely qualified for. “I don’t think there is anything more important than the field of morality and bio-ethics,” he said. “We live in a society where it is – ‘want it when I want it.’ But there is good and evil, and the church teaches that. Bio-ethics involves a determination of what the church teaches and how God instructs us and applies it to today’s medical advancements.”

The priests said they would not necessarily recommend that men discerning a vocation wait until they were older and had life experiences. As Father Bani put it, “I don’t think there are any absolutes. You are called to what God calls you to when he calls you.”