Father Pehl and the encouraging word
September 19, 2016 | posted by Today's Catholic
BY CAROL BAASS SOWA
SAN ANTONIO • Assumption Seminary has been “home” for its rector, Father Jeffrey Pehl, for the past nine years. Appointed to its formation faculty in 2007 by Archbishop José H. Gomez, he was assigned for another three years in 2010. However, when seminary rector Father José Arturo Cepeda was appointed auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Detroit by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS, designated Father Pehl interim seminary rector in May, then rector-president in June.
Looking back, Father Pehl reflects on the road that led him to where he is today. “It is so important, if we have any idea that someone is considering a vocation to the priesthood or to the religious life — or we feel they ought to be considering it, that we encourage them,” he says. “That was important in my life, that people encouraged me.”
The son of Gus and Gladys Pehl, he grew up in Fredericksburg, attending St. Mary’s Catholic School and St. Mary Church. In high school, he was involved in Catholic youth groups, ran track and played drums in the school’s marching band. His parish priests and the Sisters of Divine Providence, who taught in the school, were important influences in his life, he remembers.
Growing up, the possibility of becoming a priest was always in the back of his mind, but he decided to follow his sister and brother to Texas A & M University in College Station to gain a broader view of the world. There, he was an officer in the ROTC Corps of Cadets, a drummer in the Texas Aggie Band and active in the Catholic Student Youth Association. By his junior year, he realized what he wanted to do.
“I felt, over time, that God was calling me,” he relates, “and that never left me. When I finally admitted it, telling people about it, I got a positive reaction and encouragement.” Friends, priests and people at the Catholic Student Center and family members all listened to his thoughts on becoming a priest. “Are you sure you want to do that?” some asked him, and that was good too, he says, because it was not said in a discouraging way.
“I was inspired by the priests that were in Fredericksburg and the priests with whom I came into contact in college,” he recalls. “They seemed to do so much good for so many people, and I wanted to do the same.”
He continued at A&M, but contacted the Vocation Office, which helped him begin the discernment process. In order to get the feel of a priest’s life, he spent a summer working with a group of sisters at a family retreat center outside of New York. Seeing first-hand their meaningful ministering to people confirmed his desire to become a priest. “It is such a privilege to minister to people,” he says, “and help them at such sacred times in their lives in such sacred ways. It’s important to be the hands and face of Christ.”
After graduating from A&M in 1989 with a degree in speech communication, he entered Assumption Seminary and studied at Oblate School of Theology for his Master of Divinity. His six years as a seminarian at Assumption were a special time, he says, adding, “The professors were great.” They included Msgr. José A. López, Bishop Gerald R. Barnes, Sister Dorothea O’Meara, CSB, Father Norman Ermis, Father Kenneth Hannon, OMI, and Father John Makothakat.
As part of the seminary’s program, he worked in various ministries — the religious education program at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, hospital chaplaincy at St. Luke’s Hospital, RCIA at St. Mary Magdalen Parish, youth ministry in the archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry/CYO and an internship at St. Patrick Parish. Mission trips to Zambia and to Arteaga, Mexico, helped raise his consciousness to global suffering.
Ordained in 1995 at St. Mary Church in Fredericksburg, he offered a second Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Francis Xavier Church in Stonewall, his father’s hometown. Following two years at St. Leo the Great Parish, came two years at St. Matthew Parish and eight years at St. John Parish in Hondo, before his appointment to the formation faculty at Assumption Seminary.
As a new priest, he had expressed the desire to create liturgies that were “relevant, renewing and life-giving.” Working from there, he told Today’s Catholic in a 1995 interview, he hoped he would have the biggest impact on the most people. Now, he would be impacting the formation of future priests who would serve the archdiocese and beyond.
His appointment as rector brought him mixed emotions. It is an honor to work with those preparing for the priesthood, he says, but it is also challenging. For 100 years, Assumption Seminary has been fulfilling its mission to form priests for parish and diocesan ministries. Changes have taken place since his seminary days, however, when there were only 40 men studying for the priesthood. Today, Assumption has an enrollment of 75 future priests.
“It’s great to see more people answering the call to the priesthood,” says Father Pehl. “We now have many more men in college. It’s great to see younger men already stepping up to answer the call.” More is demanded of priests these days though, because there are more people to serve, but the number of priests has not grown accordingly, so they must take on more responsibilities.
Lay involvement in the church and “wonderful leadership by deacons in ministry” is helping bridge that gap, he observes, and great movements like ACTS are taking place in the church. There are also many more exciting things for the seminarians to learn about and use in their future ministries. San Antonio, he notes, is rich in resources to help prepare men for the priesthood, with Oblate School of Theology (OST) offering even more than in the past and the Mexican American Catholic College (MACC) now having courses for college credit.
“We are very grateful to the archdiocese and to people beyond the archdiocese who have supported the seminary,” Father Pehl adds, “helped us to keep up our place and to improve it and now make it ready for the next century of service.”
Should there be someone in your life contemplating a priestly vocation — or who you think should be, Father Pehl strongly suggests that you encourage them. “That support really seems to make the difference,” he says. “I let some people know, and they encouraged me.”