Seminarians Peter Gallagher and Logan Nilsen answered a call to discipleship in the Diocese of Camden. They heard, discerned and responded to the call in different ways at different times, but their stories converge as they reflect on the role of their Catholic school education.
Peter Gallagher had serious thoughts about the priesthood as early as seventh grade. In eighth grade, he began to share those thoughts in the winning essay he wrote for Catholic Schools Week.
“You know, Catholic Schools Week in grade school is the best week of the year,” said Gallagher, a graduate of Christ the King and Paul VI schools in Haddonfield. “[In my essay] I said I was so thankful for going to a Catholic school, which is allowed to incorporate faith into the curriculum. I was happy to be in an environment where you are encouraged to think about the possibility of the priesthood and serving the church one day.”
Winning the contest meant delivering his essay at Mass, a daunting proposition for most eighth grade boys. But Gallagher recalled his presentation with enthusiasm. “It wasn’t something I would hide,” he said of his faith. “It was something I was called to do.”
Gallagher’s faith continued to grow during high school. “People saw me as someone religious. [Classmates] would say, ‘He’s on the cross country team, in choir and he’s religious,’” he said.
He also recalled classmates opening up to him about their Catholic faith, especially during the senior class trip. “They’d say, ‘I have this question I’ve been thinking about…’”
Gallagher said no one was surprised when he entered Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University right out of high school in 2012.
From his room at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, where he has been studying since July 2016, Gallagher reflected on how his Catholic school experience fueled his desire to become a priest. Topping the list was Father Michael Romano, currently director of Vocations for the Diocese of Camden and chaplain at Paul VI during Gallagher’s freshman year.
“He was someone I trusted and looked up to about my vocation. I aspired to be like him,” said Gallagher, adding that he would not have had such a mentor in public school.
Gallagher described a “culture of vocations” in Catholic school that includes many walks of life, not just the priesthood.
“Catholic schools are dependent upon teachers who are mostly married living out vocations teaching,” he said. He described the environment as joyful, “a whole package — priests, religious and lay persons all working together in a universal call to holiness.”
A particular high point for Gallagher was the opportunity to serve at his graduation Mass with classmate Henry Laigaie, who was also headed for seminary.
Academically and spiritually, Gallagher said he felt especially well prepared for high school when he left Christ the King and just as well prepared to enter Seton Hall, where seminary is located within the university. He believes Catholic schools are integral to the future of the church and described learning religion alongside other subjects as a gift, the mixing of faith and reason.
“The commitment to Catholic schools is a concrete commitment to growing in faith and seeing the importance of faith,” he said.
Logan Nilsen took a traditional path after high school, enrolling as a journalism major at Rowan University. But the seeds of his vocation had been planted during elementary school at Our Lady of Hope in Blackwood, where he studied Theology of the Body as an eighth grader. The course was taught by Father Christopher Markellos, who was also Nilsen’s baseball coach.
“Theology of the Body was a big eye-opener to faith. It gave the reasons behind why we believe what we believe,” said Nilsen.
When he answered the call to priesthood years later, it was Father Markellos whom Nilsen reached out to for guidance through the process.
Nilsen said he first had inklings about a call to the priesthood during his sophomore year in high school.
“The Catholic culture at Gloucester Catholic helped keep it in the forefront,” said Nilsen, who kept thoughts of the priesthood to himself. He believes his quiet years of discernment were influenced by his positive experience at Gloucester Catholic, which he described as a close community where “you always knew the person next to you, and always knew who to go to.”
Nilsen keeps in touch with close friends from Gloucester Catholic. He said they were surprised when he announced his decision because he had not shared his period of discernment, but they were not shocked by the idea of him becoming a priest.
Since he entered Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University last fall, Nilsen has taken on an important new role, teaching CCD. As he describes it, “I went from being the one sitting at a desk to the one teaching.”
He said this new role helps him see how seeds of faith are planted, and he does his best to communicate about faith. At the same time, he acknowledged the advantage of connecting faith with other subjects in Catholic school.
Nilsen said he considers Catholic schools integral to the future of the church. “It’s how faith is passed down. [You have] the ability to live it out in Catholic schools. It’s important to hand the faith to future generations.”
Mary Beth Peabody is communications and marketing manager, Office of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Camden.