Deacon Austin Gilstrap’s life changed when he said yes to God.
He was working as a bartender in a restaurant but unsure what direction to take his life. “I was searching and I didn’t know what I was searching for,” he said. “I still didn’t know what I wanted out of life or out of school or anything like that. I was just sort of floating through.”
But at Mass on a Vocations Sunday, Msgr. Bernard Niedergeses, pastor of the Church of the Assumption, invited all the unmarried men under 30 years old to a meeting where he asked them to consider whether they were being called to the priesthood and showed the video “Fishers of Men.”
Watching the video, a few things stood out, Deacon Gilstrap said. One priest recounting his vocation story talked of asking himself, “If not me, then who and if not now, then when.”
The video also showed priests happy with their life. “I was not happy,” Deacon Gilstrap said. “Even though I had been seeking all the things the world tells us should make us happy, I was not happy.”
He left the meeting and went back to the church and prayed, “OK I give up. If this is what you want from me I’m happy to do it. I just said yes. … Whatever you want from me, I say yes,” Deacon Gilstrap said.
“I didn’t know what I was saying yes to,” he added, but he began to feel a deepening sense of peace.
“From the very beginning, and every day, I have to continue to say yes to whatever God is asking me to do,” Deacon Gilstrap said. “That’s what’s made me happy. The big difference between my life before saying yes and now … I continue to be very fulfilled and very happy.”
That yes has led him to his upcoming ordination as a priest. He and four other seminarians of the Diocese of Nashville will be ordained at 10:30 a.m. Friday, June 12, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.
Deacon Gilstrap and the others will be ordained by Bishop David Choby, who brought him and his family into the Catholic Church in 1995 while he was serving as pastor of St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin. Bishop Choby heard his first confession, gave him his first communion, ordained him a transitional deacon and now will ordain him a priest, Deacon Gilstrap noted. “So all of the sacraments, I’ve received for the first time from Bishop Choby, except baptism.”
His family and all the friends he made while working in restaurants have been supportive of his decision to become a priest, Deacon Gilstrap said. “They’ve been there to support me in every way they can,” he said. “A lot of guys struggle with their parents or friends not supporting them, I have no experience with that.”
He entered the seminary at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, in 2007, and studied there for three-and-one-half years. After earning degrees in the classics and philosophy he enrolled at the North American College in Rome in 2011. He earned a bachelor’s in sacred theology and has been working toward a license in sacred theology for the last year.
After his ordination, he will take a break from his studies and return to Nashville where he has been assigned to work at the chancery and with the Diocesan Tribunal. Part of the reason he’s pausing his studies in Rome is because his parents have been experiencing health problems in recent years, he said, though they are doing better now.
His understanding of the priesthood and his vocation have changed dramatically during his years in the seminary, Deacon Gilstrap said. “I really didn’t know what the vocation to the priesthood was about at all.”
But through the eight years of academic, pastoral, spiritual and human formation, he said, “you change into a person who can be another Christ. … It’s less an intellectual exercise of understanding the priesthood but a transformation through the grace of God.”
Through that transformation, he hopes to bring Christ to all the ways he will serve as a priest, Deacon Gilstrap said. “That’s my hope, that I can allow the Lord to continue to transform me into another Christ.”
Deacon Gilstrap will celebrate his first Mass at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 13, at the Cathedral. All are welcome, he said.
“The number of people who have prayed for and made sacrifices for all of us in the seminary is astounding,” Deacon Gilstrap said. “These people are as much as part of the transformation as we are.”
As he approaches his ordination, Deacon Gilstrap said, he’s feeling some butterlies. “It’s excited nerves,” he said.
“For me it feels kind of like, what I can imagine, a new father feels like before he has his first child,” Deacon Gilstrap said. “ You think about all the ways you’re not worthy of the great gift you’re being given.”
At the same time, he is excited “about the fulfillment of all this work, and school and formation. It’s the completion and also the great beginning.”