The anticipation is high for Seminarian David Lee as he prepares for his ordination to the transitional diaconate on Thursday, Sept. 28, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Lee is the first Diocese of Nashville seminarian to experience such an opportunity since Father Luke Wilgenbusch, director of vocations, was ordained to the transitional diaconate in Rome in 2018.
“It’s surreal to know that I’m finally at this point,” Lee said. “Diaconate ordination and eventually ordination to the priesthood is something that I have always looked forward to.
“I’ve been in seminary for five years now and so, being on the edge of what you set out to do is humbling,” he added. “This is what we’ve been working towards and praying about.”
Lee’s ordination to the transitional diaconate, which will also include 17 other young men from around the country who are studying in Rome and living at the North American College, hasn’t just been something five years in the making since he first went into seminary, but nearly 15 as he first began to wonder about a call to the priesthood.
Journey to the Call
Lee is the oldest of five children in a Catholic family, growing up in the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama. The faith was always a part of his life growing up, with his family going to church every Sunday, and attending a Dominican school, St. Rose Academy, for the first several years of his education. That continued when his family moved to Nashville while he was in the eighth grade and attended Overbrook Catholic School.
It wasn’t until the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of high school at Montgomery Bell Academy that he realized there was more to discover about the faith.
“I was part of the Cathedral of the Incarnation youth group, and we went on a mission trip to Honduras. It was a combination of this intense week of prayer and service,” Lee explained, noting how it included building a brick wall for an orphanage. “That was the first time I encountered other young men who wanted to live out their faith in a meaningful way.
“Meeting other witnesses of the faith who were really inspiring to me sparked this joy and this peace that I had never felt before and I knew was from the Lord,” he continued. “That was the first moment I thought, ‘There is something more to this Catholic faith than just going to Mass on Sundays and praying before meals and going to Catholic school.’”
While a new spark in his faith had been ignited, Lee said, it did waver during the school year as academics and sports often took center stage. Then, once again the summer between his freshman and sophomore year, this time from the University of Notre Dame, that spark hit again when he became a summer missionary at a LifeTeen summer camp in North Georgia.
“It was there that I met young priests who were holy, normal people who were just living out the faith,” Lee said. “They were really happy and joyful and just incredible witnesses of the vocation to the priesthood that I never really considered before.”
This new discovery led him to question the path he was on with medical school. “I started to realize that I wanted to do something that involved helping people grow in their faith and encounter the Lord, whether that was as a priest or, another option I considered, was a Catholic school teacher.”
Upon graduating from Notre Dame, the latter is what he did, teaching high school science and Latin, and coaching baseball and softball at a Catholic high school in Atlanta, Georgia, through the Alliance for Catholic Education Teaching Fellows program.
“That was an incredible experience. There I was 22 years old, teaching high school seniors,” he said. “It was an opportunity to grow up and be a witness to the faith in a new way.”
Still, the lingering call to the priesthood remained. “I needed to investigate it further,” he said, noting how he was initially interested in religious life and not diocesan priesthood.
“I liked the idea of a built-in fraternity and brotherhood of religious life.” But none of them seemed to be the right fit. So, after two years, he returned to Nashville. As he got involved with such ministries as Fraternus, Totus Tuus, and more, his initial hesitancy toward diocesan priesthood began to change.
“I began meeting more of the priests and seminarians for the Diocese of Nashville and saw this brotherhood that I desired in religious life present in Nashville, and through more prayer and discernment, realized that Nashville was where the Lord was calling me.”
Studying in Rome
Upon applying to be a seminarian for the diocese in 2017 and being accepted, Lee began formation at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans in the fall of 2018. After two years of studying philosophy, he continued his formation at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum, in Rome in the fall of 2020. It was a change that came with both its challenges and its gifts.
“Just to be removed from all of your comforts of home, your family, your friends, is an adjustment, but the Lord basically calls you to follow Him and Him alone,” Lee said. “In return, you get to live and study and pray in the heart of the Catholic Church and you get to be where St. Peter and St. Paul and countless other saints lived and preached the Gospel and died for the faith.”
He also noted the opportunity to be close to and serve Mass for the Holy Father as well as meet and study with seminarians from around the world.
“You get this universal perspective of what’s going on in the Church and encounter people who are living their faith out in so many unique and diverse ways,” Lee said. “To see this group of men living their faith and wanting to serve God and to preach the Gospel has been a really powerful experience for me.”
Fulfilling the Call
Going into his diaconate ordination, “It feels like the next right step,” Lee said. “I’m confident that this is how the Lord is calling me to serve Him for the rest of my life.”
The ordination, which will be celebrated by Archbishop Paul Coakley of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, will be on Thursday, Sept. 28, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It will air on EWTN in the United States at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28. To learn how you can view the ordination on EWTN, visit www.ewtn.com/tv/schedule/united-states/2023-09-26.
In the meantime, Lee said he just has one request – the prayers of the people.
“Prayers not just for myself but also for Deacon Seth Reed because we’ll be ordained priests together in May 2024, God willing,” Lee said. “Please pray for perseverance in our vocation and fidelity to the Lord and that the Lord will provide all the grace that we need to serve Him well.
“Let us pray for all the other seminarians in Nashville, too, for the Vocations Office, and that everyone who God is calling to the priesthood will answer that call.”