It can be difficult to hear God’s call to the priesthood or religious life.
“There’s a moment when a person has to have the courage to say, ‘Yes, I want to truly discern this call,’” said Bishop J. Mark Spalding. “That moment when you say, ‘I need to get this question answered.’”
For Bishop Spalding, that moment came between his junior and senior year at Bethlehem High School in Bardstown, Kentucky. After a night of tossing and turning, he said, he decided to talk to a priest at his high school.
“He was calm, cool and collected,” Bishop Spalding recalled. “He was just the right person I needed.”
That first step on the journey of answering the question of whether God was calling him to the priesthood led to his ordination as a priest on Aug. 3, 1991. Bishop Spalding will publicly mark the 30th anniversary of his ordination by celebrating the 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Aug. 8, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.
“I thank God for that call,” said Bishop Spalding.
‘A very Catholic family’
When presiding at the ordination of a new priest, Bishop Spalding likes to remind them that their formation began in their home. For him that was in Washington County, Kentucky, as the oldest of the three children of Mary Aileen and Joseph Lawrence Spalding.
“I grew up in a very Catholic family,” Bishop Spalding said. “It was part of who we were, and all we did in life was built around our faith.”
In his family were several examples of people who had discerned God’s call to religious life. His mother had an uncle who was a priest and an aunt who was a religious sister, and his father’s two younger sisters are Ursuline Sisters still serving in the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky.
“All around me in my foundational years growing up I had a vocation in the Church put before me,” Bishop Spalding said. “I saw men and women who loved it, who enjoyed it, and who were living a purpose-filled life.
“They were people who were content with the life they had chosen,” even if it wasn’t always an easy life, Bishop Spalding said. “Seeing that contentment in them, it drew me to ask questions. Is priesthood right for me?”
Besides his family, he also had the example of his parish priests who not only preached about priestly vocations, but “probably more powerfully lived it in a wonderful way that drew me in as well.”
After high school, Bishop Spalding began his seminary formation at St. Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad, Indiana.
“To go to the seminary doesn’t make you a priest the first day,” Bishop Spalding said. “It helps you wrestle with this call God has put in your heart.”
He tells men who think they might have a call to the priesthood, “Be open to it. Don’t be fearful, don’t react negatively, and don’t dismiss it. Ask God to respond to it,” Bishop Spalding said. “It will be a question you will have to answer. Because if you don’t answer it haunts you.”
Formation in the seminary “allows one to grow in peace and confidence in the vocation to the priesthood,” Bishop Spalding said.
And if a man decides God is calling them to a different vocation, “at least you will be at peace that you did everything that you could to answer the question ‘Am I being called to the priesthood,’” Bishop Spalding said.
‘A wonderful day’
After graduating from St. Meinrad in 1987, Bishop Spalding attended major seminary at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, where he earned graduate degrees in religious studies and later in canon law.
He was ordained by Louisville Archbishop Thomas Kelly at the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky, the same cathedral where Nashville’s first Bishop, Richard Pius Miles, was ordained a bishop before taking the reins of his brand new diocese.
“It was a wonderful day, lots of emotions, mostly gratitude,” Bishop Spalding said of his ordination.
“Family and friends … they all came together for this wonderful celebration of priesthood,” he said. “You got the glow of the moment.”
After the ordination, Bishop Spalding walked out of the cathedral where he was greeted by his brother priests applauding for him. “In that moment, you’re one with them,” Bishop Spalding said. “It’s something I will never forget and always cherish.”
It was his brother priests who helped shape his own priesthood. He served as associate pastor under four pastors before he was appointed a pastor himself and he drew from the example of each of them.
Father Pat Creed, the first, spoke often of St. John the Baptist’s message: Christ must increase; I must decrease.
Next it was then-Father William Medley, who now is the Bishop of Owensboro, who spoke often of the need for stewardship and people’s involvement in parish life.
From Father Charles Thompson, now the Archbishop of Indianapolis, Bishop Spalding learned the importance of organizational skills in leading a parish.
And from Father B.J. Breen, who was also serving as the Vicar General of the Archdiocese at the time, Bishop Spalding learned the importance of having a positive outlook even in the face of difficult challenges.
His first appointment as a pastor came in 1999 at Immaculate Conception Church in LaGrange. At the same time, he was taking on more responsibility at the archdiocesan level, serving as the Judicial Vicar and Director of the Metropolitan Tribunal and later as Vicar General.
With students, he often uses the saying: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best.”
It’s advice he follows himself, Bishop Spalding said. “We should always be bettering ourselves. … You keep studying and you keep looking at what your ministry is and what your called to.”
What stands out to him about his priesthood, Bishop Spalding said, are “the great occasions God put me in. Not only good times, but difficult times as well.”
At happy occasions such as weddings and baptisms, “If you have the eyes of faith, a lot of times you can see the love of parents for their children or the love a couple have for each other.” As a priest, he has rejoiced in being part of those moments.
“It’s the same thing on the other side,” he said. “I’ve been in situations absolutely heartbreaking, and yet knowing there is no other place that God would want me to be than right here in this moment bringing to this family the presence of Christ coming from the sacraments of our Church.”
‘A disciple of Jesus Christ’
In November 2017, he was announced as the 12th Bishop of Nashville, and his episcopal ordination and installation were held on Feb. 2, 2018. He brought all the lessons of his priesthood to his new role in Middle Tennessee, Bishop Spalding said.
For Bishop Spalding, being a priest is to be “a disciple of Jesus Christ. A person who knows the person of Christ and loves him and cares for what he was and what he is for us right now in this day and time and to live according to his words and his deeds and his very life upon this earth, a life worth living.”
His advice to his brother priests is “accept the gifts God has given you. They’re going to be used in ways you’ve never dreamed of,” Bishop Spalding said. “And simply show the same mercy to yourself as you show to others, and you’ll be fine.
“It’s not about you; ultimately, it’s about Christ,” he added. “Don’t forget that.”
Bishop Spalding’s 30th anniversary
To mark the 30th anniversary of his ordination as a priest, Bishop J. Mark Spalding will celebrate Mass at 11 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 8, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.
On hand will be Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, the metropolitan of the Louisville province, which includes all the dioceses of Kentucky and Tennessee. Bishop Spalding served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville with Archbishop Kurtz before his appointment as the 12th Bishop of Nashville.
The Mass will be livestreamed on the Diocese of Nashville’s Facebook page.