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Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Priest shortage puts 'more pressure on you'"

From the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Path to ordination long, intense

By Jean Gordon

When Lincoln Dall was ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church, he stood before his bishop and promised obedience.

"To me, that's the most important moment because you have to be willing to do whatever you are asked to do," he said. "That's tough when we're in a society where there's so much individualism and taking control of your own life."

The 45-year-old deacon will make that same pledge today to Bishop Joseph Latino as he becomes the Catholic Diocese of Jackson's newest priest. His ordination fulfills a call from God he found impossible to ignore, and the prayers of Catholics across the region.

"There is a shortage of priests really everywhere," said Dall, the only priest the diocese will ordain this year. "That puts more pressure on you."

There are 64 priests working throughout the 49,000-member diocese, half of whom serve two or more churches. The parish where Dall will minister will be announced today after his ordination.

"He's going to make a very fine priest," said Monsignor Elvin Sunds, vicar general for the diocese.

Preparation for the priesthood typically takes from four to six years after a candidate has finished college.

Local Catholics foot the bill for sending future diocesan priests to graduate seminary, which costs about $120,000.

"The word we use to describe the whole process is formation," said the Rev. Kent Bowlds, vocation director for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson. "The four main parts are academic, spiritual, psychological and ministerial."

Bowlds said the process of becoming a priest is very intense and involves scrutiny every step of the way.

"We get into every observable aspect of a person's life," he said. "It's like being under a microscope."

That examination has only been stepped up since the priest sex abuse crisis erupted in 2002, Bowlds said.

Like many seminarians these days, Dall's path to the priesthood has been long and varied.

A Chicago native who moved with his family as a youth to southern California, Dall started his career as a Certified Public Accountant after graduating from Wake Forest University.

Yearning for more spiritually fulfilling work, he quit after seven years to join the Peace Corps, which stationed him in West Africa.

Raised a Protestant, Dall converted to Catholicism at 28.

"I always felt an interest in the Catholic Church," he said. "I was drawn by the liturgy."

Shortly after his conversion, he became a lay missionary volunteer in Canada, where he worked in a soup kitchen and healing center for indigenous people.

"That was probably the life-changing experience for me," he said. "For the first time I was living my ideals."

Dall's time in Canada laid the foundation for his social justice ministry that led him to work in South America and later Mississippi.

He moved to the Magnolia State in 2000 to teach high school in Greenville as a member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps.

After one of his students invited him to Mass, he got involved at Greenville's historically African-American Sacred Heart Parish.

"I had been there a few weeks and started going to what I thought was the only Catholic church in town," Dall said about Greenville's other Catholic parish, which is predominantly white. "It didn't click in my mind that they would be separated."

But Dall quickly felt at home at Sacred Heart, which he credits with nurturing his call to the priesthood.

He'll celebrate his first Mass there Sunday, following the church's custom of allowing a newly ordained priest to say his first Mass at a parish that is special to him.

Dall's ordination ceremony will include the centuries-old ritual of laying on of hands, in which a bishop places his hands on the candidate's head.

"The idea is that it goes back to Christ choosing apostles and apostles laying hands on others who would become leaders in the church," Bowlds said.

The new priest also lies face down at the foot of the altar while the entire congregation prays for him and calls on the saints for prayers.

"It's a moment of heaven and earth praying for him as he lies down in complete humility before God," Bowlds said.

A self-described introvert, Dall knows his vocation will challenge him personally. Still, he can't consider doing anything else.

"Not doing it would be like turning your back on God," he said.

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