An overwhelming gift

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"It's thrilling and scary all at once," Deacon Thomas Yehl said about his impending ordination June 9 at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington. "It's overwhelming what this great gift means."

Deacon Yehl's journey to priestly ordination started with a love of youth ministry.

He was born Jan. 8, 1978, to Carolyn and Thomas Yehl. His father was a cradle Catholic, his mother a convert.

They were a military family. He and his sisters traveled extensively through Europe with their parents until Deacon Yehl was 10 years old and the family returned to the United States.

They settled in Chantilly and became parishioners of St. Timothy Parish where Deacon Yehl attended the parish school, was active in the Boy Scouts and served as an altar server.

He graduated from Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax in 1996 and enrolled at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg to study government. While at William & Mary, he was active in the school's campus ministry.

He also became involved with Youth Apostles. In fact, he was introduced to the group by a girl he was dating.

"(Youth Apostles) was eye-opening," he said. "(They were) young men living their faith in a radical way." He liked the interaction between clerics and married and single members.

This was the seed of his discernment.

"They challenged me to live my faith in a more radical way," he said.

In 1998, as a junior, he attended an "Encounter with Christ" retreat for the Richmond Diocese in Troutsville. He met the diocesan vocations director, Father Michael Renninger.

"Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?" Father Renninger asked Deacon Yehl.

"I never thought of myself as a priest," he said.

Deacon Yehl described his feelings toward the priesthood as a "rollercoaster." There was resistance, a pushing forward and then a retreat. He was still not ready to commit.

He abandoned any plans for a career in government and after graduating from William & Mary, he took a job as youth minister at St. Mark Parish in Vienna, still staying connected to Youth Apostles.

In 2002, he led a contingent of students from St. Mark to World Youth Day in Toronto and heard Pope John Paul II tell the pilgrims about vocations and to follow Christ. It was a defining moment.

A year later, Deacon Yehl left his job as youth minister and became a consecrated Youth Apostle, committing himself to poverty, chastity and obedience for one year.

He started taking pre-theology classes at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. At the end of that year, he committed to a three-year consecration.

He entered Catholic University's Theological College in Washington.

Deacon Yehl said that most people think discernment ends at seminary.

"Seminary is where you discern," he said. "We go to seminary to find out."

He said discernment is a process. You dialogue with fellow seminarians.

Deacon Yehl was ordained a transitional deacon last June. He was assigned to St. Ambrose Parish in Annandale.

After his ordination to the priesthood next month, he said he hopes to serve at a parish for three years before being assigned by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde to a Youth Apostle home.

Youth Apostles and youth ministry, as he put it, were "pretty elemental in the discernment process for me."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012