‘God is my strength,’ deacon says

Relying on God.

That's what it's all about for Deacon Robert Wagner, one of three men to be ordained to the priesthood Saturday at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

Learning to trust hasn't been easy for the deacon who's been studying for the past four years at the North American College in Rome. Before he entered the seminary, Deacon Wagner could - and did - list all the reasons why he shouldn't be a priest.

"I was afraid of it," he said in a phone interview from Rome last week. "I was looking at it as a job, not a vocation. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized how God calls us to something and provides."

Born Feb. 19, 1970, in Reisterstown, Md., Deacon Wagner's call was slow and increasingly steady, with the first suggestion of the priesthood coming when he was in fifth grade.

He attended Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, followed by the University of Maryland in College Park for both a bachelor's and master's in mechanical engineering. After graduating in 1994, Deacon Wagner moved to Alexandria and St. Lawrence Parish. He took his time growing into his Catholic faith - something he had always considered to be his parents' religion. Eventually, at a one-day retreat with his father, Deacon Wagner realized that he wasn't at peace. He needed faith.

"It was so clear," he said. "I started to give my life over to God and to make that faith my own. Through that, it became easier for God to call me."

Deacon Wagner began longing to know all the Church teaches. He researched, bought a Catechism, went to confession - "all the things that I should have done much earlier," he said. Eventually, in 2003, he entered the seminary.

After two years at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., Deacon Wagner was selected to study in Rome. Though a great honor, this was a difficult transition for the born-and-raised Marylander. However, he added, "one of the blessings of Rome has been the struggle.

"It was difficult to come, it was a difficult transition, therefore the prayer was a lot more heartfelt," he said.

"I think the challenges of Rome and living apart from his regular support network has really deepened (Deacon Wagner's) faith very beautifully to lean more on the Lord," said Father Brian Bashista, vocations director. "That can only bode well as he moves into priesthood."

To combat his naturally introverted personality, Deacon Wagner put himself in the public eye by giving regular Vatican scavi tours underneath St. Peter's Basilica for two years.

"You're forced to talk to strangers for an hour and a half about your faith," he said. It "ended up being a blessing in many ways."

He's still registered - guide No. 100 - and gives occasional tours for friends and family.

Deacon Wagner's diaconate year in the Eternal City has been different from the diaconate year stateside. Instead of being stationed at parishes like Deacons Matthew DeForest and Stephen Schultz, Deacon Wagner has been serving and preaching at the John Felice Rome Center, the Rome campus of Chicago's Loyola University. Instead of a parochial experience, it was more like that of campus ministry, he said.

His parish summer assignments included St. John the Beloved in McLean; St. Francis de Sales in Purcellville; St. Agnes in Arlington; St. Leo the Great in Fairfax; and Blessed Sacrament in Alexandria.

Deacon Wagner was ordained a deacon in October 2008 at St. Peter's Basilica. His first Mass as a priest will be celebrated June 14 at St. Lawrence at 9 a.m.

Father Bashista thinks he's ready.

"(Deacon Wagner) has a very well-rounded personality and is well grounded in what is expected of him as a parish priest," Father Bashista said. "He has many gifts to share with the people of God."

And Deacon Wagner, ever reliant on God, knows from where those gifts have come.

"It's not so much about you, it's about what God calls you to do and what's He's created you for," he said. "He's your strength."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009