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Former skeptic on path to the priesthood

First slide

James Waalkes came to embrace the Catholic faith — and his vocation — through an 88-year-old priest friend’s encouragement at key points in his life. Waalkes will be ordained a transitional deacon at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More June 2.

Waalkes met Msgr. Andrew Cassin as a high schooler at the now closed Guardian Angels Catholic School in Staunton. After transferring from public school, the warm welcome he received at the parochial school initially surprised him, in a good way.

“People knew my name, which was completely different from my time at public school, which felt cold and impersonal,” Waalkes said.  

He also was impressed that a rational defense of church teaching was being presented in a compelling way by the faculty. Still, his conversion took time. “Gradual” and “relational” are the two words Waalkes uses to describe his slow embrace of the Catholic faith.

“I didn’t believe, but the seeds of faith were planted,” Waalkes said. 

Always skeptical, another turning point came during a late-night talk with Msgr. Cassin with whom he shared his struggles. Waalkes was a freshman at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg at the time and the elderly cleric suggested to him that he go to the chapel for adoration.

“In all our years of friendship, he had never asked me to actually do anything, he would always listen,” Waalkes said. “He really had the right timing, as something in my heart was open.”

It was in the chapel that he felt a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

“I was overwhelmed by a feeling of warmth and love,” Waalkes said. “And in that moment, I realized that there is someone present in the monstrance.”

Soon after, he decided to go to confession, an extraordinary event since the last time he went to confession he was 7 years old.

“It was a painful and beautiful confession,” Waalkes said. “But it left me with a substantive and liberating peace.”

After his college graduation in 2011, Waalkes was a fifth-grade school teacher at Angelus Academy in Springfield for two years. In 2013, he became a seminarian for the Diocese of Arlington. He is grateful for having a strong fraternal community with which to share his time. As a musician, he enjoys encouraging others, whether around a campfire or not, to sing along.

“I have been unbelievably blessed with fraternity,” Waalkes said. “I know that I’m entering into a family, not an institution.”

Once ordained a deacon, Waalkes is looking forward to “preaching words that are healing.”

Msr. Cassin will be present for another key moment of Waalkes’ life, as he will vest him during the diaconal ordination.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018