Former US airman becomes Catholic priest

By LINDSEY ADKISON | The Brunswick News, Ga. (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 7, 2018

Some people are drawn to lives of service. The Rev. Chris Hemmel is one of these. The Ohio native has always felt pulled toward careers that allow him to give back to others.

Of course, he did not originally foresee taking the vows of a Catholic priest. That came a bit later in his life.

“I went to school in northern Ohio, after college I entered the military, the Air Force, as a commissioned officer,” he said. “I was a communications and information systems officer. I spent four years in the Air Force. I was stationed in Tampa, Fla., but I ended up in Warner Robins which is how I came to be in Georgia.”

He transitioned out of the service but continued to work with the military as a contractor.

“I was working contract to contract. It’s a good life until the contract comes close to the end and then it’s kind of up in the air ... will it get renewed or do I have to find a new one,” he said.

But, in the back of his mind, Hemmel had considered a vastly different career — going into the priesthood. It first came to mind when he was just a teenager in high school. Although, he admits that he knew little about the amount of work required to become a man of the cloth.

“The first time I thought about the priesthood was probably in high school, not realizing what all was involved. I didn’t know what a priest did on a day to day basis. I would just see them at Mass on the weekend and I thought that it didn’t require that much,” he said with a chuckle.

“Obviously, there’s a lot more that any minister does during the week. But I went with that and then just went on to college. I got out of college thought about it again but I really didn’t want anything to do with it. I knew I wanted to serve people in some capacity so I decided to serve my country and thought I wouldn’t have to think about the priesthood again. But God has a way of being persistent.”

While he didn’t jump directly into a career in the faith, he was drawn back to it following his time in the military. Renewing his connection to God also brought the idea of seminary back to his mind. This time, however, he couldn’t ignore the calling.

“The priesthood came up again when I was trying to figure out what to do. I thought ‘that’s three times now I will give it a shot and see,’” he said.

It was the beginning of a long journey but one Hemmel was destined to take. He enrolled in seminary school at St. Vincent de Paul in Boyton Beach, Fla., where he took a rigorous course load in addition to focusing on inner, spiritual work and learning the ins-and-outs of celebrating Mass.

“It was graduate level work so it was typical schooling in that regard — papers, tests, presentations, all that fun stuff. Then there’s plenty of reading,” he said.

“On top of that, you have classes in pastoral care, counseling and spiritual direction and classes on the Catholic faith. You learn how to celebrate mass and other sacraments on top of that. You are kept very busy for seven years.”

The load of classes as well as the spiritual commitment is considerable. Not only do priests spend seven years studying, they are also preparing to commit to a life of chastity, essentially marrying the church.

But through those times, Hemmel says, future priests come to fully understand the level of dedication demanded of the role.

“It really is a journey with a lot of discernment, prayer and thinking about it. It wasn’t like I never wanted a family. I think that’s always a desire but it will be exercised in a different way,” he said.

“While I don’t have a family physically with a wife and children, my family becomes the parish that I’m at, so in a way, you become a spiritual father, if you will. You help others on their spiritual journey from the babies, the youth through adults.”

Hemmel officially became a priest less than a week ago. And with that, he was sent out into the diocese to start his work. That began Monday when he arrived at St. Francis Xavier in Brunswick, where he will serve for a number of years before being transferred to another parish.

“The bishop decides where you’re going to go. You study for a certain area, we are part of the diocese of Savannah, so that diocese area wise covers lower 2/3 of the state roughly from Columbus to Macon to Augusta south,” he said.

“The bishop of the diocese decides where you go depending on who needs priests. I was sent here.”

While the role is a new one, the town is familiar. Hemmel was sent to Brunswick during a stint in seminary in 2015.

“I’ve been getting reacquainted with everything ... it’s been a couple of years but it is nice coming back. It makes the transition a little easier knowing where things are,” he said.

Hemmel looks forward to spending time outdoors in the Isles, a pastime he’s always enjoyed, along with some other average hobbies.

“The last time I was here I took some horseback riding lessons which I had never done before and had always wanted to do,” he said. “I also like watching sports. I’ve been watching the World Cup and it’s been crazy ... a lot of surprises.”

As he finishes unpacking and shifts into his role as a fully ordained priest, he will work in a number of capacities from supporting the church’s school to celebrating Mass and hearing confessions. He will also try to offer spiritual guidance and direction for the faithful during these tumultuous times.

“In this time in the world, I think my message would be to really focus on coming back to Christ, the peace that he brings us, the love that he brings us, the comfort he brings us,” Hemmel said.

“He is that rock when everything going on around us is turbulent in our nation and our world. He’s the foundation, that rock, to stand on even in the crazy winds and turbulent times.”

©2018 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.)
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