Young Priest Happy to Give Back as Missioner
When newly ordained Father Aaron Wessman drove into Maynardville, Tenn., in August 2012, he was both thrilled and anxious about beginning his first full-time Glenmary mission assignment. "I was filled with zeal and excitement," he says. "I was also unsure how things would go."
Fifteen months later, when he looks at his extremely busy schedule as associate pastor of the two-year-old Maynardville (Union County) and Rutledge (Grainger County) missions, he's very happy about "finally being able to give back" for the blessings God has given him—and amazed at the many wonderful things he's witnessed.
"I'll be filled with joy this Advent," he says, "as I wait to see what God will do next in these new mission areas. I'm just glad to be part of it. For me, the most significant thing has been that the people here have welcomed me with open arms. And my fellow pastoral team members (Father Steve Pawelk, the pastor, and Brothers Joe Steen and Craig Digmann) have shared a great deal of wisdom with me."
Father Steve says Father Aaron's "youth, enthusiasm and deep spirituality have been huge gifts to our mission members."
One very significant part of Father Aaron's work, of course, is sacramental ministry. "It takes a lot of energy and time," he says. "But it's a great honor to be part of the special moments in people's lives, such as when I administered the sacraments of initiation to four teenagers at this year's Easter Vigil.
"My first baptism was a tremendous experience. I baptized two very young Latino brothers. As a priest, you're instantly bonded with the family. They gave me a photo I'll keep forever."
And when he's not presiding at Masses, he plays guitar and sings with one of the music ministry groups each weekend at a Spanish liturgy.
Father Aaron also serves as director of faith formation for children and adults at both missions, while teaching the high-school-age classes and leading the youth ministry groups. "I train and keep in touch with the volunteer teachers, obtain the textbooks and resources, and keep tabs on the students and their needs. It's very challenging," he says.
"But the teachers have great hearts for service and are good instructors. I'm astounded by their dedication."
The rapidly growing faith formation programs have also helped create a strong sense of community in the missions. "I think parents have spread the word about our missions and religious education classes," says Father Aaron.
He compliments his youth groups on their energy and enthusiasm, adding that "they've encouraged friends to participate even if they aren't Catholic." He's also gotten involved in regional youth ministry in both missions' deaneries.
In addition to the two missions he serves full-time, the young priest also helps out as needed at the Erwin, Tenn., mission in Unicoi County, about 140 miles away. Because of his fluency in Spanish, he provides assistance when this mission has a large Spanish-language celebration—such as for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe or a wedding. And he occasionally helps with the Erwin youth group led by pastoral associate Kathy O'Brien.
He still remembers the morning he was scheduled to preside at his first wedding in Erwin. "The person with the key to the Elks Club (the mission's gathering space at the time) didn't arrive right away. So while we waited, I heard confessions in a car for the people who wanted to receive the sacrament."
Father Aaron has also been part of his two missions' outreach to other Catholics and to the larger Union and Grainger county communities. For example, Fathers Steve and Aaron and Rutledge mission members recently visited local inactive Catholics to encourage them to return to the Church and enroll their children in faith formation. "We got a really good response," says Father Aaron. They reached out to some people with no church affiliation, too.
In October, the pastoral team welcomed interested Union County residents to "Curious About Catholics?"—five weekly presentations focusing on aspects of Catholicism about which non-Catholics often have questions.
And the two priests have each been writing articles on faith for newspapers in the mission counties. "People see me at the stores and actually say thanks," says Father Aaron.
He's also a familiar face at local schools. Last academic year, he visited Grainger High School at lunchtime once a week, eating with and getting to know students and teachers. "It was probably the first time a Catholic priest set foot in the school," he says. He answered questions about himself and Catholics, built relationships, and made friends.
This school year, he's spending cafeteria lunch periods once a week with students and teachers at Maynard Middle School in Union County.
A final ministry example: As Christmas nears, Rutledge mission members and pastoral team members, including Father Aaron, are collecting donations, purchasing turkeys, and giving them to county residents in need.
One of the great advantages of being involved in so many ministries, he says, is that "I get to see how God and Glenmary's ministry are making a difference in people's lives. These experiences, my prayer life, and my commitment to the Eucharist give me the energy and grace I need.
"I have a better understanding now of how special the call to be a Glenmary missioner is, and I feel very blessed."
This article first appeared in the December 2013 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.