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6/9/2011 2:54:00 AM
VOCATIONS
Newest priest took roundabout route to religious life
BY ANGELA CAVE
STAFF WRITER

Jay Atherton entered college thinking he'd emerge a professor who traveled the world on archeological digs. But this weekend, the 28-year-old will be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Albany.

The ceremony is the culmination of a discernment journey that entailed teaching English to Kosovar refugees in Syracuse, tutoring prison inmates struggling with substance abuse in Philadelphia and working at a homeless shelter for women in Atlantic City, N.J.

Though the idea of priesthood was "something that was always there" for Deacon Atherton, it took some time to realize the shared traits of teachers, social workers, counselors and spiritual advisors.

Deacon Atherton grew up attending St. Francis of Assisi parish in Northville and graduated as valedictorian of his public high school. A self-described "nerd," he earned his bachelor's degree in religious studies from Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 2004.

Though he enthusiastically seized opportunities to study with an imam, a rabbi and a Hindu scholar, Deacon Atherton's small religion department offered few specialized college courses.

"Things never got technical," he explained. "The level of conversation can only go so far."

Deacon Atherton planned to earn a Ph.D. in near-Eastern languages and literature, so he assisted a professor in research until he became disillusioned with the purpose of the work.

He recalled, for instance, hunting for articles to include in a new textbook. One article dissected a single Biblical word.

"It went on for 20 pages and it stopped where it got important," he complained. "I started to think, 'Maybe this isn't [what] I'm interested in. There's something missing here.'"

He threw himself into campus ministry work, serving as a catechist, a cantor and a choir member. Then, when it came time for Deacon Atherton to write a thesis on multiculturalism in the Church, Le Moyne's service coordinator approached him with an opportunity to tutor a family of Kosovo national refugees.

The 21-year-old Kosovar matriarch and mother of three couldn't leave home to learn English because she nursed a child. She spoke Albanian, Romani and Macedonian, but couldn't read or write in any language.

"I had no idea what I was doing," Deacon Atherton admitted. He taught the woman to write her children's names and her own, babysat the kids and chauffeured the family to appointments with social service organizations.

Focused elsewhere
Along the way, he lost interest in his thesis.

"It was just so clearly more important," he said of his work with the family. "I said to myself, 'What is it that I need? What is it that's going to help me grow? I can write about it or I can actually do it.'"

Upon graduation, he ditched the idea of professorship and entered Philadelphia Redemptorist Volunteer Ministries out of "sheer confusion and existential angst."

For a year, he tutored men in the Philadelphia Prison System; many had dropped out of high school to sell drugs or were battling addiction.

"I found that tug at my heart," he said. "I loved those moments in teaching when you get to watch the light bulb come on."

Finding himself
The inmates often told him secrets they couldn't tell the guards. He turned into a confidential counselor - and initiated conversations about God.

"In those moments, I felt the most myself," he said. "I felt I was the most alive, that I was the most Jay Atherton."

During the next year of his service, at a homeless shelter, people routinely assumed he was a seminarian. He attended an eight-day retreat, intending to determine his vocation.

"By day two of the retreat, I knew," he said. "It was just crystal clear."

Deacon Atherton applied to the Diocese of Albany in 2006, finished his philosophy studies at Siena College in Loudonville and entered seminary at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. He was ordained a transitional deacon last year and spent a summer doing chaplaincy work at Albany Medical Center.

Cheers for chaplains
Being a chaplain "affirmed for me how much you can accomplish in a pastoral situation just by listening," he said. "If you create the space where it's okay for somebody to talk, it just makes all the difference in the world."

After his priestly ordination by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, June 11 at Albany's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Deacon Atherton looks forward to hearing confessions and anointing people - but, most of all, to celebrating his first Mass "as a way of returning the love that I have received throughout my life, throughout my formation."

In the Albany Diocese, he may take on the role of pastor within two years.

"It makes me nervous when it makes everybody else nervous," he noted. But "I'm sure by the time that it comes, I'll have what I need."

One of Deacon Atherton's goals will be to entice more young adults to get involved with Catholicism; his understanding of both "generation X" and the "millennial generation" will help him teach older parishioners new ways to evangelize.

Deacon Atherton's highest wishes for the priesthood can be explained through the Bible story of the workers in the vineyard.

As a priest, "you stand in the place of the master, saying, 'You're going to get that full day's wage,'" he said. "That's what I look forward to most: standing in the relationships."





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