New seminarian invites prayers as he deploys to Afghanistan

New seminarian serving in U.S. Army deploys to Afghanistan

Deployment to the Middle East isn’t one of the usual steps for priestly formation in the Diocese of Peoria, but that seems to be the path on which God has set Monmouth native John Ayers.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m not only going to Afghanistan to be a good soldier, but I’m also going there to be a witness to Christ among the other soldiers,” said Ayers, who is in the middle of a six-year commitment as a Blackhawk aviation officer with the U.S. Army. “My desire for this deployment is to serve God and my country and my fellow soldiers.”

Accepted as a seminarian by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, in August, he has filed paperwork to be released from the Army in order to pursue studies for the priesthood. He is working with the Diocese of Peoria and the Archdiocese for the Military Services to enter into a co-sponsorship that will return him to active service as a chaplain after ordination and three years of ministry in central Illinois.

“Here’s this man — he’s virtuous, he’s worked hard. He’s obviously intelligent. He sees this as an adventure. But for him, the priesthood is even more of an adventure,” said Father Timothy Hepner, vocation director of recruitment for the Diocese of Peoria.

“He’s taken all those virtues and he’s going to bring them to the seminary and, God willing, to the priesthood,” Father Hepner recently told The Catholic Post.

Father Patrick Henehan, the diocese’s vocation director of formation, described Ayers as genuine, humble, down to earth, and pious.

“He has such a great heart,” Father Henehan said. “I think his ability to be compassionate to the people of the diocese will be a great gift.”

MOMENT OF CLARITY
Those attributes are found in the family as a whole, according to Father Hepner, who got to know them as parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception Parish in Monmouth after his ordination in 2012. He noted that Christine Ayers is a nurse and sacristan at Immaculate Conception, while Robert Ayers is a doctor at OSF St. Mary’s Medical Center in Galesburg.

John Ayers called his father “the most generous man I know” and his mother “the most loving woman I know.” He credited their witness for allowing him and his older brother and two older sisters to be the strong individuals and leaders they are today.

Ayers attended the University of North Dakota with the idea of studying commercial aviation and becoming an airline pilot. When he arrived, he noticed the recruiting booth for Army ROTC, however, and said they had him “hook, line and sinker.”

“I never looked back,” he told The Post during an interview over FaceTime just before Christmas. “I changed my major. It was still aviation, but I did helicopters instead.”

He was commissioned in the Army and started flight school in 2012. Now a lieutenant, he has been at Fort Carson, southwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado, since 2013.

It was during his sophomore year of college, when a priest helped him develop a closer relationship with Jesus, that he could start to see himself as a priest. He called Msgr. Brian Brownsey, then director of vocations for the Diocese of Peoria, and ROTC officials to get more details on his commitment to the military.

He also made a five-day silent retreat at the Community of St. John in Princeville to sort things out. Ayers was advised to go and seek Mary’s counsel and “be obedient to whatever she says.”

“I feel like that moment is probably one of the only times in my life anything had been crystal clear to me — it was a moment of grace, a moment of faith,” Ayers said, noting that the Blessed Mother told him not to doubt his vocation or despair.

“Know you’re to serve as a peer among the soldiers,” he heard. “I realized I wasn’t meant to go to the seminary just yet.”

ONLY ONE RESERVATION
When God’s timing was right, it was his earthly mother who set the wheels in motion.

Christine Ayers called Father Joseph Baker, then a transitional deacon who had served in Monmouth, and asked him to contact her son. Invited to Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, for a visit, John Ayers said he hesitated at first but eventually was able to spend a long weekend at “the Mount” when his unit was scheduled for training in Virginia.

A group of seminarians from the Diocese of Peoria met him at the train in Washington, D.C., and took him to the seminary. “I fell in love with it,” Ayers said.

During that time the U.S. bishops were at their annual fall meeting in Baltimore and the seminarians from central Illinois had dinner with Bishop Jenky. Ayers also had an opportunity to meet with Father Aidan Logan, OCSO, vocation director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

The next invitation changed his life.

On that November evening in Baltimore, Bishop Jenky invited Ayers to come to ordination the following May. It was while he was sitting in the balcony of St. Mary’s Cathedral that Ayers said “yes” to God.

“During the ordination they have the mothers bring up the (offertory) gifts. As soon as the mothers stood up to walk back I had another moment of grace,” Ayers told The Post. “How could I not give this ultimately to my mother and to God?”

As the pieces fell into place, only one reservation remained.

“I told Father Tim I didn’t know how the Lord was going to satisfy the amount of pain I had in my heart for not going to Afghanistan with my unit, with the soldiers I’ve really come to love and enjoy,” Ayers said. “In faith, I said the Lord is going to make this right. He is going to provide for my desire.”

Because the paperwork took six months, Ayers was not able to enter the seminary last fall but is hoping to enroll when classes start this fall. Father Henehan said he would need two years of pre-theology studies before going on to Mount St. Mary for four years of theology.

While he enjoys Colorado, Ayers will happily come home and serve the people of the Diocese of Peoria. “I look forward to meeting everyone when I get back,” he said.

In the meantime, he welcomes prayers not just for peace but for charity.

“Know that it matters. The little prayers are the prayers we’re called to make,” Ayers said. “It’s the one Hail Mary said before Mass that could change the world.”

Editor’s note: Persons wishing to send notes of encouragement and prayer assurance may do so at this address:

Lt. John Ayers

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