From boot camp to seminary

A chance encounter at the Marine Corps Marathon led a Marine to the priesthood; this year he’s running as a seminarian

October 22, 2008

When John Williams puts on his running shoes for the Marine Corps Marathon this Sunday, October 26, the former Marine will be thinking about the 20-second exchange he had with a Catholic priest as he ran past him during the marathon two years ago.

“Are you a priest for Washington?” the Marine Corps corporal shouted to him. “Yes,” Monsignor Robert Panke shouted back. “Say hi to my friends in the seminary,” Williams told him, naming a couple of old high school friends studying to be priests for the Archdiocese of Washington.

“Neither of us thought much of it at the time,” said Msgr. Panke, Director of Priest Vocations and Formation for the archdiocese, but it prompted John to inquire more about the priesthood, which had been in the back of his mind since age eight. Less than a year after the chance encounter, Williams, 26, finished his four years of Marine Corps service, which included two deployments to Iraq, and entered Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland to begin six years of preparation to become a priest for the archdiocese.

Williams, the youngest of 15 children and an uncle 65 times, is running the 26 mile marathon this year with one of his brothers as part of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Run for Vocations team, which was founded in 1999 by Msgr. Bill Parent, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Waldorf, Maryland, to promote vocations to the priesthood and raise money for seminarians.

This year, 98 runners are on the team, including three other seminarians, a nun and Msgr. Panke. “The team is about getting people to pray for vocations and letting them know that we need priests, we need shepherds,” said Msgr. Panke. Clergy, seminarians and laity line the streets with signs to cheer on the team and the runners wear Run for Vocations t-shirts. On Saturday evening at 5:30 p.m., Msgr. Panke will celebrate a Mass at St. Patrick Church, located at 10th and G Streets in Washington, DC, for the team and their friends and families.

While Williams, a Fairfax, Virginia native, is running for the priesthood instead of the Marine Corps this year, he has no regrets about his military service and says it was good preparation for life in the seminary. “I was already accustomed to authority and a regimented schedule, so it was an easier transition for me,” he said. He is scheduled to be ordained a priest for the archdiocese in 2013.

There are 72 men studying for the priesthood with the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes 140 parishes and over 580,000 Catholics in Washington, DC and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.

Susan Gibbs or Georgina Stark
Office of Communications
[email protected]