By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
A decade before he entered seminary, Deacon Robert Barnell felt a tug at his heart calling him to the priesthood. The intervening years would lead him to work in refugee resettlement and with St. Teresa of Kolkata’s order in India.
Deacon Barnell is one of five seminarians who will be ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz May 26 at 11 a.m. at the Cathedral of the Assumption, 433 S. Fifth St. The other four ordinands are: Deacons Brandon DeToma, David Farrell, Kien Nguyen and Minh Vu.
That first call to the priesthood for Deacon Barnell, 30, came during Mass at his home parish of St. Margaret Mary one summer evening around the time of his confirmation.
A few people had brought up the idea of a religious vocation to him, he said, but he felt the priesthood wasn’t meant for him.
“That evening I was in Mass and I felt different all of a sudden. I felt that maybe I was being called (to the priesthood). I felt really excited. And at the same time I remember feeling afraid. How would I preach? What would I have to say?” he recalled in an interview last week.
After that initial experience, he made contact with the archdiocese’s Vocation Office and then-vocation director Father William Bowling. Deacon Barnell attended several events hosted by the Vocation Office, including a vocation retreat, as he discerned his vocation through high school and into college.
“In some ways, it (the call to priesthood) was a sudden moment. I thought ‘Well, God will help me do whatever I am called to do,” he said, explaining he put his trust in God.
While a student at St. Xavier High School, he became a volunteer with Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) during summer vacations.
“We were from different cultures, spoke different languages and had different skin colors, and yet God called us to be one family and how can we better do that than through faith,” he said.
It was during his time volunteering with MRS that he met Father Michael Wimsatt, who was then a young seminarian. Father Wimsatt is now the director of the Vocation Office.
“He was the first seminarian I met. We would email and meet up for coffee and talk occasionally. He was my first mentor,” he said.
Following college at Indiana University, Deacon Barnell lived in a discernment house for men in Indianapolis and was employed by Catholic Charities of Indianapolis’ Refugee Immigration Services as a job placement coordinator.
His work with refugees, while it had its challenges, was very rewarding, he said. Aside from the priesthood, he considered it his “dream job.”
“Refugees, in some ways, seem more in touch with the important things in life: values, faith and family. I enjoyed being around them. Their own spiritual richness would rub off on me,” he said.
His love of people from all cultures and a desire to help those in need led him to a two-week mission to India, where he worked among Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
“It felt like a privilege to be around the poor. Their view of life kind of corrects my own view at times,” he said.
During his two years working to help refugees find jobs he said he began to consider the priesthood more seriously.
“I loved my job working with refugees,” he said. “I still miss that. But, I began to think maybe I was meant to work with people’s spiritual needs more directly. Maybe God was calling me to do that.
“I had my fears: I didn’t know if I would be a good leader or preacher or whatever, that maybe I was not cut out for it,” he said.
But, the call to serve God’s people as a priest was a thought he couldn’t seem to shake.
“I thought if the only reason I’m not going forward is fear, then that didn’t seem like a good reason. As Christians, we are called to go forth with faith,” he said.
Following ordination, he looks forward to bringing “God’s graces to people through the sacraments,” particularly confession and the Eucharist, he said.
While at first intimidated by preaching, Deacon Barnell said he now sees it as a unique chance to talk with people about spiritual things they will not hear anywhere else.
“Preaching is a special access to have, to teach people about God. It’s a special moment where I want to give them something to come closer to God,” he said.
Deacon Barnell earned a bachelor’s degree in geography and Spanish from Indiana University and expects to complete a master’s degree in divinity from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, next month.
He has been assigned as associate pastor of St. Bartholomew Church in Buechel, which has a large Hispanic community.
His first Mass of Thanksgiving will be May 27 at 10 a.m. at St. Margaret Mary Church, 7813 Shelbyville Road.