Falling in love with Christ

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Crown of thorns led to priestly vocation


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The cover of Deacon Gerard Alba’s ordination program has an illustration he drew himself.

It’s Christ’s crown of thorns. Don’t think that it’s merely a piece of Catholic boilerplate art.

The crown of thorns is a symbol with deep personal meaning for Deacon Alba. It speaks of a decisive moment in his discernment of a vocation to the priesthood — a sometimes challenging and painful process.

Deacon Alba is the oldest of the four children of Gerry and Grace Alba, both registered nurses at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

The family was from the Philippines. Deacon Alba was born in IIoilo City, on Panay Island. The Albas, like most Filipinos, were Catholic — and devoutly so.

His father attended a minor seminary and even entered a Trappist monastery before leaving and marrying. His mother had a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“My grandmother died when my mother was five years old,” said Deacon Alba. “She told my mother on her death bed, ‘I’m not going to be around. So, when you need help, go to Mary. She’ll always help you.’”

A big change came for the Alba family in 1992, when the future priest was 10 years old: They moved to the United States.

“There are not many opportunities in the Philippines, so a lot of Filipinos leave the country,” he said. “Most families who are upper middle class have one or both parents working abroad and send money home. When I was five years old, [my father went] to the United States. When I was 10, he was able to bring the whole family over.”

It was a huge cultural adjustment and, for the first time, Deacon Alba began to question his faith. After three years in Long Branch, New Jersey, the Albas moved to Kansas, settling in Overland Park and joining Church of the Ascension Parish.

During his junior year at Blue Valley Northeast High School, he had a profound experience during a youth group spring break trip, and had a “deeply personal encounter with Christ.”

After he graduated from high school in 2000, he entered the University of Kansas to study architecture. While his friends were seeking professionally oriented internships, Deacon Alba worked at Camp Tekakwitha.

“I realized that I was falling more in love with Christ and wanted to know more about him,” he said. “It’s what I really wanted to do.”

He learned about Benedictine College in Atchison from his friends at camp, so he transferred there his junior year and graduated in 2004 with a bachelor of arts in theology with an emphasis in youth ministry and a minor in philosophy.

Another major turning point came during spring of 2004, before graduation. He went on a pilgrimage to Rome, making a stop on the way to the family home — now a shrine — of St. Catherine of Siena. He saw two frescos: One depicted the mystical marriage of St. Catherine to Christ, with the saint receiving a ring.

“When I saw that, I said [to myself], ‘That’s what I want more than anything: to have a relationship with Christ in this way,” he said.

On the opposite wall was St. Catherine being offered two crowns — a jeweled crown of glory or a crown of thorns for a life of suffering. St. Catherine chose the thorns.

“I knew somehow that those two were connected,” said Deacon Alba. “I knew when she accepted this ring and marriage of Christ, it meant also receiving a crown of thorns. And somehow my heart wanted that. I wanted that more than anything.”

He thought he might go into religious life and even visited the Apostles of the Interior Life in Rome, but felt no desire to move forward.

After he returned home, however, Father Brian Schieber (then archdiocesan vocations director) asked, “Are you still interested in the priesthood?” Deacon Alba said yes. Father Schieber promised to send him some information.

“I thought, ‘There’s no rush,’” he said. “Seminary doesn’t start until next fall. I might take this job [in youth ministry] and see where the Lord leads me.” But when the packet from Father Schieber arrived, it contained an application to enter the seminary.

“I was, like, ‘Maybe I’ll just fill it out,’” he said. “It felt right. By the end of finishing the application, I thought, ‘It might be this.’ So I decided to enter the seminary.”

He entered the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary, near Chicago in January 2005.

“It was like going to Narnia in winter,” he said. “It was my first time there. The grass and all the trees were just covered with snow, and there were deer walking across.”

He loved the seminary, but his discernment revealed that he needed to sort things out in his own life.

He left the seminary in 2007 and entered a time of spiritual direction, prayer, counseling and healing. He worked at St. Ann Parish in Prairie Village as a high school youth minister and sixth-grade religion teacher.

He later returned to the University of Kansas and studied for his master’s degree in architecture from 2008 to 2011. After graduation, he got a job doing cost estimation for an architecture firm.

He even met and dated a wonderful woman at KU. She and others helped reignite his faith, which had fallen in the doldrums. His spiritual director surprised him by asking if he was still interested in the priesthood.

“I said, ‘No, no, not at all,’” said Deacon Alba.

But during a Holy Hour, his heart said, “Yes, you are.” He told God he was unworthy to answer a call to the priesthood because he had rejected him so many times.

“And God said, ‘You are rejecting me now,’” he recalled.

That stunned Deacon Alba.

“My response was, ‘OK, I realize this is your gift to me and, in return, my priesthood will be my gift to you,’” he said.

He went back to Mundelein in August 2012. It wasn’t easy, but he made it all the way through. He was ordained a deacon last May 17 at Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood. He will be ordained a priest at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 15 at St. Peter Cathedral in Kansas City, Kansas.


Personally Speaking

Name: Deacon Gerard Vincent Paul Berdin Alba

Age: 33

Born: Iloilo city, Republic of the Philippines

Raised: Philippines, new Jersey and overland Park

Parents: Gerry and Grace

Siblings: Gracielle, Giselle and Greg

Current home parish: Holy Trinity, Lenexa (parish assignment)

Favorite TV show: “Downton Abbey,” “Suits”

Favorite social networking tool: Instagram

Favorite musical group/person: Beatles

The most inspirational Christians I’ve met: The poor

Favorite Saint and Why: St. Therese; she continually teaches me how to love with great ease, deep joy, and with magnanimity.

Favorite devotion and why: “Anima Christi,” because it draws me intimately with the person of Jesus Christ, in his saving, healing passion, and in the holy Eucharist.

Books now reading: “My Sister Saint Therese,” “Unbound,” “The Book thief”

Favorite food: Mama’s cooking, Filipino and Asian/Mediterranean food

Favorite childhood toy: Legos and matchbox cars

Best job I’ve ever had: Seminarian worst job I’ve ever had: Seminarian hobbies/things I like to do: I love people and I love stories. I enjoy great conversations, a good book, show, great music, movie/TV. I love adventures. I love to travel, explore, play, and eat really good food. I also love to draw/paint, see great works of art and architecture. I love design and new technology, but I also love old things, especially learning about their story and seeing how they changed, and how old machines worked. I like to tinker. I like to ponder, ask questions.

If I were missionary sent to a faraway place, I’d be sure to bring my trusty: Sketchbook and lots and lots of really nice pens.

Qualities I admire in priests I know: Those who are deeply in love with Jesus and you can taste it — priests whom you get a sense that all flows from their own prayer life and can sense their love for our Eucharistic Lord. Those who really live up to their title of “Father.” Those who are not afraid of getting dirty — either playing with the kids at recess, or pulling up their sleeves to fix a bathroom leak. Those who live their life with great holiness and integrity to where they can say as St. Paul did, “If you want to be like Christ, imitate me.”

Best advice I received: Listen.

My advice for someone seeking their vocation: listen. Spend time with the lord every day and get to know his voice within your heart; pay attention to how he speaks to you in the small things.

What I’m looking forward to as a priest: Everything! My heart is full right now! I am excited to celebrate the sacraments for the people of God, to celebrate Mass every day, to offer healing and forgiveness through reconciliation and anointing of the sick. I am excited to be an instrument for the Lord.

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