Frater Carl Gales of the Divine Word Missionaries recently completed a half-marathon.
“At one time, I tried to train for a full marathon but kind of tanked out at mile 17,” said Frater Carl, former music director of Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish in Jefferson City.
“I later realized that I wasn’t training properly or with enough know-how,” he said. “You start out with shorter distances. As you continue running, you develop a certain perseverance.”
Such has also been his experience in discerning a call to Priesthood as a missionary of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD).
“I think my SVD formation has given me a kind of long-range planning,” he said. “You learn how to build up to things instead of trying to tackle the mountain in all one go.
“You learn that there are hills you have to overcome before you climb the mountain,” he said.
Frater Carl is preparing to profess perpetual vows in the SVD, the largest Roman Catholic order that focuses on missionary work, on Sept. 18 in Hyde Park, Illinois.
He hopes to be ordained a deacon this October and a priest next May.
As a member of the society’s Chicago Province, he will likely minister in the footsteps of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton (1854-97), the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States.
Fr. Tolton was born in northeastern Missouri, escaped from slavery with his family during the Civil War, settled with them in Quincy, Illinois, and was eventually ordained a priest in Rome, because no seminary in the United States would accept him.
He ministered as a priest in Quincy, then in Chicago before his death at age 43.
“I’ve already done some parish work at St. Elizabeth in Chicago, which is basically where Fr. Tolton did his parish ministry,” said Frater Carl, who is also African American.
He entered the SDV novitiate in 2014 after serving for two years as music director at the Cathedral in Jefferson City.
“It’s been a really long journey,” he stated. “But now that I look back, it feels like just yesterday that I was at the Cathedral.”
He grew up in a devout Christian family in Arizona.
“I’m a convert,” he noted. “I grew up in the Pentecostal Church. My mother is still very devout.”
He took a liking to music as a child and sung in the Phoenix Boys Choirs, giving him access to and education into the classical genre as well as the Catholic Liturgy.
“We sang various arrangements of the Mass in Latin,” he recalled. “Those kinds of things were embedded in my mind at a young age. It was something I wished to continue into my adulthood.”
He majored in music at the University of Indiana and decided to become Catholic while there, receiving Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil in 2000.
“That was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful time!” he said. “And the stirrings of the Catholic Priesthood were present even then.”
When in Rome
One Saturday, a classmate asked him to provide piano accompaniment to her early-morning flute audition.
That seemingly insignificant event brought him into contact with the organizers of an international opera festival, who offered him a job on the spot as an accompanist.
“And guess where it was? It was in ROME!” he recalled. “And it just so happened to be the year of the Great Jubilee!”
It was too good to pass up.
“I had just become Catholic,” he recalled. “And by a stroke of divine providence, I got to go to Rome for free and participate in an opera festival.”
He also got make pilgrimages to the four major basilicas and walk through the jubilee doors in each.
“It was all a very beautiful experience,” he said.
Those and other signs turned his sights toward Priesthood.
“I called the vocations director for the Indianapolis archdiocese and told him I think God wants me to become a priest,” Frater Carl recalled.
“He asked me, ‘How long have you been Catholic?’ I said, ‘Oh, just about a month,’” he laughingly recounted.
The priest told him, “I’m glad you called, but maybe think about it and if you still feel called in a year or two, give me a call.”
In the meantime, Frater Carl decided to continue studying music.
He pursued a master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati, which led to a two-year overseas study in France.
Becoming familiar with the language there would serve him well during his time on mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“I look back on all of these different events in my life, and I see the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that God prepares you for the life ahead,” he said. “I see the building blocks of my formation and the subtle nudging of the Holy Spirit toward this vocation of the Priesthood.”
To every land and nation
In 2012, he accepted an offer to lead the liturgical music program at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City.
“I came to the Cathedral because of the liturgical life there and the desire to develop a Gregorian schola, which was right up my alley because of my education,” he recalled.
The parish and role were an “easy fit” for him.
“Working in parish ministry as a church musician and leading a choir seemed just like where my life had been leading me,” he said.
During a diocesan multicultural Mass in the Cathedral in 2013, Frater Carl picked up the tune the African choir had sung while leading the Offertory Procession.
He played several variations of the tune on the piano before moving gradually into an old German hymn, “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King,” while the altar was being prepared.
It was strong foreshadowing of the ministry he was being called to pursue as a Divine Word Missionary: drawing people of all walks of life into faithful unity.
“Our official SVD motto is ‘Jesus’s mission is our mission,’” he noted. “In many ways, that translates to extending help to people who are abandoned or left on the margins.”
The Society of the Divine Word is the fifth-largest men’s religious community in the world, with about 7,000 members serving in 82 countries.
It is an international mission society that includes priests, religious brothers and two communities of religious women: the Holy Spirit Missionaries and the Sister Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration.
St. Arnold Janssen, a diocesan priest from Germany, founded the SVDs in 1875 to be the national foreign mission society of a newly united nation of Germany, as most other countries in Europe already had a foreign mission society.
Its first task would be to minister to German expatriates during a time of turbulent Church-state relations in their homeland. The society sent missionaries to German-speaking people in China, South America and the United States.
In the U.S., the SVDs were charged with ministering to poor African Americans, mostly in isolated rural locales.
“The charism is very close to me,” said Frater Carl, “because the SVD and the Josephites were the earliest congregations that trained African American priests in this country.”
“They did so even with threat to life and limb,” he noted.
From 1920 until 1968, the SVDs operated the only seminary in the United States that would accept Black candidates for the Priesthood.
“The SVDs were instrumental in not necessarily being the only ones who were missioned to Black communities but who also ordained African American men in the country,” Frater Carl stated.
Frater Carl credits the faithful witness of Cathedral parishioners — “the mostly unsung heroes who get the job done behind the scenes” — with helping him “discern the next steps” in pursuing his baptismal call to holiness.
“They are people I really truly admire,” he said.
He thoroughly enjoyed his time in Jefferson City.
“I was received well by the choir, by the congregation, by the pastor and by the staff,” he added. “It was really wonderful, wonderful time. And it was very difficult to leave.”
The call to mission and Priesthood had become too strong to resist.
He sought admittance into the SVD as a candidate for Priesthood.
He was accepted into formation in 2014 and given the title “Frater,” which is Latin for “Brother.”
He noted that the society members from all over the world, and their shared formation is a microcosm of the rest of society.
“Everything that’s in real life, as they say, you find in formation life,” he said. “So you have to deal with the same prejudices, you have to deal with the same misconceptions and ideas that are inherent to daily life.”
Similar yet different
In addition to his seminary studies and spiritual formation, he spent two years on mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in south-central Africa.
“It was interesting to see that being Black does not necessarily mean you understand the culture,” he noted. “It was a challenge to see people who I look like but I didn’t necessarily resonate with due to cultural differences.”
But the people were “welcoming and wonderful” and helped him adjust to live in their country.
“At its basic level, at its foundation, humanity is pretty much the same wherever,” he said. “You find challenges wherever you go.”
The greatest challenge he saw in the Congo was material poverty.
He was angry to find out how rich in natural resources the Congo is, but how those riches “have been pilfered by the powerful, while the poor are left with next to nothing.”
“You see how poverty and a lack of access to education can shape the behaviors, the attitudes, the destiny of people,” he said. “You begin to realize the many blessings of being an American. At the same time, you realize that we’re also spoiled.”
Some SVD members become priests, some remain brothers for the rest of their lives.
All profess temporary and eventually perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
“Poverty doesn’t just refer to monetary things,” said Frater Carl, “but also being willing to let go of things such as security or familiarity of place.
“It means always being open to traveling light and having as few possessions as possible in order to be ready to go on a moment’s notice, which is part of our vow of obedience,” he said.
The call to profess final vows comes when the SVD leadership and the candidate both agree that he is a good fit for the society and its charism.
“With solemn profession, the society is making a commitment and I am making a commitment for a lifetime for one another and to serve the needs of our society and also of the People of God,” he said.
Frater Carl hopes to be ordained a deacon by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago, co-postulator for Venerable Fr. Tolton’s sainthood cause, in Chicago on Oct. 17 of this year.
He hopes to be ordained to the Holy Priesthood on May 28, 2022.
He is immensely grateful for all of the people in and around Jefferson City who have stayed in touch with him and held him up in prayer.
“Those daily Mass intentions and Rosaries that have been said on my behalf have helped me through the trials I’ve had to face, especially in the Congo, and have helped me considerably through my formation,” he said.
His family, especially his mother, is excited for him.
“They see who I have become as a Catholic and also as a Divine Word Missionary, and they see that I’ve been blessed, and they’re very happy for me,” he said.