Deacon Michael Ackerman has always known that God wanted him to teach. But instead of helping junior high school students learn history and economics, he will be helping families to understand and deepen their faith as a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Deacon Ackerman, who is completing his formation at Theological College, the national diocesan seminary of The Catholic University of America, is one of four men who are scheduled to be ordained this June at St. Paul Cathedral. The others are Deacons Ken Marklovits, Mike Conway and Tom Schleup, Jr.
“I was teaching at Riverview in Oakmont when I heard about an opening to teach CCD at my parish, St. Edward (now St. Pio of Pietrelcina). I found that I enjoyed teaching the faith more than history,” Deacon Ackerman said. “I started to pray about that, went to two Come and See weekends at St. Paul Seminary and I loved it.
“I knew then that I had to go into the seminary to discover if that’s what God wanted for me, or I would always live with that regret.”
The seminary experience is called “formation” rather than “education” because it involves far more than learning the Catholic doctrine. It is intended to shape the seminarians’ lives and character as they learn to cooperate with the grace of God.
Pope Francis recently stated that formation must mold the hearts of seminarians as well as their minds. “The Gospel is preached gently, fraternally, with love,” the Holy Father said.
Seminarian formation is an important priority for Our Campaign for The Church Alive! The campaign will add $5 million to the Shepherds’ Care Fund to help pay tuition, room and board, and other educational costs for men preparing for the priesthood.
The average annual expense to educate a seminarian is $32,000, but diocesan leaders believe finances should not stand in the way of those discerning whether to become a priest.
Deacon Ackerman attended grade school at St. Scholastica Parish, graduated from North Catholic High School and earned his Bachelor’s in history and Master’s in education from Duquesne University. After working in the Duquesne Admissions office, he taught at Riverview, then entered the seminary in August 2008.
Fr. Joseph Mele, rector of St. Paul Seminary, said there are currently 34 seminarians locally and at major seminaries in the United States and Rome. In addition to supporting the campaign, Fr. Mele urges Catholic families to go further in promoting vocations to the priesthood.
“The most important step is to deepen your own personal friendship with Christ,” he said. “The family is the domestic Church. Once God is moved to the side, it’s hard to put Him back in the center of our lives.”
Deacon Ackerman points to prayer.
“I couldn’t have accepted this calling without the prayers of the faithful,” he said. “They’re appreciated and much needed.”
Campaign funds also will provide extraordinary support not available in the annual budget for the vocations office to expand outreach using traditional and new media, as well as special spiritual programs, retreats and discernment direction.
Discernment means answering a key question—what is God’s plan for me?
“We need to learn how to sit quietly and listen to God’s voice. He’s working in the midst of the noise in our lives,” Deacon Ackerman said. “Each of us can ask, How can I sanctify my day and find small ways to keep God in the equation?
“Supporting seminarian formation through the campaign demonstrates a wonderful commitment from our diocese and parishes. Formation builds you into a holy man who loves the people of God.”
As he completes his preparations for the priesthood, Deacon Ackerman reflects on his calling.
“I’ll still be a teacher, but instead of history, I’ll be teaching the faith. It’s really a life-giving vocation.”