Vocations Director Fr. Jonathan Wallis followed an inner calling to serve the Catholic Church

By Jerry Circelli

Correspondent

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Fr. Jonathan Wallis, director of Vocations for the Diocese of Fort Worth, feels right at home in North Texas, where he attended TCU and developed a strong relationship with the Catholic Church. (Photo by Jerry Circelli)

There are times when Father Jonathan Wallis feels like his childhood is coming back to revisit him as he goes about his calling to serve Catholics in the Diocese of Fort Worth. The son of an Episcopal priest, Fr. Wallis regularly accompanied his father on a lengthy church circuit in Wyoming. And when his father served at churches in Wisconsin and Missouri, the youngster was often right there by his side.

As director of Vocations, Fr. Wallis is tasked with helping people hear and follow the call of Jesus Christ and his Church in the sprawling Diocese of Fort Worth, which includes more than 710,000 Catholics, in 28 counties, with 89 parishes and missions. In addition, the priest travels a church circuit, just as his father did. The journey is different now, taking place not in Wyoming, but in Texas, serving Catholics in Ranger, Cisco, Strawn, and Eastland. It’s a 220-mile round-trip from Fort Worth every weekend.

“As soon as I was ordained,” said Fr. Wallis, “it seemed like I was living my own years of growing up all over again.”

Fr. Wallis recalled how his father prepared sermons, traveled to deliver them, counseled those in need, visited the sick, called on people at nursing homes, and performed myriad other duties. “I would ride along with him and saw the inner life and the inner workings of a parish,” he said.

While Fr. Wallis never entertained the thought of being an Episcopal priest, the idea of being a part of the Catholic clergy sometimes occurred to him. That way of thinking, however, really didn’t take root until 1996, the year he graduated from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth with a bachelor’s degree in Music Education.

There were, however, those unexplainable moments earlier in his life when he developed a curiosity about the Catholic faith and priesthood. Fr. Wallis can’t explain exactly why he began researching Catholic priesthood when his high school class was asked to write a paper on career interests during his freshman year. He never followed through on the research and wrote about possibly becoming a lawyer, instead. As a high school senior, Fr. Wallis was asked in what direction his future studies would eventually lead him. He replied, “You know what? I think I’m going to end up being a Catholic priest.”

Even today, Fr. Wallis does not know why he responded that way or why Catholicism and the priesthood even entered his mind.

“It was always sort of in there,” said Fr. Wallis, further explaining, “It would kind of float up and then go away.”

Reflecting now, Fr. Wallis said becoming a Catholic priest and serving the Church was something God was calling him do.

“It was almost like something written on my heart, so deep inside,” he said.

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Fr. Wallis remained faithful to his alma mater, TCU, during his stay in Rome. A passionate TCU football fan, he shows his true colors in this photograph with Sr. Anna Ramie, RSM, with the Bishop’s Office of U.S. Visitors to the Vatican in Rome. (Photo courtesy of Fr. Wallis)

While at TCU, Catholicism began to grow on the young student. “I did more thinking about the Eucharist,” said Fr. Wallis. “I thought about how the Catholic Church has never waivered on its teaching about the Eucharist — body, blood, soul, and divinity.”

By 1997, he was accepted into the Church. He taught music part time and worked in a retail store at Bass Performance Hall before deciding to enter Assumption Seminary in San Antonio in 2000.

By 2007, the subtle message that had been written on his heart, so deep inside, proved to be a blessing for Fr. Wallis and the Diocese of Fort Worth. He had truly immersed himself in the study of his faith, obtaining a Bachelor’s of Sacred Theology from St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, and a Master’s of Theology from Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. In the summer of that year, he was ordained as a Catholic priest by Bishop Kevin Vann at St. Patrick Cathedral in Fort Worth.

In 2010, after three years as parochial vicar at St. Matthew Parish in Arlington, Fr. Wallis was sent to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he earned a Licentiate in Sacred Theology with a concentration in Dogma in 2012. Upon returning to Fort Worth, he served briefly as priest secretary for Bishop Vann, before being appointed director of Catechesis in August 2012. Then, in June of this year, he was named director of Vocations.

During his circuitous journey to the priesthood, Fr. Wallis said he sometimes wondered if he should have taken a more direct route. “There are times that I wished I had entered the seminary earlier. But I’m 39 years old now and I have had time enough to look back and realize it was for the best. I’m very grateful that God is smarter than I am. I learned to put much greater trust in God’s providence, and I’ve ended up in places I never thought I would.”

The experiences he gained along the way have all come together to enrich the priest’s understanding of his own vocation in the Church. When he served as director of Catechesis, for example, Fr. Wallis sometimes drew on his music education and experience for insight.

One analogy involves jazz and catechesis. “With jazz, you have to know your scales,” said Fr. Wallis. “You have to memorize them, and they need to be second nature for you. But then you also need to add your own creativity.” The fusion of those two elements are needed to make great jazz music, said Fr. Wallis.

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Fr. Wallis spent Christmas day 2011 at the Vatican. Two years of study in Rome taught Fr. Wallis a lot, not the least of which was the universality of the Church and the important role played by each diocese, each parish, and each individual. (Photo courtesy of Fr. Wallis)

The same can be said about being a strong Catholic. “We really should know the Catechism,” Fr. Wallis continued. “We should know what the Church teaches and [its] history. With that understanding and knowledge, we can put our faith into practice in various situations where we have to make personal decisions. The two need to be blended together.”

Past experiences have also helped Fr. Wallis clearly see the universality of the Church. From the Vatican in Rome to the small churches along the western edge of the diocese, where he celebrates weekly Masses, the priest has witnessed the connection. In Rome, he gained further insight about the Church around the world, he added.

As for the present, Fr. Wallis said the Diocese of Fort Worth is blessed with more than 30 seminarians. As director of Vocations, he is involved in getting to know each one of them as they travel on their faith journeys. He is also visiting with women who are discerning religious life, as well as others considering ways they can serve the Catholic Church in the diocese.

In addition to priesthood and religious life, Fr. Wallis pointed out that Catholic vocations include marriage and single life. Married couples live out their vows of faithful love through the sanctity of marriage. They are responsible for helping their spouses grow in love and faith. They have opportunities to serve their parish communities and the Church in many different ways. Those called to single life are also able to devote their time and energy to the service of others. They also have multiple opportunities to help the Church with their gifts.

Fr. Wallis has a suggestion for everyone as they consider their own vocations: “Follow Jesus Christ’s call to you with great love and courage. Jesus Christ will give you the strength to do what He asks you to do. Be not afraid.”

He said the greatest need in our Church today “is that we all serve Jesus Christ and his Church with willing, open, and loving hearts.”

As for his own calling, Fr. Wallis said he will continue to listen to God, serve where he is needed, and use his background and experiences to help others prepare for Church service. “And I will rely on God’s grace,” Fr. Wallis said.

“I just want to be the kind of priest that I would want to have — somebody who preaches well, is faithful, and takes his vocation seriously. For that, I need to use the gifts that God has given me.”

Wallis-BUTTON.jpgThere are times when Father Jonathan Wallis feels like his childhood is coming back to revisit him as he goes about his calling to serve Catholics in the Diocese of Fort Worth. The son of an Episcopal priest, Fr. Wallis regularly accompanied his father on a lengthy church circuit in Wyoming. And when his father served at churches in Wisconsin and Missouri, the youngster was often right there by his side.

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