State

Journey to the priesthood settled a restless heart

The Rev. Sam West is the Stockton Diocese's newest priest, ordained in December and sent to his first assignment -- Modesto's St. Stanislaus parish. Born and raised in Stockton, he's one of the dwindling number of native English speaking priests in the diocese. And at age 40, he's come to the priesthood by way of a business career, making him more mature than many new priests.

It's a journey that fulfilled an empty spot in his heart, he said.

"There is a tremendous need out there," West said. "People just feel so alone and so in need; there's such a great spiritual need in the world. It motivates me to say, 'I'm here to serve.' I'm doing something real, something that matters. We really need priests; we really matter in a time when the spiritual life has been made less important than the secular life. Going to church has become almost a hobby -- what do you want to do with your weekend?"

After graduating from St. Mary's High School in 1987, West fell into a new business with his mother and sister, selling medical software systems to doctors' offices.

"It was engaging and challenging running your business and making some financial security, but I was discovering that money and career wasn't the answer I was looking for," West said. "I was anxious and a little restless in my heart."

When West was in his early 20s, he responded to a church announcement about a confirmation class. He had been baptized as a child, but his parents divorced when he was 10 and his mom, a single parent with three children, found it "really hard to get us to Catechism and even to school," West said.

In that class, he met Patrick Moore, a recent college graduate who had majored in philosophy and who became West's best friend.

"I had never been exposed to philosophy," West said. "He started talking about the faith being reasonable, that you could use your reason and it was not something magical like you would believe as a child. He started getting into St. Thomas Aquinas. We were talking about everything."

Moore talked about joining the Dominicans and West began "thinking about my own path." He met the Rev. Joseph Illo, who conducted a funeral Mass for his grandmother and then his aunt. West went to an Operation Andrew dinner, which is for young men who are interested in becoming priests.

"I call it the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Divine providence," said West.

He took the next step and talked with Illo, who was then the diocese's director of vocations.

"It was in 1996, after my confirmation," West said. "I really believe in the sacraments being a way for God to touch us. I think the gifts of the Holy Spirit were given to me because once I was confirmed, all these doors were opened to me. From then on, I started talking with Father Joe once a month."

West was still running the computer business. But his sister had married and moved to Florida, so when the software company offered to buy them out in 1999, West said they jumped at the opportunity.

"That gave my mom the opportunity to retire and gave me the opportunity to go to seminary, or at least do something else. I had to see if this is what God was calling me to do."

He had to complete college before he entered seminary, so he went to Mt. Angel Seminary in Oregon and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and literature.

"I was a student at 30 years old. Most of the guys in my class were 18, 19 and 20. But the business experience helped. And it was a great place. It was a Benedictine monastery, as well, and the monks were there."

Then West transferred to St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, where he received his master's degree. He was ordained as a deacon at St. Stanislaus in September and became a priest in December.

There have been some challenges in his role, he said.

"One was definitely language," he said. "Of course, I'm not a native Spanish speaker, and we have 70 percent Spanish speakers. That was a little intimidating."

Another was "not having a lot of experience preaching. A lot of guys get that experience in their deaconate, which is usually a full year.

"I think, finally, I had some fear about how I would deal with some incident when there's a tragedy. How can you comfort a family? What would I say? I've had some experience now. I have more confidence that the Lord will let me know if I need to keep quiet or to know the right words will come."

Many of the scandals in the Catholic Church regarding priests molesting children and then being moved to other parishes rather than being dismissed hit when West was in seminary.

"That was a big deal," he said. "We had all the workshops on celibacy and working with children, but it doubled and tripled back then, so we had a lot of work in those areas."

Becoming a priest, he said, "has been really joyful, a great experience. I love the families here at St. Stanislaus. I guess I'm really surprised at how well it's gone. I have a very good pastor (the Rev. Ramon Bejaranno)."

Entering only his third month as a priest, West said he still has lots to learn.

"You can only learn so much in a seminary," he said.

Bejaranno agreed, but said it's also a plus having a recent seminary graduate.

"Newly ordained priests are a blessing to their first parish," he said. "They bring new life into the liturgy and ministries of the church because of all the wisdom they have just learned in seminary. Father Sam has a vision and initiative. He is a natural leader. He loves working with everyone and has a special charisma to work with youth and children. I'm truly blessed to have him with us."

West thinks he's hitting a good time at St. Stanislaus.

"I never knew the history of the parish, but I've learned there were times of high energy when things were very good and times when they weren't so good. I would call this a springtime for St. Stanislaus. This is a beautiful church. In the long run, God will make the sacrifices pay off. I sense new life here."

Bejaranno added that West is part of that new life, coming after several years of a seemingly revolving door of pastors and administrators.

"The appointment of Father Sam to St. Stanislaus has given us confidence that we are more stable," he said. "He comes with great knowledge from his work experience before he joined the seminary. He has fresh in his mind all the knowledge he learned in seminary. In other words, he brings a sense of fresh air to our parish."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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