Christopher Hess: From saving lives to saving souls
Becoming a priest was not at the top of Deacon Christopher M. Hess’ list of things to do, but saving lives came naturally.
Growing up in Virginia Beach, he spent summers during high school working as a lifeguard at the oceanfront. In 1990 he graduated from Kempsville High School, then had formal training at Tidewater Community College to become a paramedic. When he completed his training, he began volunteering for the Kempsville Rescue Squad.
“Though I’d had thoughts about getting into the priesthood, it didn’t fit into my life at the time,” said Deacon Hess, now 40. “It just didn’t seem like something I would be able to do.”
In 1996 he attended the Tidewater Regional Fire Academy and later went to work for the City of Poquoson as a medic firefighter. While living in Hampton, he joined Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish in Newport News and got involved in the youth and young adult ministries.
“The more experiences I had in church, the more I started to see that the priesthood was something possible,” said Deacon Hess. “Still it was something I was very reluctant to consider.”
The tables began to turn with the arrival of then Deacon Kevin Segerblom, a seminarian on his pastoral year at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The pastoral year, actually a 14-month assignment, normally takes place after the third year of theology studies and provides an extended period of ministry which allows the seminarian to take a hard look at parish ministry and see if this is what he wants to do for the rest of his life. It also allows the diocese to see if the candidate fits easily into parish ministry and gets along well with others.
Deacon Hess began talking with Deacon Segerblom (now pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Salem) and other seminarians about the “tug” he had felt and been setting aside for years.
After he attended the ordination of Father Rob Cole in 2006, he felt he could not ignore the call any longer.
“That was a really powerful experience for me,” he said of the ordination liturgy in which four priests were ordained.
“It gave me the sense that was where I belonged and that year I started getting serious,” he explained.
Father Cole, now pastor of St. John the Apostle in Virginia Beach, encouraged him to attend an informal gathering where he met all the seminarians in the Diocese.
He began to feel comfortable about talking more openly about what this could mean for his life. Among those he talked to was Father Michael Renninger, then Vicar of Vocations.
By the fall of 2006 Deacon Hess was enrolled at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He now considers that period a “hard, but good transition” moving from single life to living in a dorm.
“I tell guys struggling in seminary, ‘just wait until you get your first summer assignment,’” he said. “There is a big difference between life in the seminary and life in a parish.”
In 2010 Deacon Hess completed his pastoral year assignment at St. Anne Parish in Bristol. He was ordained to the transitional diaconate in February 2011, and in June will be celebrating his ordination to the priesthood at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, in Richmond.
“Chris is a talented young man and he had a profound effect on St. Anne’s Parish, especially with the teens,” said Father Timothy Keeney, pastor of the parish in which Deacon Hess spent his pastoral year.
“I am a little nervous,” he said, “but I am also ready to start my ministry in a parish.”
Looking back on his journey, Deacon Chris Hess admits he has had a good sense of vocations since he was a teen. He had gone to St. Matthew’s Catholic School in Virginia Beach from 4th through the 8th grade and had been active with his family at the Church of the Ascension also in Virginia Beach.
He says being a medic firefighter kept him pulled in the other more worldly direction.
“Being a firefighter fit me well,” Deacon Hess said.
“I had to consider ‘do I really want to give this up?’ But God had other plans, and I am very happy to be where I am right now. It is a really good life.”
The newly ordained Father Hess will celebrate his first Mass on Sunday, June 3, at 10:30 a.m. at Church of the Ascension in Virginia Beach.
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