Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian
Where Deacon Christopher Masla almost didn’t go to college might be one of the defining moments in his vocational journey.
As a senior at Jamestown High School in Williamsburg, he applied to and was accepted by Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He also applied to Virginia Tech, but was waitlisted. Late in summer 2009, he received a call from VT letting him know he was one of approximately 2,000 students who had been accepted off the waitlist.
He had “fallen in love” with Franciscan as a result of retreats he had attended there during summers.
“My whole conversion of my faith had a lot to do with that school, but for a number of reasons — tuition, proximity, just the opportunities a school like Tech would provide — I went with Tech in the end,” said Deacon Masla, who will be 28 when he is ordained.
Roots of formation
While the retreats at Franciscan made an impact, an integral part of his formation, according to Deacon Masla, was the youth group at his home parish, St. Bede, Williamsburg.
“The group I was surrounded with was truly striving for holiness and the sacraments were promoted, and the sacrament of the Eucharist, above all, in the Mass,” he said. “But the sacrament of confession was very much encouraged.”
Something else “changed” his life.
“Eucharistic adoration was a big factor for me to experience personally the love and mercy that God has for me,” he said. “My heart was really filled, and I was really rooted in Christ through that experience in high school. Truly, I wanted to be holy. I wanted to love God more and more and to give myself more and more to him.”
Other than competing in high school tennis and track, music ministry at the parish was a priority among Deacon Masla’s extracurricular activities.
“It was a contemporary group at the time, and I played the bass (at the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass). Music is still a big part of my life,” he said, adding he was “able to give my musical talents to the Lord in high school.”
During his 2015 summer assignment in Abingdon, Deacon Masla “fell in love with bluegrass and learned to play five-string banjo.”
“I love it,” he said, adding, “I sing a little bit.”
Called to do more
The oldest of Mike and Ellen Masla’s three sons, Deacon Masla attended VT as a business major.
“I chose that major more for reasons of utility, I guess you could say, and for pragmatic purposes because you can do anything in business,” he said. “That was kind of my thought going into it.”
Taking advantage of “everything Tech had to offer,” Deacon Masla had what he termed a “wonderful undergraduate experience” that included “seriously dating” and doing well academically, even studying in Switzerland for a semester.
In the midst of that he started to experience restlessness.
“There was this notion, this feeling that my heart really wasn’t in what I was doing. I was doing well in my coursework in business, but my heart wasn’t in it,” Deacon Masla said. ”There was kind of a purpose lacking. I felt that I was called to do something more.”
He felt a “growing desire to serve the Church,” but wasn’t sure how.
“What was happening was I was putting all my attention and energies and effort into discerning a career, but I wasn’t discerning a vocation,” Deacon Masla said. “I think that was the key that changed everything.”
As a result, he altered his outlook.
“My whole approach was I have to begin to pray not so much, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ but ‘God, who do you want me to be for you?’ So that became my prayer,” Deacon Masla said.
No ‘lightning bolt’
He likened himself to Bartimaeus, the blind man who asks Jesus to give him sight.
“That’s kind of what my prayer was like: ‘Jesus, help me to see.’ And he did,” Deacon Masla said. “I finally just said, ’God, I’m blind. I recognize this; I have some blind spots. Help me to see. I want to serve you, and I want to do what you want me to do.’”
While some men know from an early age that they want to be a priest, Deacon Masla did not.
“I was very much someone who never wanted to consider priesthood as an option. For my whole life there’s no way I could be happy and be a priest, there’s no way I’m qualified to be a priest, and all this stuff, these obstacles,” he said.
Yet, as he neared the end of college, he noticed an “attraction for the vocation to the priesthood” — a priesthood in which he could envision himself.
“It wasn’t this lightning bolt moment — all of a sudden, this day, this hour, I knew,” Deacon Masla said, “But it was a gradual opening to God’s will in my life.”
While attracted to the priesthood, there was another attraction in his life.
“After this discernment of the vocation to the priesthood started to take hold in my senior year, of course naturally a beautiful girl comes along and I had to make a choice,” he said, noting it is something others considering the seminary have encountered. “She wasn’t Catholic so it was something that took some courage in explaining. God won out in the end.” (See related story.)
Willing to be ‘shaped by Jesus’
Deacon Masla is looking forward to how he can serve God and the faithful, especially through the sacraments of confession and Eucharist, which he reiterated had a major impact upon his life.
“As a priest, I can provide these sacraments to other people. I can celebrate the Mass. I’m called to offer the love and mercy of God in the sacraments as a diocesan priest, and that excites me. It really does.”
In addition to his academic preparation for priesthood, Theological College, the National Seminary of the Catholic University of America, provided Deacon Masla with a variety of ministerial experiences, including serving the poor with the Missionaries of Charity in Washington and doing hospital visitations. He did his pastoral year at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Newport News.
Even with the diverse experiences, Deacon Masla doesn’t think too much about where he’ll serve as a priest.
“I want to be docile, I want to be open to going wherever the bishop needs me,” he said.
Father John David Ramsey, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, supervised Deacon Masla during his pastoral year, from the summer of 2016 to summer of 2017. He said the qualities the deacon brings to priesthood will serve the Church well wherever he’s assigned.
“His main quality is the most basic — he loves Jesus with a very deep heart and it has given him a great love for people,” Father Ramsey said. “He has a gentle way of aspiring people to a gentle love.”
The priest, noting the “heartfelt reflections” Deacon Masla would give at the Tuesday Masses, said the deacon “attracts people in a spiritual way.”
“He has a great sensitivity for how God works in people’s lives,” Father Ramsey said.
The priest said that the joy Deacon Masla exudes has an impact upon those he serves.
“They see in him a joy and love for others that makes them want to be the same,” he said.
Noting Deacon Masla’s desire for ongoing formation and willingness to be “shaped by Jesus” through his ministerial experiences, the priest said the deacon is “open to what the Lord has in mind for him.”
Father Ramsey has no doubt about the kind of priest Deacon Masla will be.
“He’s very genuine, very authentic — there’s no façade,” he said.
That genuineness Father Ramsey sees is what Deacon Masla hopes all whom he serves will see.
“That’s one thing people should know about me. I don’t put on a mask, I don’t put on any kind of act,” he said. “What you see is what you get.”
Wherever the bishop assigns him, he’s ready.
“I just want to be a good priest, and I want to make myself available to serve,” Deacon Masla said. “I’m coming to be a shepherd. I just want people to know that they can trust me, that I’m going to be a genuine Christian man serving them as a priest.”
Providence at work
In the fall of his senior year at Virginia Tech, Deacon Chris Masla told his parents he was thinking about becoming a priest. After that?
“I kind of just didn’t want to talk about it for awhile,” he said.
As Thanksgiving neared, he was looking forward to the break, but on the Sunday before the holiday, his mom called him “out of the blue.”
“She said, ‘Chris, I’ve been thinking about what you told us and I just want you to know a priest was celebrating Mass at the Shrine (Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham) in Williamsburg…’ They never go to the shrine; they would always to go to St. Bede. But for some reason they went to the shrine that weekend.”
The priest celebrating Mass was Father Michael Boehling, diocesan vocations director, who announced there was going to be a retreat over Thanksgiving break for men thinking about priesthood. Ellen Masla conveyed that information to her son who signed up for the retreat.
“So that was one of the clearest signs of God’s providence in my whole process of coming to seminary. This retreat was pivotal for me,” he said. “The Sunday before Thanksgiving that year, the Lord was speaking. Father Boehling making the announcement, my mom being there to hear it, who calls me a week before the retreat, and I just say ‘OK, I guess this is happening.’”
He added, “That was a very significant part of my discernment.”