In honor of National Vocations Week, we sat down with the newest and youngest African-American priest in the US, Rev. Ajani Gibson. He was ordained at the age of 27 on June 5, 2021 for the Archdiocese of New Orleans and is assigned to St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, the faith community in which he was raised.
Interview by: Bro. Percy Marchand, Associate Director
What is the earliest memory you have of feeling called to religious life?
I was five years old. I remember sitting outside the daily mass chapel and an older gentleman asked what I was doing. I told him I was watching the mass. He asked me if I wanted to be a priest and I told him yes.
After all, I was a priest for Halloween. So that calling has always pretty much been on my heart, even when I tried not to embrace it.
You mentioned not always embracing the religious vocation to which you felt you were being called. Tell us about that journey.
I ran from it - especially in high school and college. The more I found myself having to run from my calling, the more I realized that it must actually be God calling me. The calling was consistent and persistent. I just needed to accept and embrace it.
The beautiful thing is that the journey never ends. We each are continuously invited to say yes to the call of the Lord. Everyday, I am invited to say yes to being a priest and I pray daily for the grace to do so with a sincere and open heart.
What happened after you stopped running?
After avoiding it, I applied for seminary. When Archbishop Gregory Aymond called me to his office to inform me that my application had been accepted - the fear got real! And I ran again.
I looked for just about any excuse NOT to enter the seminary. Graduate school, location, personal goals and wants, any reason to say no.
When I finally said yes to entering seminary, I had come to a point of literally running out of excuses. My arsenal was depleted. All I could say was yes.
You mentioned discernment. What are your thoughts on discernment and when a person should actually apply for and enter seminary if offered?
My family, friends, and community were instrumental in my discernment process. The people around me recognized and knew that I had a calling and that I was running away from it. In God’s time, they became more and more forward in calling me out on it. This helped me face the reality that I was indeed running away from God’s calling and not accepting the reality of my calling to bring all of my talents and gifts to His purpose for my life.
Discernment really doesn’t begin in earnest until one enters seminary. It is in seminary when the distractions are minimized and you have the time and space to really uncover what God is calling you to do.
So you don’t have to be completely sure of what God is calling you to do before taking the step of applying for and entering the seminary?
If you have even an inkling that the Lord is calling you - you should strongly consider applying and entering the seminary.
Entering the seminary does not mean you will become clergy or religious. Entering the seminary means you are saying yes to discernment. Understand that the calling is not truly confirmed until you are called for orders by the Bishop or Archbishop.
The goal of entering the seminary is to leave it - either as a lay person or a clergy or religious. If it’s done properly, you leave as a better Christian, after the Heart of God.
That’s a profound perspective that I’m sure will help others considering what God is calling them to do.
So that they may feel even more relatable to your journey, can you speak on some of the challenges and obstacles you faced during your journey
I was blessed to have the full support of many around me, so there wasn’t a lot of external conflicts to overcome.
My biggest challenges were internal conflicts and navigating myself; deciding who and what I wanted to be; using the past as excuses not to fully accept my calling; and overcoming the feeling of the ‘not enough’s’: not good enough, not holy enough, etc. One must realize that God will make you more than enough.
So what advice do you have for a young man or young woman who feel he or she may have a calling from God to pursue a religious vocation?
- Be open to the possibilities
- Don’t allow fear to dictate your reality
- Be authentically who you are because that is who God is calling
- Realize that you have unique gifts and particular aspects of life that will be instrumental in God’s working through you to impact the lives of others
- Don’t allow the sins of man to deter you from exercising what God is calling you to do
And what about to the family, friends, and communities who encounter loved ones considering religious vocations?
They should first pray for the individual; be supportive and encouraging of their discernment; begin the process of detachment in which they accept and acknowledge that the individual is no longer theirs and must be handed over to God; and finally remain there and supportive through the journey - the good and the bad - constantly pointing them towards what God is calling them to be.
What three things have brought the most joy to your life during this entire journey thus far?
I get to wake up everyday and celebrate the Mass - to stand in the person of Christ as a priest and be an instrument of salvation to the world
Secondly, the support of my family, friends, and community and their continuing to push me help me to be the whole of who I am each and every day
And finally, I am grateful for the examples and witness to holy, happy, and joyful priesthood I have encountered. I aim to achieve that same holiness, happiness, and joy embodied in my own way.
Any closing advice or words?
I encourage anyone who feels they may be called to stay focused on God; ignore the nay sayers (including yourself); to surrender yourself to His will and purpose for your life; to become a better disciple of Christ - allowing Him to be your guide; and to enjoy your process and journey.