by Misty Mealey
Article from The Alaskan Shepherd Newsletter Volume 56 Number 2 Spring 2018
When Josh Miller came to Fairbanks in 2013 to work at Fort Wainwright, he immediately felt the call to make Alaska his home. What he didn’t expect was an even more compelling call from God--to the priesthood.
In a crowd, Josh Miller is hard to miss: The diocese’s newest seminarian towers over most people around him. His warm blue eyes and ever-present smile peek out from under a dark, “Grizzly Adams” beard, making the 28-year-old veteran a veritable poster child for the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Fortunately for Catholic Alaskans, God has called Josh to be a priest for the Diocese of Fairbanks and he is now training for his future vocation at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois. He is co-sponsored by the Archdiocese for the Military Services (Archbishop Timothy Broglio), and will serve as an Army chaplain and a diocesan priest.
Josh is the second young man to discern to being a priest in northern Alaska in the past four years, a boon to a diocese with just 18 priests for 46 churches across an area one and a half times the size of Texas. For Josh, the unexpected yet blessed journey from soldier to seminarian once again proves that, “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
A Typical Catholic Family
Like the diocese’s three Franciscans who serve interior villages, Josh also hails from the Midwest. His father, Gregory, was a soldier in the U.S. Army in California, but made a radical career change soon after Josh was born.
“He felt a strong call from God to move back to his home state of Minnesota,” says Josh. “He was proud of his military service, but didn’t want his kids to deal with deployments and moving around every few years. He wanted us to have roots.” Gregory had grown up on a farm in southern Minnesota, the 21st of 22 children in a large Catholic family.
After moving back to the family farm, Josh’s father worked as a farmer and agronomist, selling supplies to other farmers and helping them strategically plan their agricultural ventures. Four more children--all girls--joined the family over the next 15 years.
It was the work of Josh’s mother, Karen, however, that tilled the soil for a future religious vocation. Karen was a music teacher who planned the parish’s liturgical music for Masses, funerals, and other celebrations.
“Mom was always at church, so I spent hours playing in the rectory and hanging out with church people,” says Josh. “Church was a second home for me.”
His mother’s gift for music made the Mass a spiritually uplifting experience for Josh, even as a child. “She brought in sacred music and directed the choir so expertly...the liturgy was beautiful and harmonious.” The whole family went to Mass on weekends and holy days, and Josh attended Catholic school through the fourth grade. He then transferred to public schools until graduation. “We were just a typical American family,” Josh insists.
Bound for the Army
Despite his comfort with parish life, Josh never seriously considered the priesthood when making career plans as a teenager. “My father and uncles had been in the military and I liked the idea of being active and outside, working with people and serving,” he says. In 2008, he was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy.
He joined the Catholic community at West Point, but encountered a “spiritual blandness” that had a corrosive effect on his spiritual life. He began to attend Mass sporadically, but insists the crisis was one of expression and not of faith.
“I still believed in God and the Church, but my faith was superficial and immature and there wasn’t anything there to feed it,” he says. “It felt like I was praying to pass a test with God instead of really getting to know and love Him.”
After graduating from West Point in 2012, Josh looked around for an adventurous first active duty assignment and settled on Fort Wainwright in Alaska. The unspoiled wilderness reminded him of home and felt like a good fit right away.
“It’s cold like Minnesota--which I love--but the people here also have that same hearty spirit and grit the farmers back home have.”
An Unexpected Call
At Fort Wainwright, Josh served as a field artillery officer who coordinated cannon artillery. He soon discovered the soldiers in his unit were feeling the strains of multiple recent deployments.
“A lot of these guys had deployed repeatedly and their enthusiasm for the job was waning,” says Josh. He also found a significant portion of soldiers had joined the Army for financial security or breaks on education costs, who had little of the service-oriented spirit that had attracted him to the military in the first place. “I was young and idealistic, so I found it all very disheartening,” he remembers.
To counter the growing sense of isolation he felt, Josh started attending Mass at St. Raphael’s in Fairbanks, where he found the parishioners especially welcoming. He then saw an ad for the Knights of Columbus, and started attending their meetings. There he found men who embodied the Gospel values he wanted to live by--they were focused on serving others, and were enthusiastic about being Catholic. Josh became a first degree Knight, and even started praying the rosary consistently.
Praying the rosary helped him feel peaceful, especially amidst growing pressure to decide what to do once active duty ended in 2017. “I was really scared because I had no idea what I was going to do with my life if not the military,” says Josh. One night, he wrote down a list of 14 possible new career paths, with “Priesthood” listed last.
“I tried every lifestyle on mentally and even mapped out what training I’d need to move into each one.” He laughs, “except the priesthood…I had no idea what that would feel like, but the idea just wouldn’t go away.”
But God gently kept steering him toward his vocation. He began attending the diocese’s monthly Feast and Faith dinners for young adults, where he met Father Robert Fath, the diocesan vocations director. He also attended a St. Andrew’s dinner for discerners, and talked with Fairbanks priests about their vocation. He then read To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to the Priesthood by Fr. Brett Brannen, devouring the 400-page book in just three days.
“The day after I finished that book, I called Father Robert and told him I thought God might be calling me to the priesthood,” recalls Josh. Father Robert suggested he move into the Frassati House, a newly-renovated house located next to the chancery that had been set up in 2016 to house young men discerning a vocation to the priesthood.
“I was still active duty at that point, so I told him no--twice--but Fr. Robert insisted the diocese would find a way to make it work,” recalls Josh. Finally, a conversation with Bishop Zielinski about his own vocation as a “fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19) convinced Josh to give the Frassati House a chance. He moved into the house in November 2016, the diocese’s first discerner to live there with Father Robert.
Living with a diocesan priest was invaluable, according to Josh, because it let him see “the real man behind the collar.” “We just hung out, prayed together, and talked about life...I learned about being a priest very naturally,” he says. Josh witnessed a vocation that witnessed to the values he wanted to live by as a Catholic man. “What struck me about Father Robert was that there was no duplicity in him--he’s just authentically who he is, all the time,” says Josh. “He’s just a normal guy, yes, but he also exposed me to the beauty of the priesthood, too. Here was a man whose whole life was devoted to serving others and I wanted that, too.”
Six months of prayer and shadowing Father Robert convinced Josh God was calling him to serve as a priest in northern Alaska, too. He completed the discernment process with the diocese, got approval to enter seminary, and started at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois in fall 2017.
Led to the Priesthood
Having just finished his first year in seminary, Josh is excited about serving as a priest in northern Alaska and in the military. Looking back, he marvels at how God subtly guided him to his vocation.
“I now see how God closed all these doors I’d hoped to step through in the military,” he says. “Then he put this big, glorious door in front of me to the priesthood and invited me to step through it. I feel peace about where He’s leading me.”