“Priests are normal people”
It seems as though God has been talking to Colten Symmes about becoming a priest for most of his life.
The Gulfport man admits he’s been fascinated with the priesthood since becoming an altar server while a student at St. James Elementary in Gulfport.
And his path from being an altar server to taking his vows as a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi has been guided by what Symmes says has been God answering his questions along the way.
He hopes his journey can inspire others to explore those questions of faith that led him to become a priest at 26.
“It started when I was a little kid,” he said. “There was something intriguing about the priesthood. There was a fascination, a wonder. I always learned the parts of the priest in the Mass and would say it along with him.
“One of the things that attracted me most was that we call the priests ‘Father.’ I thought that was the coolest thing. I wanted to be called ‘Father.’ ”
As Symmes grew up, the son of Donna Cowart and the late Edgar “Poe” Symmes, he continued his education in Catholic schools, attending St. John and then St. Patrick, graduating high school in 2009.
“I was very into sports, I was a good student, I had a lot of friends. I just loved growing up here,” he said. “I had a great childhood.”
‘My faith life began to take shape’
But again, that fascination with his faith came to him again, this time in the eighth grade. A program called XLT (for “Exalt”) brought people together for adoration of the blessed sacrament, Symmes explained.
“I was invited by someone and a girl I had a crush on was going to be there, so of course I went,” Symmes recalls with a smile. “And I sat in the front row.”
But it was when the sacrament was brought out that a change came over him.
“I began to weep — they were tears of joy — because it was the first time the sacrament came alive for me,” Symmes said. “I call that my initial conversion. From there, my faith life began to take shape.”
Symmes began to ask questions such as, “What does God want from me? What does he want me to do? What is his plan for me?”
One of those questions was answered in a story his mom told him.
I think my discernment was that God wanted me to be a father in a different way. ‘Will you make this sacrifice for me in service of others?’
“My mom had cancer in her early 20s and had chemo. She was told she could never have a child. Then she got pregnant with me. When she told me that story the first time, I never forgot this is why God wants me here,” Symmes said.
Still, he went on as other teenagers do, going to school, graduating, heading off to college. But from time to time, people would ask him about becoming a priest.
“The lady in charge of XLT, Darlene Previto, who was our religion teacher (at St. Patrick) said, ‘I’m praying for you.’ It was a spiritual moment to me and meant a lot. It stayed with me,” he said.
‘Will you make this sacrifice?’
Then, when he was in high school, Symmes and other students attended the Steubenville Atlanta Catholic Youth Conference, part of the Life Teen program for Catholic teens.
“They asked anyone who ever thought about being a priest to come up,” Symmes said. “I knew that I couldn’t not go up. A change came upon me. It was the first time I publicly said I was thinking about being a priest. And people publicly supported me in that. That’s when I really began to take the question seriously.”
Symmes said there were others, like Rev. George Kitchin. Symmes said he would go to the priest for confession and Kitchin would ask if he were still thinking about the priesthood.
“He would tell me to be open and remain open,” Symmes said.
Still, he went to college, attending MGCCC for two years. He met a priest there as well. “He looked at me and said, ‘Priest.’ Things were really clicking for me.”
But so were the questions. Chief among them, Symmes said, was his desire to marry, have children, be a dad.
“What always stood in my way was a huge desire to be a husband and a father,” Symmes said. “I think my discernment was that God wanted me to be a father in a different way. ‘Will you make this sacrifice for me in service of others?’
“I realized I could build up families to love God and love each other,” he said. “Essentially, that’s what I think he wanted me to do and God was inviting me, deepening my call to be a spiritual father.”
It was then he decided he would study to become a priest, attending St. Joe Seminary College in Louisiana and then Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. His studies earned him a bachelor’s in philosophy and postgraduate work in theological studies.
‘I will always be joyful’
“I love being with people. I’m a people person. It brings me joy,” said Symmes. Rev. Mike O’Connor and Kitchin will be investing Symmes on Saturday.
And once his vows are taken, it will complete one journey Symmes said began as an altar server at St. James. But his journey of faith, he said, will continue. He has a podcast at podbean.com called “Deacon Colten” (“I guess I’ll have to change that”) and he has some items on his personal bucket list he’d like to check off.
“I love sports and being with people and hanging out,” he said. “I have a big family on my mom’s side and I love to dance — my grandma taught me to jitterbug. I play a little guitar and travel is something I never did as a kid and I love it.”
He said he’d like to go to Rome (“I know, a priest thing”), Africa, Australia and the Holy Land. He’d like to participate in the Camino de Santiago, a 30-day walking pilgrimage in Spain. A music lover, he’d like to see Mumford & Son and Garth Brooks (“He’s the man!”).
Most of all, though, Symmes said he’s looking forward to the joy of serving others.
“If I had to kind of put one thing, a ministry, in my priesthood, it would be family,” he said. “Family is a sign of God’s love for the world.”
And in that, he said, he finds great joy.
“As long as faith gives me strength, I will always be joyful,” Symmes said. “But even in the midst of sorrow, there can be joy when you have Christ at the center. That’s the beauty of the Gospel — that He gives meaning to everything.”
By the numbers
Priests in the Biloxi Diocese in 2017 (includes retired priests)
Priests in the diocese in 1997
Priests ordained in the diocese since 2007
Men enrolled in seminary from Biloxi Diocese
Priests from Ireland. The last of whom came over in 1986.
Catholic Diocese of Biloxi
About the series:
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.