By Theresa Carson
On Aug. 6, nine young men professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at Techny, Ill., and became members of the Society of the Divine Word. They are Derek Nguyen, Zachary Smith, Carl Gales, Theodore Nguyen, Hoc Mai, Luke Henkel, Luis Panuco-Carmona, Hai Pham and Jorge Zetino. Three of them have chosen the path of the brotherhood and will pursue higher education in the fall. The remaining six will enroll at Catholic Theological Union as seminarians preparing for the priesthood.
"When I look at my life, all of the clues were there," said 38-year-old Carl Gales of his vocation to the priesthood. "I had to take off the blinders and see them through prayer and meditation."
He continued, "Life is like music—rising and falling. It has resolution and is not stuck on one particular note. Prayer allows you to see that melody. You can see where it goes."
It’s not surprising that Carl used music as a metaphor. He’s one of an elite group of musicians—a fact that may not be apparent when he talks about his life.
He might mentioned having been classically trained as a concert pianist and, when asked directly, will admit to having performed on major stages throughout the United States and abroad, but the inquisitive person must rely on the Internet to fill in the blanks.
Take for instance, his musical debut at age 12, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with the Phoenix Symphony or the invitation to study at Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. At age 18, he performed in Prague, accompanied by the National Czech Symphony Orchestra, a concert that is captured on the CD "The Virtuoso Piano." And then there was the time that he played at Carnegie Hall.
However, this interlude in his life is a mere chapter. Born in Baltimore, Carl, his mother and sister moved to Phoenix when he was seven.
"I think that was the best thing that ever happened to us," he said citing a better environment with less violence and the opportunity to learn music. Carl’s mother placed an emphasis on academics, but church always came first.
"Honestly, the main thing is that we went to church a lot," Carl said with a laugh. "Seemed like every other day we were at church for something, studying and memorizing the Bible, singing and playing organ, working with choirs. All of that was part of my church experience growing up."
Carl grew up attending the Prayer Assembly Church of God in Christ, a charismatic Protestant church. "It’s a great place for Gospel musicians to grow and develop," he said, adding that he is forever grateful for their prayers and support.
Ministry to the homebound was part of his spiritual journey from an early age, he said. His mom visited sick and elderly, and he would go with her. "My mom made sure that was part of our lives," he said. "Mom assumed I was going to college. Grades weren’t a focus, but going to church was a priority."
And go to college, he did. Carl had a full scholarship to Indiana University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music. He attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music before studying at the Ecole Normale de Musique for two years.
As time went on, music consumed his life, but faith remained important. As a college student, Carl discovered Catholicism. A friend invited him to Mass, where he felt an overwhelming sense of peace. He felt compelled to return over and over again until eventually he began working as a director of music and liturgy at a Catholic parish.
His connection with the Society of the Divine Word also unfolded with a providential ring. His first position with a Catholic church was Blessed Sacrament-Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd, a parish that is staffed by Divine Word Missionaries in Trenton.
He later worked at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City, Mo., and Saints Peter and Paul in Decatur, Ga., an annual stop for Divine Word Fathers Charles and Chester Smith’s revival. In Decatur, Director of Religious Education Gloria George Patrick suggested that he give the Divine Word Missionaries a try.
In 2014, he entered the Society of the Divine Word Associates Program. The following year, he began novitiate.
"Some have said that the religious life is a running away from life," he said. "There’s no greater misconception."
As he reflected upon his time as a concert pianist, he said, "For years, it was my identity. It was my safe zone. It sheltered me from the disappointments of life, from having to deal with people. Socially [as a musician], you live your life through the lens of the next performance, next lesson, next showcase. That lens becomes very narrow as time goes." Then, God challenged him to widen that lens.
"Humility plays a big part in my life in that I’ll be the first to admit that I was not very humble as a musician," he said with self-awareness. "That handicap really made music the one thing that God wanted me to let go of—not use it for my own ego, for my own self-aggrandizement—because I took it for granted. I didn’t give glory to God for it because I thought it was me. I had the power to do whatever I wanted with the talent. God said, ‘This gift is mine. Who are you to use it for your own ego?’
"God was calling me to something more: to give my true self to Him instead of this imagining that I created," he said. "It was as if God said, ‘I don’t want your gift [for music]. That’s mine. I want you.’"
In the fall, Carl will enter Catholic Theological Union to continue his studies for the priesthood.