As featured in Hawaii Catholic Herald, August 8, 2018
Damien grad ‘ecstatic’ about call to priesthood, Air Force chaplaincy
By Anna Weaver
Hawaii Catholic Herald
A 2007 Damien Memorial High School graduate with less than a year until his ordination to the priesthood has aspirations to become an Air Force chaplain.
Chris Yakkel was ordained a transitional deacon for the Diocese of Columbus in Ohio on May 4. Presiding at the ordination was Columbus’ Bishop Frederick F. Campbell, with Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, the head of the Archdiocese for Military Services, concelebrating.
“Regardless of whether I’m serving as a chaplain or as a parish priest here in Columbus, I’m ecstatic to be able to serve wherever God wants me to,” Yakkel said in a phone interview with the Hawaii Catholic Herald.
Yakkel, who was born in North Carolina, grew up in a practicing Catholic family. His father, retired Air Force colonel Ron Yakkel, moved his family with him on Air Force assignments to Washington, Illinois, Oklahoma, England and Hawaii.
While in Hawaii, the Yakkel family mostly attended Mass at base chapels and occasionally at St. Elizabeth Parish in Aiea. Chris and his brother, Stevie, went to Damien Memorial High School in Kalihi.
Chris spent his junior and senior years at Damien and made many good friends there. While he was not thinking about being a priest at the time, he said that in retrospect, the all-boys environment of Damien prepared him for the seminary.
“It was my first initial taste of what brotherhood is,” he said. “Just the whole motto of Viriliter Age, act manfully.”
Yakkel had many teachers at Damien that were influential on his faith life. Also making a big impact was going on an Encounter retreat both of his years at Damien. It got him excited to keep practicing his Catholic faith at college, he said.
Yakkel next went to the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, getting involved with Catholic campus ministry, going on retreats, and graduating with a degree in health and sports studies.
It was at college where Yakkel said he first seriously considered becoming a priest, thanks to getting even more involved in his faith on campus. After his graduation in 2011, he applied to NET Ministries, which enlists young adult Catholics in youth ministry. As the Yakkel family was still living in Hawaii at the time, Chris asked Bishop Larry Silva if the Diocese of Honolulu would sponsor him during NET. It did.
“Even though I’m not studying for the Diocese of Honolulu, I’m really grateful for Bishop Silva’s support,” he said.
Yakkel did two years of missionary work with NET. Those two years helped him establish a daily, personal prayer life and solidified his decision to enter seminary.
“Having that constant communication with the Lord, and spending time with him every day in prayer and also having a life soaked in the sacraments,” really made an impact, he said.
“It had gotten to the point where I was thinking about priesthood every single day.”
A priest in the military
The idea of being a military chaplain seemed to arise naturally alongside Chris’ realization that God was calling him to be a priest. Not only was his father in the Air Force, but several other family members also served in the military. It was a familiar environment.
There’s also a great need for Catholic priests in the military. According to the Archdiocese of Military Services, 25 percent of U.S. service members are Catholic, but only 6 percent of military chaplains are Catholic priests. Priest chaplain numbers have been dropping steadily since Sept. 11.
The Air Force currently has 59 priests to serve 80,000 Catholic Air Force personnel, or 1 in every 1,350, not including families of those service members.
“There are priests going overseas who are running into service men and women who haven’t seen a priest in months,” Yakkel said.
“If God is calling me to be a priest, I’d love to be a vessel to bring the sacraments to those Catholics who are serving in the military and their families as well.”
After finishing a two-year commitment with NET Ministries, Yakkel entered the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, where he is entering his fourth year of theology studies. He hopes to graduate with his master’s in divinity in May 2019 and be ordained shortly thereafter.
He will do three years of pastoral work for the Diocese of Columbus before going on loan to the Archdiocese of Military Services as a chaplain. However, he’s already started his military training. He’s currently an Air Force reservist and spent this summer serving as a second lieutenant at Misawa Air Base in Japan.
Yakkel says he’d love it if he got stationed in Hawaii as an Air Force chaplain someday.
“It would be a dream of mine to be able to go back and celebrate a school Mass at Damien down the road,” he said.
He wants people to know “how thrilled I am to be ordained a priest.”
“I feel so blessed and honored that God called me to this great vocation and this big responsibility,” Yakkel said. “And I just ask people to pray for me that I would fulfill that vocation faithfully.”