Enrolled in public schools since kindergarten, Christopher Okapal (’02) did not give much thought to choosing a Catholic college. Yet by his junior year in high school, he was beginning to discern a vocation, and so he marked the boxes for “theology” and “classics,” among others, as his “interests” on the various standardized- test forms. As a result of that fortuitous checking, a pamphlet about liberal arts colleges soon arrived at his family home near Portland, Ore., and one of the schools listed was Thomas Aquinas College.
He remembers thinking, “This school is Catholic. They take the Faith seriously. They believe there is such a thing as truth. They have a rigorous program of studies, of searching for the truth in philosophy and theology. This is the place for me!’”
For the next four years he underwent an intellectual and spiritual formation that led him, just months after his graduation, to enter St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, Calif. There he received his religious name, Maximilian, as well as a decade’s worth of further education, including four years at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome. The culmination of all this preparation came on June 23, 2012, when the Most Rev. Cirilo B. Flores, Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, laid hands on Frater Maximilian, making him Father Maximilian, at an ordination ceremony at Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano.
“Having prepared for so long, to finally be right in the face of my ordination, was a very big thing,” Fr. Maximilian says. “It was very humbling, and I experienced a great amount of gratitude to God who had brought me to that point through the ups and downs of life. It was very apparent that I could not have accomplished this on my own without God’s grace guiding me.”
Indeed, Fr. Maximilian remarks, every day as a priest is a reminder of his dependence on God and the marvel that the Lord would work through him. “When I am saying the Mass and consecrating the Sacrament, it’s very clear that that’s not something I can do through my own power, but only through the power of Christ working through me,” he observes. “When I’m giving absolution in Confession, it’s powerfully apparent that it’s Christ’s forgiveness coming to the penitent, and I am just a vessel for that.”
During those times in the confessional, he adds, he is particularly grateful for his education at Thomas Aquinas College. “The seminar discussions teach you to listen seriously to what other people are saying, and while they’re talking to already think about what to say. In Confession, you have to hear what people are saying and think about the best way to respond, how to help them resolve the situation. You have to be able have a conversation — but not an unfocussed one — a conversation in which people are trying to reach a specific result.”
In addition to his normal sacramental duties, which include regularly offering Mass at St. Michael’s Abbey Church, Fr. Maximilian’s primary apostolic responsibilities are at the Abbey’s preparatory school. He teaches Latin to the underclassmen and philosophy to the upperclassmen, and he serves as the college counselor. In that latter capacity, he says, he gently recommends his alma mater to those who he believes would make a good fit.
“The College encourages students to lead an authentic Catholic life in an atmosphere where virtue is promoted and rewarded, and where the sacraments are so readily available,” Fr. Maximilian says. “It creates the atmosphere where, no matter what one’s vocation, he will be able to perceive that call, be aware of what it involves, and be prepared to follow it.”