Like the fastest roller coaster you’ve ever been on, but you’re in control and there is no track.
That’s how Saint John Vianney College Seminary alumnus Phil Weir describes the sensation of flying an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet. After spending 2013-15 at SJV, Weir felt God calling him to service – as a husband, a father and a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.
Now a member of the 391st Fighter Squadron – nicknamed the “Bold Tigers” – Weir is currently stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, where he resides with his wife Sarah, who works for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, and 1-year-old son Dennis. The family is expecting its second child.
We recently caught up with Weir to discuss family life and his military career – and how his time at SJV helped shape it all.
Q: So how does one go from becoming a seminarian discerning the priesthood to becoming a fighter pilot in the Air Force?
A: Well, my dad was in the Air Force, so growing up I was always around aviation; I had my private pilot’s license before I had my driver’s license. It was funny; I could take my friends flying, but my mom had to drop me off at the airport. That was always a fun thing. I even got to take some of my seminarian brothers and Totus Tuus (summer ministry for college-age students who help form Catholic youth) team members flying as well. I was always interested in aviation; it was still an interest of mine even during my time in the seminary. I was still flying when the Lord called me out of the seminary, so it was just a natural next thing to pursue as a “backup.” After I graduated from ROTC, I was chosen to compete for a pilot slot; then after that, you compete for different jets out of pilot training — bombers, cargoes or fighters, etc. I think being a fighter pilot ended up being a solid backup to being a priest.
Q: How did the seminary prepare you for military life?
A: In every way. I think in the seminary you learn a lot about discipline, accountability and fraternity. A fighter squadron is a fraternity, although there are some things that aren’t that wholesome about it; it can be a culture of work hard during the week and party on the weekends. But it is still a fraternity – these are the same guys and gals I fly with every day, train with, study with. These are the people you’re paired up with as you move up the ranks and receive different upgrades and gain qualifications, and the unique thing about fighter squadrons is that the whole squadron deploys together. It’s all of us together, and then our spouses at home share in that same fraternity during our deployment by spending a lot of time together at home. But discipline is the biggest thing. Fr. Paul Hoesing was the vocations director for Omaha when I was at SJV, and his biggest thing was “we’re not sending men to the seminary to become priests, but we’re sending them to become well- formed men who will become fathers – whether it’s at home or in the priesthood.” It’s actually paid dividends with squadron members returning to the Catholic Church and some conversions. In my pilot training class, all but two of the Americans were Catholic but only one other was practicing. But two more started going to daily Mass, and one of them went back to confession for the first time in 15 years. There are some crazy stories where the formation and training I received at SJV allowed me to be a quiet witness for Christ and help lead others back to Him.
Q: How did the seminary prepare you for family life?
A: Also in every way. Fr. Hoesing was exactly right; seminary makes you a well-formed man and father. Virtue is the first thing that the seminary does a really great job cultivating in men, being able to live a virtuous life. In a marriage, it’s pretty hard to encourage your spouse to be virtuous and your kids to be if you’re not. Virtue is the bedrock of seminary life, along with accountability to Christ and to your brothers, knowing you don’t have to do everything by yourself. I know it’s our slogan, but I can honestly say SJV did a great job trying to teach us to be men in Christ, men of the Church and men for others. That teaches you service, and marriage is entirely about service. Learning how to lay down your life for your diocese and your floor brothers in a variety of ways and let go of your will … it’s the same in marriage. I’m going to lay down my life for Sarah and I’m going to serve. That idea of forming men for others is a really great way they’ve prepared me to be a husband, to serve and to serve well.