Shortly after my graduation from Texas A&M University in 2006, I joined a group from St. Mary’s Catholic Center in bringing Fr. Curt to his new home in Cincinnati. Fr. Curt, an elderly Franciscan friar, ministered in the Catholic Center and was beloved by students. When we heard that he was retiring, we decided that it would be better to send a group of students to help him move so that he wouldn’t have to make the long drive alone. Little did I know how much of an impact this road trip would have on my life.
I always had this idea that guys that become priests know from a young age. There are some priests I know who I swear were born wearing a Roman collar. Well, I didn’t grow up with that desire. Far from it! And because of that, I never considered the possibility of becoming a priest.
I grew up in a Catholic family, but really took ownership of my faith when I was in college at Texas A&M. Still, I never gave consideration to a vocation to the priesthood. Until, of all things, a cross country road trip with an elderly Franciscan friar.
Along the way, we stayed at different churches and schools and met with members of different religious orders. I had avoided vocations events, but had God finally tricked me into attending one? Our first destination was New Orleans, and we went to visit the Jesuits. When I heard that at the end of a long day of driving that we would have to listen to a presentation by a group of priests, I was annoyed. This is not what I was expecting! But much to my surprise, I was captivated by the talk. One of the Jesuit speakers had also graduated from Texas A&M, and his work abroad had motivated a deep desire to work with the poor and marginalized. He talked at length about the Jesuits: their community life, the variety of ministries that they engaged in, and how they seek to help those in need wherever they are.
All of a sudden, I felt a spark in me. It never went away.
My accidental vocation-promotion road trip continued. The very next day we visited a group of religious sisters. Their vocation promoter talked about how discerning the religious life is like dating: you don’t just choose to marry the first person you see. You have to “date” different religious orders because they have different qualities, charisms, and personalities.
“What does that mean?” I wondered. I just assumed that all priests were the same. The fact is that I mostly only knew diocesan priests, who are the typical priests that work in parishes and remain in the same geographic area or diocese. And I didn’t feel called to that life. Other priests belong to religious orders, like the Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and Jesuits, which each have their unique characteristics. When I learned that the Jesuits engage in ministries like teaching and social projects, and move around a lot, that expanded my idea of the priesthood. It’s funny for me now to realize that the whole trip was focused on moving a Franciscan priest to his new home, but at the time I didn’t know a thing about these different religious orders!
My surprising moments of grace didn’t stop with that road trip, despite the fact that I continued to avoid pursuing a vocation to the priesthood for years.
A few years later, I found myself on another road trip (notice the theme?) with a few friends in New Mexico. We had a chance encounter with a few Jesuits. I casually mentioned that I was interested in the Jesuits, but I scoffed at the lengthy formation process of ten to twelve years. One of the Jesuits told me very plainly, “Jesuit formation is like cooking with a slow cooker. It takes a little longer, but it’s always better.” I was surprised that not only did the length of formation not bother him, but that it was a point of pride.
Jesuits kept popping up in my life. Months later, a Jesuit priest came to the parish where I was working in Houston to give a Lenten mission. During his visit, I was reflecting on the vow of obedience that religious profess. That did not sit well with me. I didn’t like the idea of giving up control over what I did with my life. Well, without any prompting, this visiting priest made a passing remark to me: “You know what I love about the Jesuits? They really listen to your passions and let you do what you want.” Huh? That did not sound like the image that I had of a lifetime of rigid obedience. While I could now add a few caveats to his comment, it was a surprising moment of grace and insight. And it was exactly what I needed to hear.
With all of these moments of unexpected grace pilling up, I finally caved in. I told my pastor that I was thinking about the Jesuits, but I was still plagued by doubts. He asked me what I was actively doing to aid my discernment. I told him that I pray about it often. He told me that prayer was key, but that I needed to aid my prayer by actively doing something, like meeting with Jesuits or going on a discernment retreat. He made me realize that God might send me all the signals in the world, but God wasn’t going to pick me up and take me to the Jesuits. God would never move me. I had to move.
I finally attended my first discernment retreat. (Well, I guess it was my second depending on how you count my cross-country road trip with Fr. Curt.) On the way to the retreat, I had a frank talk with God. “God, I’ve been on the fence for a few years now. I feel this desire, but I just don’t know what to do. Please- I have to know. I want to leave this retreat with an answer. Please let me leave with an answer.” I laughed to myself as I thought that it probably wasn’t going to work out that way. “Now that I’ve asked for certitude,” I thought to myself, “I’m definitely not going to get it.”
I was wrong.
The retreat lasted for five days, with two days to meet Jesuits and learn about their life, followed by a three-day silent retreat. One of the best experiences for me was interacting with Jesuits and seeing the community that they shared. The brotherhood between Jesuits, the community life that I love so much now, was something that I had not experienced or expected.
The Ignatian retreat introduced me to praying through my imagination, and it was in those prayers that God helped to ease my mind. My doubts and fears transformed into peace and confidence. My final hang-up was the thought of giving up control. Who could dream bigger for my life than me? Why would I surrender that control?
How fortunate for me that this retreat was during Advent. In reading the stories of Mary and Joseph, God was telling me how wrong I was. Mary and Joseph surely had their own plans for how their lives would go, but God invited them to something more. God literally entered the world in the Incarnation because of their willingness to let go of control. As it turns out, someone just might have bigger dreams for me than I do for myself.
Overwhelmed by grace, I left that retreat with the certitude that I asked for. I entered the Jesuit novitiate six months later.
I have now been a Jesuit for almost ten years. It is a long process, but I’m enjoying the slow cooking. I have been to more places than I had ever been before. I have had the opportunity to meet some of the most amazing people. And I went from being an only child to having more brothers than I can count.
Have I experienced any doubts since the certainty I felt on that retreat? Absolutely. I continue to wonder if I can do this and if I’m worthy of it.
As I continue to seek those answers, I keep going back to what I learned throughout my discernment process. God is everywhere and speaks through those around me. I have to be honest with God and ask for what I want. But ultimately, God will never force me to move. I have to move.
Are any experiences in our life truly random? I used to be the kind of person to say “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t believe that anymore. Instead, I believe that God can give reason to all that happens. Including a cross country road trip.