The following is being posted with permission. I thought you would find John's reflections and thoughts as interesting and inspiring as I did. He shares about his vocation's director Fr. Donald Calloway, the current scandal afflicting the Church. etc. Thank you John!! I would ask you to keep all seminarians in your prayers.
Dear friends and family,
Time for another update! It has now been just over seven months since I entered postulancy with the Catholic religious community of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.
I turned thirty years old today so I suppose I’m in a bit of a reflective mood as I write this. Wow, the big 3-0. Not sure if the maturity level has now come to resemble thirty but the hairline certainly has! I won’t complain too much though, I’ve learned by now the unwritten rule that you’re not allowed to complain about aging if the person you’re complaining too is older than you (I call it the “You have NO IDEA…!” objection).
At any rate, so much has happened since my last email I don’t know where to begin. So brace yourselves, it’s probably going to become another long one. This is sort of turning into a long journal kind of thing because I’m not disciplined enough to keep a daily one for myself.
In my last email I gave you quite a few details on my new routine, so I won’t bother repeating them. Having a lifestyle centered on prayer and study has exposed what I currently view as the biggest challenge of my discernment for the priesthood. This is the struggle of shifting from self-will to God’s will. I contemplate this shift in the form a simple question: who will I live for?
1. Myself 2. My family 3. My friends
1. God 2. My family 3. All others, including strangers 4. Myself
Right now, there’s a war raging inside me between myself and God for the number one spot (I’m speaking figuratively here, of course :). I think this is something that pretty much all of us Catholics contend with (and Christians in general as well as members of other faiths who believe in a monotheistic, personal God) and will contend until the end of our lives. But my time in postulancy has exposed the struggle more keenly for me. It has forced me to identify those areas in my life that inhibit this shift. It has forced me to confront the things that I’m attached to and could do without in order to serve God more fully. But it can’t be understated because the more I really contemplate that shift the more I come to see that it really does involve a near-total reversal of life priorities. And of course, a change of priorities in a person’s life ultimately impacts what he spends his time on and what kinds of behaviors he engages in.
Years ago I made the decision that this shift was the right thing for me to do. But discernment for the priesthood has brought about added importance to the shift because a Catholic priest is called, among other things, to a kind of life of sacrifice that truly models that kind of shift for others. To the extent a priest doesn’t do this he fails as a priest.
My discernment right now doesn’t feel as though it’s about whether or not I feel God is calling me to the priesthood (I now strongly feel that He is). Rather, it’s lately been about God showing me the implications of what this call entails. It will be a sacrifice and I need to get more used to that idea. I’m shown this in many different ways. One way is when, during evening prayer, we pray from what’s called the Album of Deceased. This is a compendium of memorials to all of the Marian priests who have died since the founding of the community several hundred years ago. The recounting of the lives of these men is often astounding and an occasion for reflection. An example:
“On March 5, in 1912, Father George Kolesinskis died in Chicago at the age of 76. He was a religious for 59 years (the major part of which he had to spend outside the community) and a priest for 53 years. As a chaplain to the insurgents in 1863, he was seized by the Russian soldiers, but escaped capital punishment by using the identification papers of a lay insurgent who had been killed. He was sent into exile in Siberia where he was subjected to 24 years of hard labor. Two years after his return to his native country he felt compelled to emigrate to the United States of America. He founded the first Lithuanian parish in Chicago. He is buried in the cemetery of Saint Casimir in Chicago.”
Amazing…probably thought he’d die in the gulag and yet he went on to impact who knows how many souls in our very own country. Also makes me look at the course of my own contemporary American life thus far and come to the conclusion that, in comparison, I may be a bit of a softy. Baby steps for this postulant, baby steps…
I do take comfort in the security of the sense that He’s indeed calling me to the priesthood. There’s a sense within me that the course of the rest of my life is beginning to come into view. But that’s countered by my constant struggle involved with actually living my current life in conformity to that call and also to continually seek His guidance on how to do that. Hope that makes sense. Of course the direction doesn’t come in audible words but rather in certain inspirations. Nonetheless, I frequently receive consolation from God and the assurance that He will lead me in everything and above all will never abandon me. These consolations come most often when I’m at prayer.
I’ve also received great consolation in the form of sheer inspiration through people I’ve either gotten to know or hear speak over the course of my postulancy. I’ll mention two:
Father Don Calloway is a Marian priest and my religious superior here in Steubenville. Father Don has a colorful past, to say the least. Not only did he have zero religious education growing up, he had next to no education period. He had a difficult childhood with few reliable father figures and rebelled at a very early age. At eleven he was smoking marijuana and drinking beer. At thirteen he was doing heroin, cocaine and whatever else he could get his hands on. He and his family were living on an American military base in Japan at the time (his foster father was an officer in the Navy and moved them around a bit). He dropped out of school and with his friend and went on crime sprees, stealing motorcycles and cars, nightclubbing and getting high in Tokyo. He and his buddy even caught the attention of the Japanese mafia and pulled jobs for them. The military and local police captured him in a joint sting operation and extradited him to the United States. He spent the next six years in and out of schools, drug rehab and prison. He spent more time following the Grateful Dead on tour than at school. Then, at about age 20 he had an amazing religious conversion. Father Don refers to it as his “divine two-by-four”. He converted to Catholicism and not long after discerned a call to the priesthood. He got his GED, a college degree, completed seminary and also got an advanced theology degree. 10 years of straight schooling straight after years of walking around half-baked. Today, the only activity he hangs onto from his past life is surfing. He gives talks at conferences and parishes all over the world, speaking about his conversion experience and the spiritual challenges facing Catholics today. He’s booked out three years. He’s written several books and recently released his autobiography, which peaked at #2 among Catholic books on Amazon.com. We probably see Father Don five or six days out of each month since he’s always traveling but he’s a lot of fun to be around and is very laid back. Actually a very nice, regular kind of guy. I have my best talks with him when I’m taking to or picking him up from the airport.
Immaculée Ilibagiza is a Rwandan Catholic with an amazing survival story. She was a college student when the Rwandan genocide of 1994 broke out. Her family belonged to the Tutsi tribe, one of two major ethnic groups in Rwanda. The other tribe, the Hutus, nearly exterminated the Tutsis. With the exception of a brother, all of Immaculée’s family, immediate and extended, was murdered. She survived by hiding in the tiny bathroom of a neighbor along with seven other women for 3 months. Over the course of those months, Immaculée went from 115 to 65 pounds and had to maintain absolute silence since Hutus constantly searched the house people who were hiding. She prayed her rosary over and over, imploring for God to save her, help her fight off her terror, and finally for the grace to forgive. She not only survived, but indeed forgave, in person, those who had murdered her family. She now travels the world speaking about her experience and the virtue of forgiveness, promoting devotion to the Virgin Mary and raising funds for orphans in Rwanda. I read her book Left to Tell last fall (incredible, I highly recommend it) and was blessed to listen to her speak here at Franciscan University in March.
Speaking of Franciscan University, having the opportunity to study here has been another inspiration. It is an exceptional Catholic university. Students here unabashedly live out their faith. I can go to Mass at noon on a Friday and the chapel will be packed with students. Incidentally, this school produces more vocations to the religious life (meaning priests, brothers, sisters and nuns) than any other Catholic institution in the hemisphere. I’m constantly meeting young men here who are preparing for either diocesan or religious order seminary. I’ve met some wonderful people and made some great friendships, especially with several graduate students.
As for the men I’m living with, I’ve also grown in my friendships with them and I’m sad that I won’t be around most of them when I move on to Washington DC for novitiate. Recently, one of our postulants, Chris, decided not to continue discerning with us and he will return home to Michigan after finishing out the discernment. He still feels called to the priesthood but will now turn his attention to either diocesan priesthood or another religious community. Chris has been my best friend here among the Marians so this has been a bit difficult for me to adjust too. I will miss him very much, but I’m very happy that he intends to continue discerning for the priesthood. I’m confident he will make a wonderful priest.
Abel and Joe and I will be moving on to novitiate and will likely be joined by others, so the composition of our little group is about to change yet again. Currently, nine men are applying to join our community for next year. Of those, five would be in a position to join us in novitiate because they have previous religious experience which would allow them to bypass postulancy. I’ve had the opportunity to meet all of these men and am excited to continue my discernment with them.
My philosophy classes continue to interest me though I still struggle quite a bit with discipline at my studies. My current classes are medieval philosophy, epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) and logic.
To my friends working in IT, I still don’t miss my Blackberry at all but I can’t get by without checking my email and favorite news websites and blogs at least once a day. Boy, am I going to get a wake up call in novitiate. I get to check my email once a week in novitiate. Here comes the pain!
Some of you may be wondering what my thoughts are about the news regarding the handling of abuse scandals by the Vatican. I’ve taken a great interest in scanning recent articles, op-eds, blogs and a discussion forum that have dealt with the subject. It’s been hard to deal with, particularly the evident failure on the part of bishops to effectively prevent pedophile priests from abusing again. I’m aware that two thirds of Americans think the pope has done a bad job handling the crisis and his favorability rating among American Catholics has dropped to 27% (this from a recent CBS poll). It hasn’t shaken my confidence in Pope Benedict, though. I think he has, on the whole, aggressively tackled the problem and is doing his absolute best in the position he's in. I think he is deeply wounded by the conduct of priests who betrayed their vows in such a horrific way and is sincere in his resolve. One thing that convinced me of that was a CNN interview with American abuse victims who had met privately with him when he visited the United States in 2008. It’s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kw4L_Hl6k0 I offer it particularly for those who may have been persuaded by columnists who have accused the pope of actively engaging in a cover-up or otherwise acting with malign intent. These victims will offer you an alternative perspective that is not being currently heard in the secular media.
As I said, reading accounts of abuse and news stories of this nature has been difficult for me (bringing out feelings of embarrassment, shame and anger, among others), particularly as I grow in my knowledge of what priesthood entails when it’s lived out as it’s supposed to be. Ultimately, however, my discernment is between me and God. I must follow my conscience and what I interpret to be God’s direction in my life. So it hasn't called into question my resolution to move onto the next stage of formation.
To those of you who celebrate it, I hope you had a blessed Easter! To those who are praying for me, thank you! Please keep it up, as I will for you! Talk to you in six months or so…
All my best,