I will be ordained to the transitional diaconate this Saturday, and God willing, I will be ordained a diocesan priest on May 25, 2013.
As I move closer to these great sacraments of service, I have been taking some time to reflect on my vocational journey. Unlike some of my brother seminarians, my road to this vocation has not been direct. In fact, one of the constant struggles in my life is the constant fear that I will fail, not be happy or not serve God in the appropriate way. If this is also one of your struggles, I have a couple of thoughts for you to bring to prayer as you discern God’s will for your life.
When I entered college in 2000, I brought together four different considerations that eventually lead me to study pre-medicine at a college near my family’s farm in Southeast Iowa:
1. I like biology and chemistry, so it was clear that I probably wanted to do something in these areas.
2. I wanted to help people since my family’s Catholic faith upheld this value as being extremely important.
3. I wanted a career that could support and sustain a large family since I thoroughly enjoyed and love my large family.
4. I wanted to be close to my family in Iowa, so a local university or college would be my final choice.
These are all good if not noble considerations, right? However, I was missing the most crucial consideration for all Christians: What did God want me to do with my life? How was I being called to live a life of discipleship in imitation of Jesus Christ?
As I went through my first two years of college, I began to ask many different vocational questions since I had started to take my Catholic faith more seriously. I returned to the sacrament of reconciliation after several years of being away. I became active in a faith-formation group. I was marginally catechized as a young child and teenager, so I had a tremendous amount to learn about the Catholic faith. I even started attending daily Masses where I was the youngest person by three decades.
I knew all these additional steps were important because I was called by my baptism and confirmation to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I surprised myself by returning to some initial memories as a young boy when I thought that I wanted to be a priest. My mother recalls me saying the Eucharistic prayers at home while I would be playing, but these thoughts of priesthood quickly faded in junior high and high school.
Despite all of these realities in my life as a college student, I decided that I needed to stand on track of becoming a doctor. I had made my choice.
It came with a pretty specific vision in my head. I wanted to have this beautiful wife with six kids and have this medicine practice.
Yes, I did take some risks in my life, but they were highly calculated towards pursing what I perceived to be my goals. In retrospect, I considered myself to be similar to the disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee before they met Jesus Christ. I would just do my job, take care of my family, and let life progress.
However, “come follow me,” the invitation of Jesus Christ, requires a total gift of oneself; discipleship cannot be a partial endeavor. One passage from sacred Scripture became important in my personal understanding of discipleship:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt. 10:37-39).
What is Christ really asking in this powerful passage from the Gospel of Matthew?
We have to question all of our perceived notions and assumptions in order to become a disciple of Jesus Christ, even the things that we understanding as being extremely important.
It seems that Christ is trying to get the disciples to understand that these good gifts were given by God, and now, these gifts will need to be left behind in order to receive the greatest gift: following Jesus Christ. Therefore, nothing is ever sacrificed in discipleship without receiving an even more precious gift. This is at the heart of discerning our vocations. Everything must be brought to Christ, and from this consideration, a person’s vocation is found.
Letting go of marriage
The noble considerations I had at the beginning of college were indeed good, but they did not reflect what Jesus wanted for my life, especially as I kept learning, attending Mass and living a more authentic Catholic faith. I was being called to give my life in a dedicated way to ministry in the Church.
I took a step further and started to imagine my life as becoming a celibate offering, which was the biggest obstacle to me considering of the priesthood. I was able to eventually let go of the desire for marriage and family life through acceptance that these great gifts can be set aside if a person is called by Christ to serve the Church.
Therefore, my desire to share my love would have an outlet, but it would be much different than I originally imagined. I could also experience the joy of fatherhood and fatherhood’s fecundity, but it would not be through a wife and children. In the end, I was no longer afraid of doing something radical because I finally was able to experience some of the freedom that comes from living the detachment found in the end of the Matthew 6 and confidence of John 14:1.
God blessed the broken road
However, my path to the priesthood was still not immediately clear or easy. I left my study of pre-medicine. I even transferred to a Catholic university so I could immerse myself in this newly found desire to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
I eventually earned a BA in political science and philosophy from Notre Dame. I joined a religious community for several years to understand what a radical call to follow Jesus Christ looked and felt like in praxis. I also had the opportunity to teach for a year and half after leaving religious life, and I joined the National Guard in order to serve my country.
As I said before, I had no direct path to the diocesan priesthood, but it has been blessed and immensely full. I continued on this path of discernment for many years before entering a diocesan seminary in the spring of 2009. However, through this process I have learned how to overcome fear and trust in the Jesus Christ instead of my selfish thoughts and desires.
Once I expected to have a beautiful wife, a big family and a flourishing medical career. Now I can happily say – less than week from being ordained – I’m glad I was wrong! I praise God that my desires are not His desires. I thought I was going to be happy, but I wasn’t.
I’ve finally learned to trust God more than me.
My brothers and sisters on CatholicMatch, to overcome fear in discernment I suggest a few practices:
1. Learn your Catholic faith and live it. Our confidence comes from being rooted in Jesus Christ, and the Catholic Church has so much to offer in order to deepen your relationship with God.
2. Pray often and do not be afraid to share your deepest desires or deepest fears with Jesus. Our Lord wants to heal us, and our Lord also wants to encourage us. The latter only happens through a deep and constant life of prayer.
3. Live as simply as you possibly can given God’s call for your life. The stuff – material possessions, commitments, obligations – of our daily living can be a source of grace, but these same things also can be a source of tremendous distraction from God. We cannot be afraid of losing things if we never had them.
4. Finally, surround yourself with holy men and women who challenge us to become saints.
The immorality of our culture and many other ills of our society need to be addressed by Christians who are truly convicted that they are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Catholics should be the first in line among all Christians to stand up for the truth. I call on you single Catholics to lead the way.
We, as disciples, are not fearless, but we are not fearful. We are rooted in Jesus Christ, so our lives are not destroyed by the turbulence of the contemporary world. I plan on preaching quite often about the necessity of casting out fear in our lives, and I pray that you will encourage all those you encounter to do the same.