I often say that I can be very hard-headed. There are all too many times where it's taken a long time for something to sink in, especially if I'm set against it. The idea of discerning a call to the priesthood is one of those things that took a long time to sink in.
With all the involvement in the parish and all my reading and independent studying, the idea of living my faith become more and more important. I wanted to structure my daily life around the practice of the faith. I wanted to avoid sin and grow in holiness. I wanted to develop a fervent prayer life. In short, I wanted to be 100% Catholic, no reservations, no excuses.
When studying the teachings of the Church, it's not long before you're confronted with the concept of submission to God's will. The more I would read and pray, the more I would hear that word: submission. Submit your will to God's will. Discern how God wants you to live your live instead of floundering around on your own.
It sounded good to me, but I also was leery. I started to get an idea of where this might lead. Those little whispers in the back of my mind were still there, and I was still resisting them. I wanted to do God's will, so long as it didn't involve the priesthood.
I discovered very quickly, however, that if you give God a crack in the door, He'll open it all the way. I began to pray for understanding of God's will, and those whispers became more insistent.
Through all this, I was doing a job I enjoyed, but was feeling like it might be a dead-end. As a computer geek, being responsible for multi-millions of dollars worth of servers is a big deal, but I didn't see any way beyond that. I knew I didn't want to be a supervisor, and I wasn't sure remaining an server administrator was what I wanted either. I also felt a tug on my heart that made me think, "Is this it? There has to be more for my life."
One day I finally broke down and asked, "God, what do you want? I want to do your will, and not mine." I feel that God responded to me, not so much in a voice as an echo in my mind, "I want you to be a priest." This is when I often say that God hit me upside the head with a 2x4. The subtle hints didn't work with me, so He had to go with the direct route. In response, I said, "OK, OK, I'll look into it."
I wasn't going to make a commitment at that time. In fact, the first thing I did was search the Internet for vocations websites, and found quite a few. Several diocese had a series of questions as a kind of "quick quiz" on whether or not you might have a vocation. Much to my surprise, and despite my continued denials, many of the questions on those quizzes could be answered in the affirmative.
What were the questions? Things like, "Have you ever found yourself regularly thinking about the priesthood?" and, "Are you reluctant to tell friends and family that you're having these thoughts?" The more I read these vocation discernment web pages and thought about the questions that they were raising, the more the idea became possible.
One of the steps which many of the vocation discernment sites encouraged was to speak to a priest in your parish about the priesthood. I still wasn't ready to come out in the open just yet, so I didn't to mention anything to Fr. Jim. One Sunday, Fr. Jim was on vacation and had a fill-in priest from the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. This priest, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who ran the shrine and housed their headquarters there, was a total stranger, therefore "safe". He didn't know me, I didn't know him, so I figured he'd be a good "first contact".
I caught this priest, Fr. Tony, at the end of Mass, after the usual handshakes and greetings had been exchanged with the Mass attendees. I was very nervous, but Fr. Tony politely listened to my stammered, "I'm thinking about the priesthood." He spoke with me for about 5-10 minutes before he had to return to the sacristy to get ready for the next Mass. His main advice, which I probably should have expected, was that I needed to visit with to Fr. Jim and contact the diocesan vocation director.
It took me a couple of months to muster the courage to follow up on his advice, but after more reading, thinking and praying, I finally got up the courage to ask Fr. Jim about the priesthood. He was very pleased that I was discerning a call to the priesthood, and was more than willing to meet over lunch at the local Chinese restaurant. (As an aside, what is it about priests and Chinese food? I've come to know a lot of priests who would live on Chinese if they could.)
We had a great lunch, with a good conversation about the priesthood. Fr. Jim was able to answer some of my questions and allay some of my concerns. I did wonder what I was getting into when he laughed after I asked him about a typical day in the priesthood. Of course, now I know why that was such an ironic question: there is no typical day in the priesthood. Every day is unique, for better or worse.
An analogy for following God's will is following a path that He has laid out for us, and every so often the markers for that path become completely and totally obvious. During our conversation, I found that God had given me a connection of which I was unaware. Fr. Jim asked me where I was thinking about being a priest, diocesan or religious. I told him that I was leaning towards the diocesan, likely back home in Eastern Montana, the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings. At this point, Fr. Jim said, "I know the vocation director there." I was stunned. How could Fr. Jim, a priest from the Diocese of Belleville, 1200 miles from Montana, know the vocation director in Montana? It turns out that Fr. Jim and the vocation director, Fr. Dale, were classmates at Mundelein Seminary.
This was too much of a coincidence. It was obviously a very clear sign that I was on the right track. What are the odds that I would pick the parish whose pastor is a classmate of the vocation director of the diocese I was discerning towards? Fr. Jim did try to convince me to consider remaining in the Diocese of Belleville, but I really felt pulled back to Montana. If I was going to become a priest, I was going to do it at home, and Montana was home.
Following the dinner conversation, I sent off an email to the vocation director expressing my interest in discerning the priesthood for the diocese. This began an email conversation in which I introduced myself and told some of my discernment up to that point, and led to meeting with Fr. Dale in Billings a couple days after Christmas when I was able to be home for a couple of weeks.
Before I got to meet Fr. Dale, I figured now would be a good time to let my parents in on the news. If I was going to drive to Billings, using one of their cars, I should probably let them know in advance what it's going to be about. Here's how I introduced the topic to them: "I'm kinda, possibly, thinking about considering looking into (etc., etc., etc. I think I added about 2 minutes worth of disclaimers.) going into the priesthood." Yeah, I wasn't going to make a firm commitment to my parents. Not yet.
Well, my dad laughed and my mom said, "We were wondering when you were going to tell us." Wait? When I was going to tell you? I just figured it out for myself, and you already knew? Why didn't you tell me? They had pretty much figured it out with my becoming active in the Church, and thought that it was just a matter of time.
With that load of my shoulders, I began to wait impatiently for Christmas vacation, which finally arrived. During the meeting with Fr. Dale, he gave me the paperwork for applying to both the diocese and Mount Angel Seminary. I also took the psychological exams required while in Billings, so this was getting serious. I was on the way to entering the seminary, and I thought it might even be that coming fall, the Fall of 2000.
At this point, my procrastination and reluctance started kicking in. I had the paperwork, I knew what I needed to do to get into the seminary, and I was unwilling to do it. When I arrived back in Illinois, I threw the paperwork on a counter in my apartment and let it sit. I wasn't going to rush into things, besides I still had 6 months to fill it out.
Shortly after my Christmas vacation, I found out through the Scott AFB base chapel, where I was still attending daily Mass, that the Archdiocese for the Military Services was sponsoring a discernment retreat in Washington, DC, at the Theological College of the Catholic University of America. The chaplain, knowing that I was in the discernment process, encouraged me to consider attending., and I agreed. I figured that if nothing else, I would get a nice weekend in Washington, DC, and get to see the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
I did get to see the National Shrine, and fell in love with it, but it also turned out to be a great opportunity for prayer and reflection on the priesthood, and gave me much to think about in my discernment. It also introduced me to the Liturgy of the Hours for the first time, something which has become a vital part of my prayer life.
I'd like to say that the retreat gave me a shot of excitement about my vocation, and that I filled out my paperwork immediately upon returning, but that wasn't the case. I did get some of it filled out, and got a good start on collecting the paperwork I needed. Unfortunately, the excitement wained as I returned to my usual routines of daily life, and the paperwork collected dust once again.
That dust remained pretty much undisturbed, except for the occasional cleaning, until June. One Saturday in early June, I got a call from Fr. Dale: "I haven't heard from you in a while. Are you still thinking about going this Fall?" I hemmed and hawed, and came up with every excuse, "I have loans, I need to think about this more," and so on. Before we finished, Fr. Dale encouraged me to think and pray about it more. I promised I would and got off the phone.
The next morning happened to be Pentecost Sunday, as Easter was late in the year 2000, and I got up and went to Mass as had become my custom. It was a beautiful late Spring day, just slightly warm, and the church was full as usual. During Mass, I felt that I had a Pentecost moment. No, not speaking in tongues or flames descending on my head, but I felt the Holy Spirit move me to get going on everything I needed for the seminary now. Not next year, not next week, now. I still had time to apply to the seminary, and I needed to enter that Fall.
Before I even got back to my apartment, I called Fr. Dale and left a message that I was going to finish up the paperwork. I told him through the message that the seminary would receive it by the end of the week, even if I had to pay for it to be sent overnight.
If you've ever seen the applications for many diocese and seminaries, they're not small, quick applications. The diocesan application was only 4 pages long, but required a number of longer essays. The seminary application was much longer, closer to 30 pages, and required even more essays, not to mention supporting documentation like a copy of the baptismal record. Yet, with all the paperwork needed, I was able to complete the applications and get them in the mail in time for the application deadline.
Fr. Dale had assured me that I was going to get in, but it was still nerve wracking waiting for word back from the seminary. Finally, after a couple of weeks, a large envelope from Mount Angel Seminary arrived in the mail. The envelope contained an acceptance letter stating that I had been accepted for the 2000-2001 college freshmen class. It also contained preparation instructions as well as where and when to arrive. I was going to seminary, 2000 miles away and a whole new way of life.
Continue to Part 5 - Seminary Discernment (Coming sooner than part 4 did!)