Friday, January 8, 2010

One Vocation, Once Upon a Time

The Lord intervenes, at times in dramatic fashion, in human lives in recruiting a person to work full time in His service. St. Paul was knocked down and struck blind for the three days when the Lord blocked his plans and stopped his way of life in order to have him turn to be his apostle to the Gentiles. Few vocations are that exciting, but I see a touch of the miraculous in all of them.

I have a strong and precious memory of a conversation with a fellow Navy chaplain, a Southern Baptist. He already had the responsibility for a wife and two children when he felt called to ministry. I carry in my mind the picture of him throwing his belongings into his pick-up, as he told me, and heading off, trusting in God. By the way, he and his family managed and many were blessed by his faith and ministry.

Other vocations came very differently from that of the chaplain and St. Paul. For them the call came very early in life and was positively responded to all the way to ordination or profession. For me the call was somewhere in between those I have mentioned, closer to calls that reversed one's life. It begins some 70 years ago.

In my junior year at Northeast Catholic in Philadelphia, Father Wisniewski spoke about a vocation to the priesthood in our classroom. He asked us to think about it. I had no interest and had no intention of giving it any thought. But shortly after, while riding home in the old car our neighborhood group used for transport, on Broad Street, below Einstein Hospital, I experienced a tender feeling directing me to the priesthood. I wanted nothing to do with such a calling. I had other plans. In those days, people entered religious life right out of high school. Late vocations were almost unheard of. So I was convinced that when I was out of high school and working I would be safe from such a call to priesthood. The idea vanished from my mind. I remember afterwards accompanying my brother back to St. Charles Seminary after his vacations, and never entertaining any thought that one day I might go there. The Lord bided His time with an honor I did not appreciate.

After high school, I went to LaSalle College, now University, and enrolled in Journalism. Work, study and vagueness of goals coupled with my young age were too much for me. I quit before finishing freshman year. When we came from Ireland, my older brother and I were put in the same class by a kind Mother Superior who did not want to separate us. So I was just 16 entering college.

I then worked for two years. In those years, I was consumed by the desire to be an actor and to write for the theatre. The Lord does not mind using our natural bents, on the order of bait, to lead us where He wants us to go. Accordingly, it came to be that I decided that in order to be successful in the theatre, I needed more self-confidence, poise and savoir faire. And this meant returning to LaSalle.

In my sophomore year, a Vincentian priest was addressing us in the auditorium. He had a crucifix in the sash of his cassock. I do not remember a word he said, but suddenly, looking at the crucifix, the tender feeling inviting me to the priesthood returned, this time in spades. It is amazing that something so tender can be so powerful. I recall comparing my life to a clock that was being turned around to go in the opposite direction. Some aftershocks of the same gentle feeling occurred, but I summoned every reason I could to prove that this calling was not for me. However, as someone wrote, "Before His gaze, falsehood melts away." Finally I said "yes," with little gratitude for the attention.

My mother reacted to the news as if she considered this the end of Christianity as we know it. I discovered just recently that she told her brother back then that I was going into the Seminary "but he won't stay and he will be an embarrassment to Pat," who was already there. My father's first words were, "He won't stay a week." The neighbors thought it must be my older brother Bernard who was going. He was quieter, less of a "song-and-dance" type.

Few generations have dealt with the turmoil in religion and the secular world that we did. In the Sixties and Seventies, changes in society and in the Church, which happened at the same time as the war in Vietnam, shook established norms and even religious vocations. Many left religious life to serve in other ways. I also had the burden of recovering from service as a chaplain with the Marines in the carnage of Vietnam. Though I stumbled on in my vocation, it took some 29 years to fully, fully recover from the war and the turbulent times. The Lord kept me aboard in His service through it all, even though He had reason to dismiss me.

Life as a priest does not bring bubbly happiness. We share the pain and turmoil of the human condition. It is not to be that happiness is one's sole goal in life. C.S. Lewis said he could get happiness "from a bottle of port." Nevertheless there is deep, deep satisfaction in a life's work of service in unison with the Lord's will and a bountiful share of happiness. We are uplifted by how much inspiration and comfort, and even happiness, we can bring to others, often with little effort on our part.

Both when I was young and now, people comment on what a happy person I am, often citing it as my most evident characteristic. So while happiness is not the be-all in following a priestly vocation, I have enjoyed lots of it, more than is allotted in life to most people. My "song-and-dance" spirit thrives.

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