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I suppose that most people imagine that a priest must have been a miniature St. Francis of Assisi right from the womb. But actually, I had a fairly typical American childhood. My parents were always pretty active in the Church and set a good example for me—teaching Sunday school, helping out with the parish youth group, singing in the choir, etc. But besides going to Mass on Sunday as a family and praying the blessing before meals, we never really prayed too much as a family or talked a whole lot about our faith. When I was little, I can remember being bored when we were at Mass… I would just look around, or stare up at the lights way up in the ceiling, not really understanding what was going on. Surely I would have chosen to be at a friend’s house playing with Transformers or Ninja Turtles or something, if I had a choice. I remember listening to Father’s homilies and being impressed by the stories he would sometimes tell. I remember preparing for Holy Communion in second grade and I think I took that relatively seriously—I at least had the understanding and belief that I was receiving the Body of Christ, although it still looked like bread. But basically I was the typical materialistic American kid, much more concerned about my toys and playing with friends and watching TV than anything to do with God. When I prayed, it was probably only before going to bed.
Fifth grade was a turning point in my spiritual journey. That year, my parents had decided to take me out of the local public elementary school and enroll me in our parish school, St. Mary’s. I wailed and whined greatly against leaving my old school, trying every trick in the book to get them to let me finish fifth grade and then transfer to St. Mary’s for middle school, but my parents felt strongly that I needed a Catholic education. At first I didn’t much like “St. Stupid’s” (as I ever so maturely called it), but after a while I started to make friends and to appreciate being there. The biggest change was receiving religion classes every day by our full-time teacher, rather than the mere hour we received at Sunday school every week. I think this naturally got me to start taking my faith a little more seriously.
Fifth grade was also the year, I believe, when I began to have the first hints of a daily prayer life. My mom had been praying a set of prayers every day about the Lord’s passion and death. They are fifteen prayers contained in the popular little blue “Pieta” prayer book, small paragraphs each followed by an Our Father and a Hail Mary. I decided to follow my mom’s example and undertake this daily commitment of praying. They only take about fifteen minutes to pray, but for me as a fifth grader this was a mammoth commitment to undergo, even harder than daily flossing! Yet I was pretty faithful to it, and prayed the prayers for weeks and even months at a time without missing a day. I think this was an important step in my life, because for the first time I was forcing myself to set aside special time every day from goofing off, in order to seriously think about Jesus and eternal life…
And it was during this time in my fifth grade religion class that we watched a movie about Blessed Damien of Molokai, the leper-priest. I was really impressed by how this young missionary priest gave up his life to serve the lepers on Molokai, and by his tremendous courage and faith—trusting in God to keep him healthy as long as he was to serve the people. And how he completely changed the entire island, gave them hope ! This movie was one of the pivotal points in my life. I began to think for the first time about priesthood—surely there could be nothing greater than to completely transform thousands of lives like Father Damien, not only on earth but also for all eternity? I remember a few weeks afterwards our teacher was talking about vocations, and I leaned forward and tapped one of my classmates on the shoulder and whispered, “Don’t tell anyone, but I think I may want to be a priest!” Of course, his hand immediately shot up and he blurted it out to the whole class!
My religion teacher might have imagined that this was just an idea that would fade, as my many other childhood fantasies always did. But God had planted the seed of my vocation and from that time forward it would always be there in my heart. Yet, even if the seed has been planted, it is always possible to ignore it, or to imagine that it is a call that is impossible to answer. This is what happened as I got into middle school. Puberty hit (as it typically does!) and quite naturally I found myself more and more drawn to getting married one day and being a husband and a father. By the time I began 9th grade at our Catholic high school, I had pretty much decided that I wouldn’t be able to be a priest unless somehow the pope changed the rule and let priests be married (which was about as likely as my parents telling me I no longer had to go to school!) Even though I was still attracted to the priesthood, I had concluded that I just couldn’t make the sacrifice of giving up a wife and children.
At my high school, Aquinas, we were very blessed with very good and solid religion classes, and I lived a relatively innocent and trouble-free four years. The party scene didn’t interest me too much, and anyway I was kept pretty busy with classes and with my part-time job, working as a server at Fazoli’s (a fast-food Italian restaurant) three or four nights a week. I probably took my faith more seriously than most of my peers, but it was not until my senior year that I had an intellectual and spiritual “awakening” towards the faith.
During that year, I began dating a really awesome girl who was very committed to her faith and to living the Christian life. She was someone that I could definitely imagine myself marrying one day. In typical clueless guy fashion, I thought things were going great, but then after a few weeks she suddenly stopped returning my phone calls. She finally told me that she couldn’t continue to see me because I am Catholic… she was Baptist and she knows that she could never marry a Catholic, and since (as we both knew) dating was for marriage, she felt that there was no point to us dating. I was really crushed… I felt almost like a martyr for the faith! I greatly admired her integrity, but I still did not understand what the big difference was between my Christian faith and hers. “After all,” I thought, “we both believe in Jesus, right?” So this caused me, for the first time, to really take the faith seriously on my own. I began researching online and getting very much into apologetics. It surprises me now, but even with my eight years of Catholic education, it was not until I started to research for myself that I began to finally recognize and understand the differences between our faith and the faith of our Protestant brethren.
A few months after that, my apologetics career was born. I was working late one Saturday night at Fazoli’s, during the spring of my senior year. It was about ten o’clock, an hour before closing time, and the restaurant was completely empty except for one table of about six or seven young people my age. I was the dining room guy that night, in charge of cleaning and making sure that everything was taken care of. As I cleaned, I found myself getting closer and closer to their table, and cleaning increasingly slower and slower, for I was extremely intrigued by their topic of conversation. Back and forth, they were having a huge epic discussion about the meaning of salvation, with answers expressing the whole range of Protestant positions… “What if you were saved? What if you were saved and then did something really bad? Isn’t it impossible to lose one’s salvation?” It went on and on. I finally was near their table and after swallowing hard, I squeezed myself into the conversation and asked in an even voice, “Excuse me, but have you ever considered the Catholic understanding of salvation?” They looked at me blank-faced and the table was suddenly so quiet you could have heard a breadstick drop. I could tell that some of them thought I was making a big joke. The smiles faded from their faces as they saw that I was serious. For the next thirty or forty minutes until closing time, I stood there talking to them about the Catholic faith and answering their questions on all kinds of issues. (“Don’t worry!” I told my manager. “I’ll work extra off of the clock!”) We even got into purgatory (introduced by one girl who insightfully blurted out, “What about purgatory? I think that’s a crock!”) This was, I think, the first time when I shared the faith with others and I really claimed the faith for my own.
After graduating from high school and going to Clemson University in upper South Carolina, my interest in apologetics and sharing the faith continued to grow. One fateful evening, my friends and I looked down to the courtyard between our dorm rooms and saw a Protestant street evangelizer talking to people and handing out pamphlets. My friends dared me to go down and talk to him, and with this boost I went down and the evangelizer and I ended up having a good long talk together. He was from nearby Bob Jones University, which (as I later found out) is a major powerhouse of Fundamentalist faith in the South. That semester, while other people spent their weekends hitting the bars and guzzling beer, my Friday night fun became to go out and share the Catholic faith with the Bob Jones students on campus… evangelizing the evangelizers, if you will. It was always a grace-filled experience and it quickly helped me to find the areas where I needed to learn more about the faith. I still keep in touch with some of them even today.
I see now that God was, in a roundabout way, preparing me to accept my vocationthrough this increased enthusiasm for learning about the faith. When I really started to take the faith seriously, I began to really “fall in love” with the Church and appreciate her in a way that I never had before. She is the bride of Christ and his very body, and even though she is made up of weak sinners, God works through her to continue Christ’s ministry throughout all of the centuries and throughout every land. She is not just one church among many, she is the Church from which all others sprang and in whom all Christians hopefully will be reunited one day. It really is an awesome, awe-inspiring thing. And this leads to the final stop on my journey to the priesthood…
They say that C.S. Lewis, during his conversion, stepped onto a train an atheist and by the time he stepped off a few hours later, he was convinced of the truth of Christianity. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but something similar happened to me as I made the two-hour drive back home for Christmas break during my freshman year at Clemson. Through the Mary Foundation, I had gotten my hands on a tape of Fr. John Corapi’s conversion story, and having nothing better to do, I popped it in as I drove home. The Holy Spirit really worked through that tape to touch my heart. I was very touched by his theme, that he was always trying “to be somebody”—but only in the end, when he followed the Lord’s call to be a priest, then he really became somebody! After his story, he answers many questions about the priesthood, and one was directed towards those who feel called to be a priest but don’t think they can handle the vow of celibacy. That was my case exactly! And through Father’s talk, I realized that it was only in following myvocation that I would be truly happy. Marriage is a tremendous gift—a wife and children—but for those called to the priesthood, the priesthood is an even greater gift that will bring even greater happiness! So I saw that since I am called to the priesthood, it was not so much as if I was really giving up a wife and children, but rather that I would be trading in one treasure—wife and children—for an even greater treasure—giving myself to the spotless Bride of Christ and having countless spiritual children! God worked powerfully in my heart, and by the time I returned to Clemson from my Christmas break, I was convinced that I was called to be a priest and I was finally ready to make the sacrifice that it entails.
Three semesters later, I was finally accepted as a seminarian by the Diocese of Charleston, SC. I had to say goodbye to my many good friends at Clemson and pack my bags for the Pontifical College Josephinum, a great seminary up in Columbus, Ohio. There I finished my college education with a degree in philosophy, and then stayed for the four years of graduate work studying theology. Those six years at the Josephinum were some of the best days of my life! They flew by, and before I knew it, I was ordained a deacon on May 20th, 2006 and then as a priest on July 27th, 2007.
God has a plan for each of our lives. We are all called to be saints—to be happy by knowing, loving, and serving Him in this life and forever in heaven! Do you sometimes feel like I did when I was little, just going to church and going through the motions, but not really understanding or having a fire for God in your heart? Ask Him to receive the gift of an increased zeal to know Him and to love Him, and the Lord will answer your prayer! Open yourself to His grace by setting aside daily time to quietly spend with the Lord in prayer and in reading Scripture, and He will work great miracles in your heart!