This is the last part of a 4-part series of blogs on my coming to Christ as a teenager. For a fuller context, please read parts 1 through 3 on the I Will Lower my Net blog.
At 17 years of age, I encountered God in a very tangible way. It was real encounter. Before, God was a belief. But now, God was personal (actually 3 Persons – Father, Son, and Spirit). In the lead up to the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II had announced a special Trinity focus for 1997, 1998, and 1999. 1997 was dedicated to the Son. 1998 was dedicated to the Holy Spirit. 1999 was dedicated to the Father. 1998 was my conversion experience year and my Confirmation year. So, I always attributed the power of the Spirit to my encounter with the Living God!
As I said in the previous blogs, my experience with God led me to get involved in stuff I would never have felt comfortable doing before. In 1998, I made TEC (To Encounter Christ – program changed in the Erie Diocese to “Divine Mercy Encounter”). This retreat only deepened my spiritual experience of the Church from the Franciscan University Summer Conference. It also gave me a better sense of Christian community with my peers. In the years following high school, while attending Gannon University in Erie, I worked a lot of TEC retreats. I also became involved at my home parish, St. Andrew. I became a lector and a Eucharistic Minister. I even went to a meeting on a Capital Campaign for the parish (at 20 years old – this was getting serious). I remain indebted to Monsignor Richard Sullivan, pastor at the time, for all of his support of me, as well as the rest of the parishioners. It is still my spiritual home.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the wonderful work that Greg Schlueter, Diocesan Youth Leader, did in those days as well. He had a peer-to-peer teen retreat ministry called Heart and Soul that I was on for a semester in college. They did retreats all over the Diocese of Erie. He also had yearly gatherings of high school youth called Journey to Emmaus, which would attract 1,000 youth from the Diocesan area for praise of God, service, and catechesis. Those large gatherings culminated in a trip of hundreds of youth to World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002. I attended those events, and also helped as a volunteer for them as well. In that time period (1999-2001) I came into a great group of college friends who gathered for weekly Adoration and a prayer group at Bread of Life Community (which used to meet up at St. Mark Catholic Center). I made a lot of great friends in those days that remain friends today (N.B. – friends in Christ are the best type of friends!).
St. Vincent Archabbey Basilica, Latrobe, PA
I would eventually enroll in the seminary formation program for the Erie Diocese in August of 2001. It would be six years until I was ordained to the Priesthood by Bishop Donald Trautman in June of 2007. In the two seminaries that I attended (St. Mark Seminary in Erie, and St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA) I learned a lot. I learned a love for a Eucharistic Holy Hour. I learned the importance of Spiritual Direction. I learned a love for liturgy. I learned so much about how to be courteous, thankful, and a good community member. I learned much about philosophy, theology, and the Sacred Scriptures. I even learned Latin and Greek! My service placements at L’Arche (an intentional faith community started by Jean Vanier for adults with special mental and physical challenges), and St. Vincent Hospital taught me much about life. My experiences in Latrobe at a Bible study for wayward men, and at prayer vigils spent in front of abortion clinics in Erie and Pittsburgh taught me much about hope and despair. I began to understand why my Grandma Barron went to visit the prisons with Monsignor James Peterson as often as she did. In this love of the wounded, we encounter the face of Christ.
And so, I was involved in a lot of ministries that really formed me in discipleship. I slowly developed from a teenager blown away by a spiritual experience into a young man whose response to a divine call was finding a concrete vocational form. As I continue on in my life’s vocation as a Priest, I often reflect back upon the moment when the exuberance of young Christian fellowship was transformed into a life calling- the moment when God turned me towards seminary and priesthood. It is that story that I would like to tell at the end of this little auto-biographical series.
Statue of St. Francis of Assisi at St. John Lateran Basilica, Rome – “Rebuild my Church, Francis”
As I had mentioned in part 3 of this series of blogs, an opportunity arose to go to World Youth Day in Rome in 2000. I simply could not say no to this opportunity! All my life, I had watched Pope John Paul on the TV as he travelled the world. I watched him as he travelled to America in 1993 to World Youth Day in Denver. I was a bit too young to go that time. When I heard that a group from St. Peter Cathedral in Erie was going, I jumped at the opportunity. I had never even been on an airplane before! So, to fly across the ocean to Rome was a dream in itself. To encounter Pope John Paul and millions of youth in Rome, during the Jubilee Year, just added to the excitement.
Me in the Vigil fields of Tor Vergata, World Youth Day 2000. It was over 100 degrees, and I had just walked 10 miles. It was a tough workout!
The trip lived up to expectations. I was able to see many of the beautiful holy sites of Rome, most especially St. Peter Basilica. I was able to see Pope John Paul ride through a crowd of 2 million people at Tor Vergata in Rome, for the nighttime prayer vigil. He had a very inspirational message about choosing Christ over the false promises of the world. By 2000, he was pretty debilitated by illness, but it was clear that he really enjoyed being with us. He was like our spiritual grandfather! The whole experience was very memorable. I felt very blessed, and in the mood to consider what I should give to the Lord for His goodness to me.
The Church in Rome where God spoke to my heart – Our Lady of Guadalupe
I was eating at an outdoor restaurant late in the evening (it was August, the 8 o’clock hour, close to dusk). The restaurant was right across from the Church we had used for liturgy. It was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the Via Aurelia (I later found out that it is run by the Legionaires of Christ). I felt pulled to go across the street and pray in the church for a bit. I walked into an empty church. It was dusk, and the church was dimly lit. I pulled out a Rosary, and began to pray. A thought formed in my heart. I said to God, “I have been so tremendously blessed on this trip. In fact, I have been tremendously blessed by you for these past few years. I feel like I should do something when I go home in response to your love. Show me what I should do.”
It wasn’t long until I got my answer. In the dimly lit church, lights were turned on. Men in cassocks started coming out into the pews of the Church! They filled up a good amount of that large church. Then, they began to pray and sing their prayers (on later reflection, it must have been part of the Divine Office). In response to my prayer, God instantaneously surrounded me (who had been praying alone in an empty church at night) with many priests (probably seminarians too). This spoke to my heart. I had to get off the fence, and join these men. I had to formally apply for the seminary. Up to then, I was waiting for confirmation from God on seminary application. I didn’t want to present myself for the honor of priesthood if God didn’t definitively put it on my heart. Well, His clarity defeated my stubbornness. A year later, just a few weeks before 9/11/01, I entered the seminary.
Next week, I will share some lessons I learned from this experience in growing up in grace, and how it might be helpful to someone discerning God’s call. I do this not to hold myself out as a role model for discernment, but because I encountered God working independent of me in this process! God is the same today as yesterday, and will reach out to you in similar ways. You need to know how to see God and respond. God bless.