In our continuing series of vocation stories for National Vocation Awareness Week, Fr Stephen Howe, LC, shares his story of entering the Legionaries of Christ in the United States after growing up in Adelaide, Australia. Antipodes Map notes that if you drilled a hole straight through the globe from Adelaide, you would come out in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Washington, DC, where he currently lives. He made final vows in 2009 and was ordained on December 13, 2014.
Can you tell me a little background about your family?
I’m the oldest of 5 kids and my dad is 4th generation Australian, while my mom was born in Holland and came to Australia when she was young. My dad is retired but for years he taught Sociology at the local Uni. As a young man he was a seminarian for a time. I have always been very close to my brothers and sisters and still love to go fishing with my brothers on my visits back to Australia .As you can see in the photo attached, we have a lot of fun on those trips!
What was your childhood like?
I was fairly normal, but I was also considered a Bible-basher because I went to Mass on Sundays which isn’t really typical in Australia nowadays. I remember when I was in 7th grade, the teacher asked the class, “Who wants to be a priest? Raise your hand.” I was just sitting on my hand because I didn’t want to be a priest. Nobody else raised their hand, but deep down I did think about it then.
I later spoke with my parish priest and asked him, “If God wanted somebody to be a priest, would they want it too?” He responded, “Yes, I believe that if somebody were called, God would give them a deep desire for the priesthood.” So, I thought “Aww, good, I guess I’m off the hook then!”
Looking back, I think he was right, God gives you the desire, but sometimes you need to sweat blood first, like Jesus did in Gethsemane before he was ready to follow through with the Father’s will.
How did you first learn about the Legionaries?
There were a couple Legionary priests who came and visited. I remember being impressed with their American accent, and how they were energetic, faithful priests with an evident love for the Lord, the Church, the Pope and Mary . I invited them to my youth group and then they invited me for coffee. One of them took me aside and presented a three-month discernment program in the states. At first the idea seemed ridiculous, then thoughts started coming to me about how John Paul II had asked young people to give a year to God. I thought that maybe I could get away with three months instead of a year. I decided to go to the candidacy program in order to learn how to pray, and learn how to read the Bible. The priest mentioned the aspect of discerning the priesthood, but didn’t focus on it. I figured, “Well, if I get a voice from God or a lightning bolt, I might pay attention and become a priest.”
What was it like to get to the candidacy and have everyone dressing up in clerics or ties?
I was a bit surprised: I didn’t know everyone would be wearing a uniform and calling each other “brother.” I found that a bit strange. I didn’t really participate in that part, but I definitely enjoyed the candidacy once I got the hang of it. It was a wonderful group of young guys. With the prayer and meditation, and spiritual classes, I remember thinking “I do more good here in a week than I do in a whole year at home.”
Towards the end of candidacy, my spiritual director suggested I think about getting the uniform, so I at least looked like I was taking it seriously. I said I’d go and pray about it. As soon as I sat down to prayer, I opened my Bible and there was the passage where the king is going around greeting the wedding guests and says to one, “Why don’t you have a wedding garment on?” So I took that as a clear sign that I should don the uniform. [Note: Legionary candidates always wear ties and Fr Stephen became a candidate after being a visitor for almost the entire summer.]
Then a friend of mine at the candidacy, who was also from Australia, convinced me to stay for the eight-day spiritual exercises retreat at the end of the program. I called up and delayed my flight so I could leave the day after the retreat ended. During those exercises, I received a clear message from God that I was supposed to stay.
Do you want to share more about that experience?
There’s a powerful meditation in the Spiritual Exercises called the two standards. Fr John Hopkins, LC, was preaching and he painted a picture of a battle with all the demons, looking like orcs (from J.R.R. Tolkien’s on one side, and Satan leading them saying, “Come and follow me and you’ll have everything you want!” But if you look behind him, they’re just miserable, awful creatures. On the other side is Jesus with standard of the cross, saying, “Come and follow me! It won’t be easy but you will be happy.” And you look behind him to see that, sure enough, the saints behind him are these shining, blissful creatures.
I remember thinking to myself, “But that doesn’t mean I have to be a priest; there’s plenty of places you can go in God’s army.” And I thought I’d go back to Australia and think about it a little more. Then Fr John said, “Be wary as there might be a little guy coming up beside you right now in a pinstripe suit and a carnation in his button hole, saying to you, ‘don’t do anything radical, don’t make a decision you might regret later, ’” and I thought that was amazing, as it was just what I was thinking. Fr Hopkins continued, “Be careful because as he walks away you see a forked tail sticking out of his suit: he isn’t your friend.”
I remember going to the chapel and realizing I needed to be cautious about who I was listening to. As I prayed, I looked up at the crucifix, and I felt a clear interior voice say, “I want you to be my priest.” Inside I said, “Sure, Lord, whatever you want. I’m not going to fight this anymore.” From that moment I had great peace realizing that the God who loved me into existence had such a great plan for me.
Were there any other key moments in your formation?
Being accepted for the profession of vows was a key moment. I have to admit that at that stage I was still quite resistant. When I was asking for permission to make my first vows, I was still hoping that they would just send me home. I was actually a little disappointed when I was accepted. After profession, I remember looking up at the crucifix and saying, “Jesus, this is hard for me.” And I remember hearing back this interior voice, “And you think this was easy for me?” And I could see Jesus hanging there on the cross as he continued, “But do you think I regret it? Not for a second.”
What does it feel like, what does it mean to be a priest today?
After a rough start, I gradually came to love my religious and priestly vocation. Today, being a priest is a great honor, a great privilege, and a great blessing. Being able to hold our Lord in my hands and bring him down to the altar every day is more of a joy than I ever expected. To be able to raise my hand over souls in pardon in the confessional and to have Jesus forgive them through me is just an incredible thing and I could never have expected how awesome it would be unless I had experienced it first-hand. The way people open up to you as a priest is amazing – they invite you into their soul, into their life with a trust that is really humbling.
And I am so lucky to be living in a community with other priests and brothers whom I consider some of the best men alive!
Below is a 5 minute video of Fr. Stephen’s Ordination at St. John Lateran Basilica in 2014.