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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Everything Works Out for the Good for Those Who Love Him
Fr. William Webster, LC (United States)

Fr. William Webster, LC (United States)
Fr. William Webster, LC (United States)

On October 16, 2003, I accompanied a priest to distribute communion in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. I was sweating up a storm in my cassock and surplice under the midday sun, but it was all worth the three-hour Mass. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had just been beatified, and I was there as an altar server to say thanks to Christ and to her for my life.

Difficult Birth, Blessed Childhood

The doctor in the maternity ward at the Catholic Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, assured my mother that I would not be born on February 29, Leap Day. Not only was I born then, I was born weighing over 14 pounds with a very high fever. I was baptized immediately, and taken to the intensive care unit. No one believed I would live through the next week. It was 1980.

When I was a boy, my parents often reminded me that God must have a plan for me, since he kept me alive despite a tough beginning. This was the faith environment we were raised in: in touch with the reality of God every day in our household. We prayed grace at every meal as well as night prayers, and we went every Sunday to Mass. I was the fourth of five children. We grew up happily learning to appreciate family love and faith in Jesus Christ. In reality, this is enough for any Christian vocation to flourish.

At eight years old, I received First Communion, a day of happy memory. I was educated at the Loretto Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida, where our family had moved in 1982. Then I attended the Mandarin Middle School and Stanton College Preparatory School, graduating in the top 10 of the class. CCD Classes at St. Joseph Parish in Jacksonville on Wednesday evenings complemented the Catholic faith formation I received at home. In the summers I attended week-long Bible school camps. In 1994, I was confirmed by my beloved Bishop John Snyder of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida. I was a Cub Scout in Pack 484 at St. Joseph Parish, and then a Boy Scout in Troop 110 at the Episcopal Church of Our Savior. My experience with the Boy Scouts forged my character: a priceless experience. In March, 1996, together with two lifelong friends, I received the rank of Eagle Scout. Street hockey after school kept me out of trouble. Our summers were busy with hiking on the Appalachian Trail, canoeing trips on the St. Mary’s River in northern Florida, whitewater rafting in West Virginia, camping, swimming, surfing, fishing: all a boy could have dreamed of.

An Experience of God’s Love, a Response of Generosity

When I was sixteen, my older sister invited me to a youth conference
Fr. William with his family in Jacksonville, in May, 2007.
Fr. William with his family in Jacksonville, in May, 2007.
in Steubenville, Ohio, where we spent a weekend in prayer and formative activities with youth from the whole nation. During a Eucharistic procession under a tent packed with thousands praying and singing, I encountered Jesus Christ as my best friend. My heart was deeply moved for the first time by the thought that Jesus has stayed in the Eucharist for centuries just to be with me. I became fascinated with Jesus and began praying daily and reading Scripture. I could not help telling everyone about this Jesus who knew us and loved us more than anyone could. However, I had no spiritual guide who could lead me to greater knowledge of Christ.

After some time, I met a nice girl whom I began dating. She was from the local Episcopal church, and I began attending their youth activities with regularity. We would often meet there. I formed many good friendships in this youth group, and began taking a leadership role to such an extent that the youth minister asked me to take an active part in the Sunday church services. It was the year 1998. This caused a dilemma in me. I was Catholic, but I enjoyed participating in the Episcopal youth group. I continued going to Sunday Mass with my family, but then afterwards I would go to the Episcopal service. Over the course of the year, I slipped into abandoning Sunday Mass and exclusively attending the Episcopal services. Soon I became the assistant to the youth minister in the Episcopal parish, running weekly Bible-study groups and summer mission trips to help build homes for the poor. I was happily engaged in consuming my youthful energy for the service of others.

Coming to Grips with a “Calling”

During my experience in Steubenville with the Eucharistic Procession, an idea had come into my mind that had otherwise never occurred to me: I could be a priest. The idea surprised me, but did not scare me. Nevertheless, I had not shared this secret with anyone. So, as one day the youth minister in the Episcopal parish asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a priest, I responded that I had. And upon that response I began receiving invitations from the Episcopalian clergy to enter their seminary.

Now, I knew that there was some difference between the Episcopal and Catholic Churches, but it was not clear in my mind. From the outside, the Episcopal Church appeared very similar to the Catholic Church, and several good Episcopalian pastors explained to me that “we are the English Catholic Church, and they are the Roman Catholic Church, but we are all Catholics.” This was an interesting explanation which brewed in my mind for some time. I argued with my father several times about it. He tried to explain to me that the Anglican community had separated itself from the Catholic Church in the 16th century and therefore does not have valid sacraments of the Eucharist or the priesthood.

I was an eighteen-year-old rebelling against my parents. Although my father’s explanation made sense, I followed the steps to begin studies for the Anglican priesthood.

The Episcopal Seminary in Virginia responded to my interest and said I would need to earn a bachelor’s degree before entering. In 1998, I moved away from home to begin studying at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Since I had an interest in fine arts and human anatomy, I began a double-major in painting and medicine. These first two semesters were an adventure for me. Many changes—a new girlfriend, a new home with new roommates, a new job at a local restaurant—kept me distracted. I prayed very little about the calling. I volunteered at the local Episcopal parish at the university, but there was little prayer. The busyness of the days and weeks and months pushed me mindlessly ahead toward my

goal of finishing my eight semesters and entering the seminary in Virginia.

The momentum came to a screeching halt one day when I went back to confession.

The Decision to Become a Catholic Priest

It had been several years since I had entered a confessional, but there were some things I had done that were pinching my conscience, and I felt the need to speak to a priest. The priest invited me to go regularly to Sunday Mass. I felt uncertain about how I should continue my Episcopalian volunteer youth work and live a fervent Catholic life. I decided I would not radically alter anything, but try to live my Catholic Faith again while slowly pulling myself away from my Episcopal commitments, in order to insert my life and energy back into the Catholic Church.

The question of my future career, though, remained open. What would I do if I did not go to the Episcopal seminary? I decided to take three months in the summer of 1999 between my second and third semester to volunteer building homes for the poor in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. This mission was organized out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, by a group called Youthworks, with whom I had become familiar in my activities with the Episcopal youth. In Mexico I met a priest from the Archdiocese of Chicago, Fr. Jim, who counseled me to go frequently to Mass and confession and to pray the Rosary. God would certainly show me his will. “God is calling you to something. You must pray so that you can hear him and answer him. The only Person who is expecting an answer is God, since the calling is from him.” Encouraged by his advice, I resumed my university studies in September.

By November of 1999, it had become clear to me in prayer that I should become a priest, a Catholic priest. I announced it to my parents, who were overjoyed. Their enthusiasm encouraged and strengthened my vocation. As I look back, I can see how delicate a gift my vocation is: at these beginning stages it was tender and—like a young plant— easily damaged by strong winds or too much sun. I am grateful for what my parents did to protect it and encourage it. As the calling matured in my heart, and the words of Fr. Jim resonated more in my soul, I began to ask the question, “Where should I go to become a priest?”

“All Things Work Out for the Good for Those Who Love Him” (Romans 8:28)

We need to see the daily happenings of our lives with faith, since there are no coincidences. The chain of events leading up to my meeting the Legionaries was, in my view, heaven sent. At a Christmas party in 1999, my mother mentioned to her friend that I was considering becoming a priest. Her friend’s eyes lit up, and she said, “A week ago, I was in the parish praying and saw two young priests also in prayer. I invited them to lunch. They were from a new congregation called the Legionaries of Christ. They gave me their card and asked me to give it to any young man thinking of the priesthood.” With that, my mother took the card home. I asked my sister, who had studied in Steubenville and whose judgment I trusted, what she could tell me about these Legionaries, and she said, “They are good. Call them.”

In January, 2000, my parish priest back at the university began preaching a series of homilies on the theme of involvement in the Church. He encouraged us to take radical steps to abandon our selfishness and comfort, and to help evangelize this world in need of Christ. I decided that I would not wait any longer: at the end of the next semester, I would enter a seminary. I asked my parish priest back home, Fr. Dan Cody, for his blessing over my decision. I had learned a lot from this man, whom I admire greatly. He was happy a seminarian was coming out of his parish.

In February, 2000, I met the two Legionaries for lunch at a Steak ’n’ Shake near the university. As I walked them to their car, I said to myself, “This is the kind of priest I want to become.” In March, I attended a silent retreat in Louisiana to consider God’s calling more deeply, and I decided that I would join right away. I told the retreat director, Fr. Anthony Bannon, LC, that I wanted to become a Legionary. He responded, “What does God want you to be?” Was I calling myself, or was God really calling me? I was certain it was from God. In May, I made a pilgrimage to Rome to put my future into God’s hands, under the protection and intercession of Sts. Peter and Paul, and in June, 2000, I joined the summer candidacy, the discernment program of the Legionaries of Christ in Cheshire, Connecticut.

The night before I formally entered the novitiate of the Legionaries, September 14, 2000, I knelt before a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the garden of the seminary and asked her to accompany me till death on this journey. I knew that my striving for holiness would not finish with ordination to the deaconate or to the priesthood, which seemed so far away. Rather, ordination would be a step on the way to the identification of my soul with Jesus Christ, which takes a lifetime to complete. I was filled with a burning desire for a deeper friendship with Christ.

I professed my first vows on September 7, 2002, in Germany, where I had been sent to begin my religious life in the novitiate. From 2002 to 2003, I studied humanities at the seminary in Cheshire, and in the fall of 2003, I moved to Rome to begin studying philosophy.

During some personal difficulties in my studies in Rome, I received a call from my mother. She explained to me that when she was giving birth to me, she imagined Mother Teresa of Calcutta praying. This image kept coming back to her during the long birth, and the perseverance of Mother Teresa in prayer encouraged her to continue the birth bravely and generously. My mother prayed that I would live and be healthy and grow up to do God’s will. This reminder of God’s loving hand in my life encouraged me to be generous and to push ahead in my studies. I had not heard this story until then. The upcoming beatification of Mother Teresa was an opportunity. I went to it as an altar server to say thanks to Jesus Christ for inspiring holiness in so many souls, and in giving us the examples of extraordinary Christian lives in people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

My heart is full of gratitude to God for the gift of the Holy Orders, which, God willing, will make me a more efficient channel of His Love and Mercy for all mankind. Laus tibi, Christe.

Fr. William Webster was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on February 29, 1980. He graduated in the top ten of the class from Stanton College Preparatory School in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1998 and completed two years of studies in pre-medicine and fine arts at the University of Florida in Gainesville from 1998 to 2000. On September 14, 2000, he entered the novitiate of the Legionaries of Christ in Cheshire, Connecticut. He completed his novitiate in Bad Münstereifel, Germany, earned an associate’s degree in classical studies in Cheshire, and then completed a bachelor’s in philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College in Rome. For three years he served as the rector’s assistant of the Legionary community in Thornwood, New York. Since August, 2007, he has been doing retreat work for the Legion of Christ in southern Germany.

The vocation stories of the Legionaries of Christ who were ordained on December 12, 2009 have been published in the book "I Call You Friends". During this Year for Priests, let us pray for all priests, so that their self-giving to God and to people will bear abundant fruits of grace and blessings.


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