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Turn to Jesus (Article)

A strange prediction
Fr. Mark Brian Thelen

P. Mark Brian Thelen L.C.
Fr. Mark Brian Thelen LC.

A Life: My Way or His Way

After thirty-one years and fourteen of those in the seminary, some things have changed, others have stayed the same. I still wake up every morning asking myself why I should get out of bed. It’s no longer to make a fortune, drive a nice car, or even to form a family. I dream of bringing Christ down on the altar and forgiving people’s sins as a priest.

My Way: A Road Going Nowhere

In all truth I tell you, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked (Jn 21:18).

I was young and ambitious, but I didn’t know what I really wanted. My principles and ideals were clear, but I didn’t understand. I had my whole life mapped out, but didn’t like the destination.

Going my way.

My mom graduated top in her class, valedictorian, and my dad second. So if genes dictate things, I am an overachiever. You’re thinking, “this guy is full of himself, and it’s boring already.” You’re right, even I got bored. But stick with me. God did! It gets better.

I calculated everything in the equation for success, especially in high school. Studies were for the perfect GPA, honors and AP classes: for college credit. But not just studies; my dad is an exceptional athlete, and sports were a big part of my life. Swimming, ice skating, tennis, soccer, baseball, basketball, and track were just a start. I didn’t enjoy all sports, but I was determined to excel. The waiting in baseball, for example, was something I couldn’t stand, but I played for almost eight years. Running track and cross-country was more my style. In my freshman year of high school, I ran varsity cross-country and we placed fifth in the State championship.

Then there were extra-curricular activities like student government. In high school, for example, I meticulously researched and planned a successful campaign for sophomore class president. The SAT was part of my strategy too. By senior year, I was determined to have a perfect 1600 (the highest score possible at the time). I devoured books on test taking and beating the system enthralled me.
P. Mark Brian Thelen L.C.
Friends, girlfriends, and social life were a regular part of life. I tried to mix with all circles without belonging to any – the athletes, the intellectuals, the artists, the overtly “Catholic” bunch, and all the rest.

Where was I headed?

“What are you going to do when you grow up?” I can’t remember how many times I heard that question. I had no quick answer. Clearly office work wasn’t an option because I like working with people too much. I wanted to succeed, to lead, to make a difference.

High school was all about perfecting that college application with GPA, athletics, extracurricular activities, awards, and so on. Then, I planned on an Ivy-league college diploma that would make possible a high paying job. Afterwards I would have to gain experience and climb the corporate ladder, ensuring a nice car, house, money to live comfortably, and form a loving family with a beautiful, intelligent wife. But I still hadn’t answered the question. Who was I going to be? Where was I headed?

Growing up.

By sophomore year in high school, I was getting tired of following ever minutely scripted cue: from the social game to academic hula-hoops. I wanted to live! There had to be something more!

My faith wasn’t strong or personal. Both of my parents are devout Catholics, and I remember the family Gospel reflection almost every morning. However, at the time it was a chore. Around 6:00AM, my dad started calling everyone down to the living room. I stumbled out of the shower into some clothes, hastily shaved, ran a hand through my hair, and plopped down in a chair half asleep.

As the oldest of five (I have three sisters and one brother), I didn’t always set a shining example. Like most little kids, I played Mass for friends and siblings with grape juice and bread, learning my catechism, and played along. In spite of all this:  Sunday Mass, Catholic school, encouragement, and good example, the faith was not my own. Religion was just another necessary step on the path to success. Churchgoing was just another element among others like studying math or running track.

Changing Ways

For the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts (Is55:9).

God had to stage some pretty serious episodes to make me change directions. They didn’t determine my path, but they certainly helped to rethink it: a strange prediction, a knock on a random New York door and a midnight trip.

A strange prediction.

I sat at the table in stunned silence: “What did she say?” It was like one of the slow motion scenes in a boxing movie where the main character moves a thousand times faster than everyone else.

The coke never quite reached my lips. My friend was motionless beside me. His mom’s lips stopped mid-phrase, “I just know that you are going to become a priest.”

What did she know anyway?  Despite the example of great priests like Fr. Roger Prokop and Fr. Bill Ashbaugh at my own parish, it had never even crossed my mind.  But I couldn’t shake it off.  Not knowing why, deep down I had the feeling that she was right.

A knock on some New York door.

I knocked hesitantly. In the middle of the state of New York, a long way from home, I was knocking on the door of some stranger. What was I doing here anyway? A few months ago I could have been knocking on a door in my own parish.

There had been a similar door-to-door evangelization mission, and my mom was set on me going. I was not going. The night of the sign-up deadline, she walked into my room, “Did you sign up for the retreat?”

“Don’t you get it, Mom?  I don’t want to go.” But things changed quickly a few months later with an after-school-confession. At Fr. Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, the chaplain, Fr. Richard Lobert, was always looking out for the students. He often organized confessions, retreats, and talks with visiting priests.

Well Fr. Edward Hopkins was visiting and he wasn’t going to settle for the drive-through confession. After absolution, he began asking about me, my summer plans, my phone number. But I never expected to hear from him again.

“Excuse me, young man, do you want something?” Needless to say, here I was in New York, far from home, standing in front of some lady. Fr. Edward had called.

“We’re here on behalf of Fr. Bob at St. Mary’s parish and want to invite you to Sunday Mass.”

“I’m not interested. We already have something going.”

“Can we say a prayer for any of your intentions?”

“Well yeah…for my son. He had a car accident… he was fine and … how could God let this happen?”

Okay, the details are off. But these people asked the million dollar questions, the profound questions How could God allow suffering? Did I really believe God was present in that wafer on the altar? What made all the Catholics right and everyone else wrong? How could I prove that the Bible was true?

The answers weren’t in textbooks. I could name the sacraments, the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and with enough time the mysteries of the rosary. Besides, these people weren’t buying textbook answers, and neither was I. There was a need to get serious about my faith or just give up on the whole religion thing.

A midnight trip.

It was 10:00 pm, and I still had a lot to do. Procrastination had its advantages and disadvantages. I didn’t worry about things for more than a night, but, boy, was that night long.

“Mark, you’ve got a phone call,” my mom yelled down the stairs, “it’s Fr. Edward.”

“Oh, no!” I knew what he wanted. After the door to door missions, my faith had gotten serious. The most fun, joyful, and knowledgeable guys on the mission were in the Regnum Christi Movement. I wanted in and so joined a few months later during a retreat. My prayer life picked up. Mass and confession were a part of the regular routine. I got involved with some apostolic projects with others guys in the area. I talked to Fr. Edward regularly in spiritual direction.

“Mark, are you going to take the call?”

“Father, how are you?” What could I say? I had already told him that I was thinking maybe the priesthood was for me, and he had duly invited me to see for myself – take a trip up to the Legionary minor seminary in New Hampshire. There was a basketball tournament in the way and, not to mention, a few school assignments. He needed an answer. I decided to go. Despite the obstacles, God was calling.

I walked up the stairs. “Mom, I told Father that I’m going to New Hampshire. We leave Detroit tomorrow around 5:00.” I left around midnight with Fr. Edward for a short night in Detroit before our early morning Departure to New Hampshire.

His Way

But when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.´

As I knelt in front of the tabernacle, I would always remember this simple conversation, “Follow me.” Christ was calling to the priesthood, and there in the Legionary chapel in Rome, I finally said: “Yes, Lord.”

After the trip to New Hampshire, I thought a lot about the priesthood. The minor seminary had been incredible: basketball, hikes, true charity, good food, great guys and a lot of fun. I was pretty convinced, but the possibility was starting to sink in.

Three months later, a group of Regnum Christi and ECYD from Detroit and all around the United States who had come to join John Paul II in Rome. We were celebrating Pentecost in 1998. He had invited all the new Movements in the Church to participate in this celebration of the Holy Spirit.

There was something surreal about the whole trip. The Mass with the pope was hot and distracted. I didn’t understand the homilies and conferences in Italian or Spanish. The nights were short. The food wasn’t great, and neither were the accommodations. But it wasn’t about that: God wanted me there, and I was listening. His voice almost boomed, “Will you be my priest, my Legionary?” I could only say, “Yes, I will follow your path.”

The decision wasn’t easy, but God gave the grace. My family supported me despite their initial misgivings and the sacrifice it implied. Numerous friends and mentors supported especially Mrs. May Ping Soo Hoo, Mrs. Martha Panning, and Mr. Art Rogers.

The adventure continues.

This was just the beginning. I didn’t enter the seminary with a million and one certainties. I entered with an invitation and a hesitant but generous yes. It is never easy, but it is simple, joyful, and fulfilling. I spent one year in the minor seminary in New Hampshire, two years of novitiate in Germany, and a year of humanistic studies in Cheshire.

In the seminary, God has continued to show me his path, full of joys and sorrows. And to be honest, there has been a lot more of the former. But it was often during the difficulties where I learned the most. In fact, I can only really remember crying twice in my life (okay, apart from some scrapes as a kid and a C on a history test).

The novitiate in Ireland.

“Lord, why is this so hard?” There in the chapel, I was practically in tears. Maybe it wasn´t a big deal, but I wanted my way. Nobody seemed to understand. I was meticulously planning and organizing, but it never seemed to turn out the way that I wanted.

Working as an assistant to the instructor of novices in Ireland, life was fun and rewarding. Sometimes I had to pinch myself – what was better than experiencing God’s grace working through me, seeing it so vibrant in the lives of these enthusiastic and generous young men?

Yet the struggle was still there. My way led nowhere other than sadness and disappointment, and God was calling me to be an instrument in his plan and to follow his path to authentic joy and holiness.


“Father, why is this so hard?” This time I really was in tears in my superior’s office. After Ireland, I had come to Rome. What more could a seminarian ask for? Rome is full of art, history, faith, and grace. But by my second year, the spell was wearing off. The office job started to frustrate me. This is exactly what I had not bargained for.

“Father, I can’t handle this anymore. I’m going crazy in this office.”  Once again I was superficially unhappy again. Why? Even as a seminarian, I was still trying my way. It’s only when we truly “let go and let God” that we find happiness because it’s not in what we do but how and for who we do it.

The priesthood.

On the eve of my priesthood, I know I have barely even begun to walk his way, God’s way. I might still be in Rome, still studying, and my work still mainly involves an office, but that “Follow me” echoes louder than ever.

God made me to love him and share his love with others, and in the end, “Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent his Son to expiate our sins” (I Jn 4:10).



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