|Fr. Mark Brian Thelen LC.|
A Life: My Way or His Way
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
A knock on some New York door.
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.
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?”
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.
on behalf of Fr. Bob at St. Mary’s parish and
want to invite you to Sunday Mass.”
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
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
“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.
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:
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.
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.”
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).