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I Was Not a Perfect Legionary (and Never Will Be)
U. S. A. | RESOURCES | TESTIMONIES
Fr. Louis Frederick Melahn

P. Louis Frederick Melahn L.C.
Fr. Louis Frederick Melahn LC.
 


Origins



I was born on March 16, 1978, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, although I lived all my life in the neighboring town of Andover. I am the youngest of four children, with one older brother and two older sisters. My father, a native of Queens, New York, and a lawyer by profession, worked as a judge for many years in the Massachusetts court system. My mother, who was born in Quebec City, trained as a nurse, but did not practice her profession so as to dedicate her time to raising the family. We always practiced our Catholic faith, and my parents made many financial sacrifices to ensure that the children all went to Catholic schools. I would describe myself as being a practicing Catholic all my life, but I did not, so far as I can tell, stand out for extraordinary fervor or piety. I was somewhat like the rich young man described in the Gospels (Matthew 19:16–30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18–30): I followed the commandments, I went to Church on Sunday, but my practice of faith did not go much beyond that.



Childhood memories




From the earliest moments I can recall, I was interested in the sciences. At the beginning, when I was three or four years old—perhaps because I admired my grandfather on my mother’s side—I aspired to be a doctor, but by the time I was in second grade, I discovered that my true passion was for the “pure” sciences: chemistry, physics, and especially biology. I dreamed of doing research in a laboratory and discovering something that would make me famous. I have to say that I loved, and continue to love, all academic subjects—English, history, geography, anything that was offered—but I loved the sciences most of all. (I did not like mathematics as much until I started taking geometry in high school, but I have enjoyed it ever since.) For this reason, I spent most of my elementary-school and high-school years with a science career in mind, and so a vocation to the priesthood did not even cross my mind until the very end of high school.



Following the lead of my brother and sisters, I attended Saint Augustine Elementary School, the parish school, and then went on to the regional Catholic high school, Central Catholic, located in Lawrence and run by the Marist Brothers. I earned good grades, but I was not heavily involved in sports, except hiking and bicycling. I was, however, involved in a number of extra-curricular activities, such as the theater guild, the liturgical choir, the yearbook committee, and service projects sponsored by the Marists.



First Seeds of a Vocation

Over the course of my junior and senior
P. Louis Frederick Melahn L.C.
years of high school, I began to feel that I needed to learn more about my faith and how to grow in my friendship with God. I attended the retreats that the Marist brothers offered to the students, but I wanted go deeper. An opportunity came at the end of my senior year, when some of my friends invited me to a youth retreat run by priests of the BasilianSalvatorian Order, a community of Melkite Catholic priests, at their seminary in Methuen, Massachusetts (the next town over from Lawrence). There—in addition to being introduced to the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the way that most Eastern-Rite Catholics celebrate the Eucharist—I was greatly impressed by the young priests and deacons who ran the retreat, because they loved their vocations and enthusiastically promoted the Church’s moral teachings, even when doing so was difficult and went against the grain. For the first time in my life, I realized that the priesthood could be attractive and fulfilling, although I did not yet consider it as a possibility for myself.



I was, in any case, still determined to pursue a science career, and so in 1996 I began my studies as a biology major at the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit college in Worcester, Massachusetts. I continued to foster my other interests, especially singing. Thanks to my experience in various choirs, I developed a great love for various types of music, especially Gregorian chant, as well as polyphonic, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music. In particular, the sacred music made in these styles began to fascinate me: the sheer richness and beauty of the Church’s artistic and liturgical traditions attracted me.



At the same time, I was constantly aware that many elements of college life posed a serious challenge to living in accord with the Catholic Faith. The lifestyle of many students, was a far from healthy, with rampant abuse of alcohol and drugs, as well as many offenses against chastity. Perhaps more seriously, it was quite common for students to disbelieve the Church’s teaching on a number of important issues, such as the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood and the inadmissibility of engaging in contraception or homosexual acts. I was convinced, in faith, that the Church’s positions on these issues were correct, but at first I was unable to explain or defend them.



As I did research on these questions, I came across an organization based in San Diego, California, called Catholic Answers. (It can be found in the Internet at http://www.catholic.com.) I was immediately impressed by the clarity of their answers to my questions, as well as the kind and tactful way they presented the Church’s teachings. I soon began to read the articles on their website and to listen to their daily radio show. I found that my appetite for Church doctrine went far beyond the answers to a few moral questions, and so I found myself reading about the Sacraments, Church history, the Bible, and the Fathers of the Church. I was delighted to learn that the Catholic Church did not simply teach a series of unrelated doctrines and moral principles, to be accepted by a simplistic and superstitious faith. What I found instead is that the Church’s teaching makes a coherent whole that is perfectly consonant with reason, and even has, in a way, a rational basis. I was so eager, that I think I learned more about the faith in one year (it would have been my junior year of college) than I had in my whole life up to that point.



How I Heard the Call



A chance event at the end of my junior year turned out to be decisive in my vocation journey. In my freshman year, I chose to live in a dormitory in which alcohol was prohibited. At the end of each year, in order to keep my room, all I needed to do was enter my name and that of a roommate; otherwise, I would be placed in the general room lottery. After my junior year, my old roommate wanted to move to a different dorm; however, I forgot about lining up a new roommate until the day before the deadline. Fortunately, an acquaintance of mine, a chemistry major and fellow choir member named John, happened to be interested in the alcohol-free dorm, and so I agreed to room with him.



John, it turns out, was in contact with some Legionary brothers. In fact, that fall, he became a member of Regnum Christi, the Legionaries’ association for lay persons. In cooperation with the Legionaries, John was trying to organize a club of college students—part of a Legionary initiative called “Compass,” which has since been discontinued—in which the students met periodically, prayed together, and did service projects. I was interested in the initiative, but I was also swamped with senior-year studies—by this time, I had specialized in biochemistry, which is a very study-intensive program—and so my contribution was rather small. An important result of my involvement with the group, however, is that one of the Legionaries invited me to receive monthly spiritual direction, and I accepted. It was something that I had been thinking of doing for some time, ever since I had been reading up more about the Church’s teachings. I expect that Brother noticed how I was very interested in all things Catholic, and saw that a vocation to the priesthood was a possibility for me. He did not, however, suggest it to me immediately. Most of our discussions focused on various aspects of a healthy spiritual life: having a plan to combat one’s vices, forming the moral and theological virtues, increasing one’s Eucharistic devotion, and so on. Moreover, I still had a lot of questions about doctrine and morals.



I graduated in 2000, and then took on a job at a company that runs clinical trials for the pharmaceutical industry. (My job description was called “data management”: I had to proofread a clinical trial’s database, based on the booklets containing the handwritten results.) The Legionary who was giving me spiritual direction invited me several times to visit the seminary in Cheshire, Connecticut—about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from my home—but since I did not at first own a car, I could not accept the invitation at once. When I began my job, my father donated his old car to me, and so I was able to make a weekend visit to Cheshire just before Thanksgiving. The occasion was the ordination of a seminarian to the diaconate: I went, not so much because I suspected that I had a vocation, but because I was curious to find out what seminary life was like and what the seminarians experienced. (Behind this curiosity, there was, I believe, the beginnings of my own attraction to the vocation, but I did not yet recognize it.) When I arrived—delayed by heavy traffic—I was pleasantly surprised to see roughly 100 young seminarians from various Legionary seminaries, all dressed in cassocks and surplices (the white, pleated, ceremonial garments worn over the cassock in solemn ceremonies), not to mention a number of sharply dressed minor seminarians from the Legionary high school in New Hampshire. Having had no experience of seminaries before, before my visit I was under the impression that seminary life was excessively strict and rigid. My fears were greatly allayed at the lunch that followed the ordination Mass: the seminary in Cheshire received a donation of Thanksgiving turkeys from a motorcycle club each year, and the turkeys were delivered that very day (by cyclists dressed in their outfits). I was greatly relieved to see the seminarians joyfully helping them, laughing, and having a good time.



Although I was not yet convinced that I was called to the priesthood, I was sufficiently impressed that I decided to attend a discernment weekend, a “Test-Your-Call” retreat, that January. (Fr. James Shekelton, whose story can be found in this book, was a retreat organizer.) The retreat came and went, and though I had a good time with the other young men, I did not feel any more convinced than before. At the time, I was busy applying to graduate schools so as to continue my biochemistry studies. I did, however, agree to make one more discernment weekend, this time at a quiet time of year without other guests, simply following the novices’ activities. After that experience, I was hooked, and I decided to enter the summer candidacy, a three-month discernment program for entering the novitiate, which was to be held at the seminary in Connecticut.



I made my decision to enter the candidacy in March, but in April I received an acceptance letter from the University of Chicago’s graduate biochemistry program. Following the advice of my spiritual director, I asked the admissions office if there was the possibility of deferring my admission for a year to facilitate the discernment process; to my surprise, the university gave the go-ahead with no problems.



I enjoyed the candidacy tremendously. From the outset, I decided to enter the novitiate if I were accepted. I received notice of my acceptance in late August, notified the university that I would be taking advantage of the one-year deferral, and received my Legionary cassock on September 14, 2001. (In preparation for entering the novitiate, I was on a silent retreat from September 7 to the 14, with no access to news sources. I did not learn about the tragic events of September 11 until the 15th, the day after the retreat ended.)



I Was Not a Perfect Legionary (and Never Will Be)



The novitiate was, however, a much more difficult experience than I expected. Probably the most difficult adjustment for me was that the schedule was very tight and fast-paced: I could never seem to finish one activity before I was asked to move on to the next one. At the same time, there was a lot more manual labor to be done than I was used to. In part because my previous knowledge of French (thanks to my Canadian mother), I was asked to do my novitiate at the French-speaking seminary near Cornwall, Ontario. That seminary was much smaller than the one in Connecticut—it had space for 20 novices—and so the shifts for doing the dishes, cleaning the kitchen, and similar tasks, came up often. Moreover, I still had, as it were, the habits of cleanliness and orderliness of a college student, and so keeping my room clean—while at the same time trying to keep up with the schedule and doing all sorts of household chores—did not come easily. I never quite mastered this juggling act, a fact that helped me understand that I would never be a “perfect” novice or religious, that there would always be room for improvement, both in in external aspects, such as these, and in spiritual growth.



I made my first religious profession in Ontario and then returned to Connecticut to do my year of classical humanities. I had never studied Latin or Greek in depth before, and yet—as with most academic subjects—I enjoyed them to no end. My previous studies in biology were probably a help, because a lot of scientific terms are coined using these languages. I needed all the help in languages I could muster, because when I moved on to Rome for my studies in philosophy I had to learn both Spanish and Italian at the same time: Spanish, because it is the Legionaries’ lingua franca, and Italian, because our university courses are mostly in Italian. The problem is compounded because Spanish and Italian—not to mention French—are so similar that they are easily confused. I was, however, surprised at my progress: I suppose that when someone needs to speak a language just to have someone pass him the salt at dinner, he learns quickly.



Philosophy itself opened a whole new world for me. I had taken a couple of philosophy courses in college, but their approach was historical (explaining what each philosopher said) rather than systematic (making a single, coherent philosophy from the best of all the philosophers). For the first time, I could make convincing answers for a number of questions that I had frequently pondered: Can we know that there is an absolute truth (not just one that depends on me)? Can we rely on what our senses tell us? Can we know with certainty that God exists, using reason alone? I was delighted to be able to argue cogently, for the first time, that the answer to all these questions is in the affirmative. My philosophical studies also helped me to value the contributions of modern science, which I had previously studied so eagerly, while being able to critique the weaknesses of the philosophical presuppositions that often underlie it.



Be Humble, and Also Self-Confident



I obtained my bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and then, as is customary for Legionary seminarians, I was sent to three years of “apostolic internship,” that is, hands-on training for active ministry. Two circumstances during that period helped me to grow more humble, and at the same time, more confident and self-assured. My first assignment was to the territorial directorate—that is, the provincial’s offices—near Atlanta, Georgia. There, I had the good fortune (or bad fortune, depending on the point of view) of replacing a brother—now a holy priest—who was an extremely fast and productive worker. For at least my first three months on the job, I could not even come close to his level of productivity. When a backlog inevitably developed, I made the mistake of trying to get through it myself, without seeking help. One day, however, my boss noticed that some of the correspondence I was in charge of was more than a month behind schedule. After I was roundly scolded for not letting him know about the situation, we then distributed the backlogged work among the secretarial staff: a very simple solution, and an important lesson learned in humility.



The next year, I was assigned to help found a new community on the outskirts of Houston, Texas. Our community was badly understaffed (as often happens at the beginning), and so I was often called to perform duties that I did not expect. On one occasion, for example, a half-day retreat was scheduled—which consisted in a few reflections on a Gospel passage—and it turned out that only one priest was in town that day. He was soon called away to hear confessions, and so I had to step in and give one of the reflections, something I had never done before for adults. At the time, I did not have a high opinion of my own public-speaking ability. Nevertheless, the reflection turned out well, and I gained the confidence to pinch-hit on a number of other occasions as well.



The Crossroads



Due to a vacancy in the secretarial staff, I was called back to the Atlanta offices for my last year of internship: I had a much more pleasant experience than my first year there, since I already knew the ropes. Nevertheless, that year, 2009, the sad realities regarding the conduct of the founder of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi were publically acknowledged for the first time. The news came at a critical moment for me, because my second period of temporary vows was running out, and I had to decide whether to seek a third three-year period, to seek final vows, or else to return to lay life. After some prayer and reflection, I decided to request to make my final vows. I reasoned, first of all, that I had consecrated my life, not to the founder (who turned out to have very grave defects), but to Jesus Christ. Second, it seemed to me that a tribulation such as this was not a sufficient reason to reverse the decision I had made freely and lovingly to the Lord over the course of my time in the Legion. Thus, I received with joy the notice that I was admitted to perpetual profession, and made my vows that summer in Atlanta.



Since my three-year internship was at an end, I was also expecting to receive word to begin my licentiate in philosophy in Rome. Much to my surprise, I was assigned to begin my bachelor’s in theology straight away—which moved my ordination up to this year—and to reside at the General Directorate, rather than the main seminary for philosophy and theology. I was somewhat apprehensive at first, because the assignment entailed having something like a part-time job, while maintaining a full study schedule (and juggling schedules is not, as I have mentioned, my favorite activity). As a subject matter, however, theology was probably the most rewarding I had ever studied, a fact which more than made up for any inconvenience regarding my work. The questions I had begun to answer in philosophy now had their definitive answer in Jesus Christ: Jesus is the Absolute Truth; he left us his Church to show that he is true God; and his presence can even be perceived sensibly in the Eucharist.



His Faithfulness Endures Forever



As ordination approached, I often asked myself if I were truly ready to take on this immense responsibility: I became acutely aware of my own unworthiness, and yet I realized that the vocation was God’s affair, not mine. It was not—to paraphrase John—I who had chosen him, but he who had chosen me, and I had to trust that he would give me the strength I needed. My ordination is now upon me, and I hope and pray that, by God’s grace, I will be a faithful instrument of his. I am well aware that many young men are holier, smarter, funnier, or worthier than I am. I know many who are now priests, including many who were ordained with me this year, but also many who were not called to the priesthood. In his mysterious plan, God chose me. It is his task to see that I will remain faithful: “For great is his steadfast love toward us; and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever” (Psalm 117:2).





Father Louis Melahn, L.C., was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on March 16, 1978, and grew up in the neighboring town of Andover. In 1996, he graduated first in his class from Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he majored in biology, specializing in biochemistry, and graduated magna cum laude in 2000. He entered the Legionaries of Christ as a novice in 2001, making his first profession in Cornwall, Ontario, in 2003, and his perpetual profession in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2009. He obtained a bachelor’s in philosophy and theology from the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical College, and is currently studying there for a licentiate in bioethics


PUBLICATION DATE: 2012-12-03


 
 


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