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Turn to Jesus (Article)

What the Heart Was Looking For
Fr. Stephen Dardis

Fr. Stephen Dardis LC.
Fr. Stephen Dardis LC.

When most people hear that I am one of ten kids, their reaction is usually, “You must be Catholic then, right?” and “You’re parents are really loving people.” Perhaps it was a prophetic response; in recent years, I’ve often thanked God that affection and Faith (not to mention humor) are now the dominant characteristics of our family. What we all have enjoyed together in recent years is sitting around and visiting: laughs, board-games, and a few cocktails—and then ending with the rosary. My parents both grew up as solid Catholics from large families, and sought to continue the tradition.  I reluctantly fell in the line at number eight, with five older sisters and two brothers, and with two younger girls still to come. The oldest, Anne-Marie, is now married and working in Washington DC.  Mary Kay is married with four kids, working in New York.  Jay—whose Summer Candidacy with the Legionaries had a big influence in my own decision two years later—is now married with nine kids in Baton Rouge (still keeping the tradition).  Bill graduated from Notre Dame and discerned his vocation as a consecrated member of Opus Dei, now teaching in DC.  Suzie is married with her six in New Orleans.  Beth is teaching grammar school and helps us keep the parents in line.  Jeanne lives in Houston with her husband and two little ones.  Of my two younger sisters, Lynne is married with 3 kids in New Orleans—with a husband whom I much admired as a friend in high school—and Katie in DC with her husband and baby boy.

Faith and Family

From the start these two hallmarks were the pillars of our home.  We grew up very close to my grandparents and relatives, which has always been an immense blessing.  Holy Name of Jesus was a beautiful parish, and we knew our priests well and would often have them over for dinner.  My dad’s brother, Br Bill Dardis, SJ—or “Uncle Pigeon”, as we call him—would always be over with his boisterous laugh—making his life of generous service all the more attractive.  My own journey owes a lot to their testimony and joy; I am blessed to have grown up among such dedicated priests, Religious, and devoted Christian families.

Before I was old enough to be an altar boy, my closer sisters and I would have our own “private Mass” in the den—complete with a homily and crushed, frozen bread for hosts.  I looked forward to the day when I would be old enough to really be on the altar, like my older brothers.  Eight years later I was training the younger recruits and was even awarded Altar Server of the Year.

Given the Post-Vatican II “crisis” and frequent confusion about the Faith, it seemed like every month my parents were complaining to the schools about some innovative idea being taught—outside of traditional Church teaching, and unfortunately not just in the Religion classes.  Needless to say this was fairly embarrassing for the kids
Fr. Stephen Dardis LC.
when we knew about it; being marked with “very Catholic” parents sometimes puts a damper on weekend social opportunities—not to mention the classroom.  We were limited on what movies we could watch with friends or at parties.  My friends parents’ usually brought up the question, “what would Steve’s parents think of this?” and if there was under-age drinking, we were to immediately call home and leave the party. 

Who’s First in your Life?

It wasn’t long before my parents, seeing me surrounded by girls both at home and at school, decided to send me to an all-boys middle-school run by the De LaSalle Christian Brothers.  It was a rough adjustment, leaving behind some close guy-friends and having to start over on the social ladder.  While I was big enough to hold my own on the playing field, I shied away from meeting new friends, preferring the solitude. The guys all recognized my “overly Catholic” family, to the point that I let it become a source of shame for several years.  These were somewhat painful times; but it was here that I began to discover a new “Voice” inside of my heart, thanks to that silence and solitude.  As well, although closing my doors more to my parents and “their” Faith, God’s Providence nevertheless led me to some other good mentors to help keep me focused and out of myself.

I always describe the teenage years as “the best of times, and the worst of times”.  I was determined not to stand out as a Catholic anymore (at least, not more than absolutely necessary).  I also got involved in basketball, wrestling, track, choir, and–during the off-season for sports—a little theater.  Four students at our school took their own lives in those years—something that hit me very hard, as I wondered why guys like those would have made such a choice, and—especially—what difference it might have made if I had reached out more to them. It was something I thought a lot about in the months ahead.

Oddly enough, I started attending the daily noon Mass at school (always trying to hide it from both friends and family, so as not to stand out “too much”).I allowed myself to get involved with the Knights of Columbus—but mainly for the free snack that came with the monthly “meeting”.  Fr Boudreaux, SJ, encouraged me to get involved in services for the school and civic community; and at 90 years old, living a daily life of service himself, he was hard to refuse.  With those activities—and much to my personal shock during the awards’ ceremony with over 150 graduating students—I was awarded the “Fr President’s Award for Student Spiritual Leadership”, chosen by the faculty.  It reminded me of something a teacher once said: truly, we never know the impact we have on others, or the example we give.  Towards the end of those “best” and “worst” of times, I considered myself lucky with the friends I’d found, the teachers and priests I’d witnessed, and my very unappreciated parents and family God had given me.

Did Somebody Call?

People ask when was the first time I thought about being a priest.  I distinctly remember a classroom visit from our Pastor, Fr Hawkins, SJ, on that topic in the 4th grade.  There I learned that priests get free food and housing and did not have to work at a “real job”.  What a life! 

The suggestion dwindled a lot during middle school, along with my devotion to my faith given the peer pressure I felt.  By that time, my brother Bill was in Opus Dei, and my sister Anne-Marie in the Regnum Christi Movement (affiliated with the Legionaries of Christ).  With my mom they would often encourage the rest of us to draw closer to the Faith—to which our normal response was, “please quit your preaching”.  At one point Anne-Marie told me about a high school seminary run by the Legionaries.  “I don’t think God wants that for me, right now,” I said—although the “right now” surprised even me, indicating something inside actually wanted that door to stay open.

One experience I will always remember was at a summer camp I went to every year in the mountains of Alabama.  I was known to be at least “fairly Catholic” (despite my best efforts), and as a staff member I got stuck with bringing Catholic campers to Sunday Mass if their parents had asked for that.  (When I started as a camper, my parents had been the first to insist on this, of course). That year, I had not been to confession in months, and it was starting to bother me.  I wasn’t about to make everyone wait on me for that.  Torn with not wanting to miss my opportunity, I finally just left it in Mary’s hands: if God really cared, he could find a solution (…not the most courteous prayer). Mass was ending, and still no solution.  At the last minute, a fellow staff member leaned over and whispered, “Hey, Steve; do you mind waiting a minute?  I kind of want to go to confession.”  I thought, “Wait a minute! Who’s he?  I thought I was the Catholic ‘holy-one’!”  For me that was an answer I couldn’t deny.  Not only did both of us go to confession, but pretty much the entire busload of campers.  That experience of God’s closeness to my prayer—and the Blessed Mother—was overwhelming.

A Difficult Balance to Maintain
I suppose my “calling” truly began shortly afterwards, as a Junior in high school.  My brother Bill convinced me to do a month of missionary work down in Mexico with Opus Dei—primarily for my college résumé and as a means to learn Spanish.  He didn’t mention the daily Mass and other spiritual activities, much less the possibility of scorpions and snakes—all of that came later.  But it served its purpose for my Spanish, as well as God’s other goals. Coming home after a moving four weeks of hard-work and unexpected spiritual depth, I was resolved to rearrange a few priorities.  I broke up with my girlfriend and tried to focus more on where my life was going.  Of course my resolve only lasted for about a month without support from my surroundings, and the priorities soon fell back into their normal hierarchy—with my social life and friends on top, school towards the middle, and God and family at the bottom.

By Senior year I was a little discouraged with the effort, and pretty divided at heart.  My conscience was annoying me and I felt like God was asking more of me.  At a party with friends one night, I remember going outside alone, lying down staring at the stars, and feeling empty inside wondering why so much of me was not enjoying at all what everyone else seemed to enjoy so much.  On a special “Prayer Class” retreat for school with Fr. Schiro, SJ, I found myself in front of a statue of Mary, feeling strongly that God might ask for the priesthood.  My response: “No; I could not do that.” I was trying to be content with a “balance” between my social commitments, my girlfriend, maybe a career as a pilot or doctor, and “keeping God and my conscience satisfied”.  It wasn’t working.

God or Caesar, and All or Nothing.

With college applications, the pressure was on.  I knew that Opus Dei had some sort of vocation “option” in which one can be married yet also live semi-consecrated to God.  When I saw the military scholarships Texas A&M was offering me, and that it was close to an Opus Dei center, I was pretty set on that.  It was even more definitive when I learned that my girlfriend was also heading there. She was very bright and had a faith-background similar to mine; I was curious to see what A&M might have in store.

Being in the Cadet Corp for the military there, I had to give up most of my “freedoms”, so to speak—enduring the freshman 10 month “boot camp” (what they refer to as your “fish year” in the Corps).  There were some pretty miserable moments that year, and on several occasions I wanted to quit.  I remember realizing two things about myself, though.  First, I found that giving up all my possessions and following someone else’s orders (so long as it wasn’t family) really was not that hard for me.  Second, that God was helping me endure more than I thought I could. It was also a definitive moment for my faith; and the question began to enter: “if you can endure so much just motivated by pride and ‘promotions’ in your unit, what about for God and for others?”

St. Mary’s Catholic Church just off-campus was unbelievable.  It was filled with Catholic students who were proud of their Faith, actually enjoyed Mass and Confession, and lived pretty exemplary moral lives—even on the weekends! I had only seen that in Mexico.  They were ahead of me in many respects, and they were truly enjoying life.  I started going more often to Mass—even daily when I realized this excused me from the afternoon push-ups in the Corps dormitories—and got more involved in parish activities. 

Back at the dorm one night, the freshmen cadets were all lined up in formation—another moment for the upperclassmen to catch us off-guard.  Suddenly a sophomore calls out: “Fish Dardis: quote John 3:16 from the Bible for us!”  A long, awkward silence followed.  My group was mostly Protestant, only three Catholics.  I had no idea what that verse said—or any other one, for that matter.  “Oh that’s right,” he finally shouted, “you’re Catholic… you guys don’t read the Bible.”  A few stifled laughs from all of my companions. It was a good shot, and even I smiled though I knew the generalization was false in many cases—especially at St. Mary’s.  But I took his comment as a serious challenge, and started going deeper into what it actually means to be a Catholic.

The Greatest Freedom

The spring of 1998 was filled with graces.  The priesthood was still in the back of my mind, especially with the example of the two priests there, Fr Michael Sis and Fr David Konderla.  I will never forget the Easter Triduum that year. Following the late Vigil Mass, I sat outside and just watched Fr David for a long time.  He was talking with each of the students or couples as they left, and I was struck by the impact his life had as a priest, and the sacrifice he had made for each of these people.  A very scary thought began to penetrate the “barriers” in my soul:  not only could I imagine myself as a priest; maybe I would even really like it. 

I had never before felt so truly free.  There was no fear. I knew that if it were what God wanted, He would overcome all the obstacles.  It finally hit me that God was going to ask of me only and exactly what my heart—at its deepest level—truly wanted.  With my heart welling up as I walked around the block waiting from some sign to flash across the sky, or whatever.  I prayed, “Okay, Lord.  You win.  You know what I want.  If you really want this, you’ll take care of it.”  As another Legionary described his experience many years later, it seemed the beginning of a contract, of sorts: if God did his part, I would do mine. He would lead, and I would follow that lead.  The door to the priesthood was opened.

Around that same time, my mom invited me to go to Rome that Summer with Regnum Christi.  She got the usual response: “Keep your Regnum Christi stuff to yourself, Mom.” But then I added—to my own surprise—“Besides, it’s not my time yet.”  That “yet” threw me off—again.  I thought for a while, and then called her back and allowed her to put me on the waiting list.  With a subtle help from a friend of hers, Didi Lagarde, my name made it to the boarding list, and I was Rome-bound.  The unforgettable moment was when Fr. Patrick Murphy got our small group behind the Pope during the Pentecost Mass.  As Pope John Paul II was processing out, he stopped at our section, and gestured as if wanting us to jump over the barricades and go up to him.  The security guards opposed that unlikely endeavor, so John Paul simply smiled at us, waved, and went on.  I found out later that I wasn’t the only one feeling the same message there from the Vicar of Christ: “Come, follow me.  Help me bring Christ to souls.” 

My brother Jay had done the Legion’s discernment “Candidacy” program a couple summers before, and was now very involved as a lay person in Regnum Christi.  In ’96 they had helped him see that God was leading him to something other than the priesthood.  (Nine kids later, he’s certain they were right.)  With that on my mind in 1998, though, I was open not only to the priesthood, but also to the Legion’s discernment process.  They were not simply recruiting numbers, they were sincerely interested in helping young men discern God’s path for their lives.

Still amazed at the way my life was changing and what God seemed to be reaffirming in various ways—and without wasting any time—I received a call from Fr. Murphy inviting me to the Indianapolis Convention for Regnum Christi in July.  (My mom had already invited me, and I’d told her no.)  I couldn’t say no to Fr. Patrick, so I got a ticket and joined three other siblings who were going.  That 3-day weekend could make this testimony go on forever.  At the end of it, though, one conviction was clear: “I guess it’s time for me to stop running away from this…”  I did not go home afterwards.  I told Jay to let Dad know, and I stayed on with the Candidates to visit the Novitiate in Cheshire.  There I entered the Candidacy—to my parents’ unhappy surprise at first. (Later I learned how the Gospel story of the boy Jesus staying behind at the Temple without telling his parents, so as to follow the Father’s Will, became a great source of comfort over the next three months).

A Woman Behind the Scenes?       

The rest of the story is a history of knowing what God is asking, recognizing there a desire my own heart truly wants, and striving to keep myself faithful and focused on that target.  Not long after entering the Novitiate, however, I learned about a “behind-the-scenes” incident, so to speak, that shed still more light on this journey. Those earlier years had been trying times for my own faith, but also for that of my siblings—and my parents knew it.  During a particularly difficult period, they saw us all struggling with our faith, and easily tending away from it amidst the pressures.  At some point my mother found herself in front of a statue of Mary, and prayed very hard.  She placed each of us in Mary’s hands, for the Blessed Mother to raise us and make up for what was lacking in their efforts.  This was around 1992.  Very shortly thereafter, Bill would discover Opus Dei while at Notre Dame University.  A year later, Anne-Marie was to devote her life to God through the Regnum Christi Movement and all that those years offered her.  Twelve more months and Jay would be guided on the path through the Legion and Regnum Christi, becoming a devoted husband and exemplary Christian father.  Two years more, and I was in the Novitiate of a Religious Order respected for its zeal for the needs of souls, its love for Christ and the Blessed Mother, and its enduring devotion to the Successor of Peter.  Mary had been faithful to my mother’s prayer; and her favors continue to this day.  Each of us has felt Mary extend her maternal hand into our lives, with gifts for which we are forever grateful.



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