What happens to people in college?
|Fr. Andrew Dana Dalton LC.|
One restless night
during my Senior year in high school, I finally tore
off the covers and got down on my knees.
I had been mulling over one of life’s big
questions: Who will I become when I go off
to live on my own? Earlier that day a friend
from church had shared some horror stories about some
good guys who went off the deep end after
just one year at Notre Dame… and what about
me? Would I lose my faith or throw away
my soul one day?
come what may, but never let me be parted from
you,” I cried out from the bottom of my
heart. I promised him that I would do my
best to remain in his friendship no matter what.
In the fall of 1999, my
good friend, Josh Teague, and I were moving in to
our freshman dorm. In this defining moment, everyone
on the hall was busy building a name for himself.
We knew immediately where to find the leaders, the
rebels, the jocks, etc. “Josh, what do you say
we post John 3:16 on our front door?” Everyone would
know who we were from the start.
Josh agreed, and so it was.
We noticed that our Bible verse didn’t impede the
flow of friendly visitors. On the contrary, our place became
a favorite hang-out. We soon befriended “Supafly,” our
one-of-a-kind Resident Assistant (RA), who was always sporting wild pants,
earrings and yellow shades. You might have met
him on MTV’s “Real World” as Matt Smith, where he
went by his real name. Besides his eccentric flare,
we actually had a lot in common. Most of
all, we were both passionate about our Catholic faith.
Matt invited me to join him in youth work as
a Life Teen Core Member at Christ the King
A Spiritual Dud
At the Cathedral I met Nicholas Azar,
a humble, holy man, and a Core Member too.
(Years later, he’d enter the seminary, and he is
now a priest.) Nicholas invited me to a half-day
young men’s retreat, guided by Fr. Scott Reilly, LC.
His meditation on the “manliness” of Christ, as seen
through the Passion, left a lasting impression. “This priest
knows Christ like a living friend. I wish I
could talk to him one-on-one and learn his secret,”
I thought. Then I saw the sign-up list for Spiritual
I wondered, taking a pen. “I’ll ask him when
it’s my turn.”
believe that this young priest was making himself available to
talk to me face-to-face. I had never seen a
priest do that before. He asked me about
my prayer life, college, and my involvement with the teens.
“I love working with teens,
and I really get in to preparing retreats and Life
Nights for them, but I’ll be real honest, Father:
I know how aggressive college life can be, and
I’m concerned that some of my guys might not persevere.
At times I feel a burning desire to bring
souls to heaven, but what comes of it? Despite
my efforts and heroic aspirations, I fear I could be
spinning my wheels, getting nowhere. I’m a bomb that
never explodes, a spiritual dud!”
Finding my Family within the
He laughed but wasted no time presenting the
Regnum Christi (RC) Movement to me. The RC principle
of striving for the “most effective” apostolate, in breadth
and depth, resonated deeply with my longings to make
a difference on society. Regnum Christi would help me
grow spiritually, if I nourished myself with a steady
sacramental diet and a committed prayer life. The Movement wasn’t
doing apostolate or seeking holiness haphazardly. This Catholic
family had structure and substance to it—just what I wanted!
As we concluded, Fr.
Scott asked, “Why don’t you come see me every two
weeks, and we’ll check up on how you’re doing?”
I jumped at the opportunity, thinking “Wow, my own
The other lay
members of the Movement astounded me with their spiritual maturity
and generous service to the Church. One young
man, for example, drove over an hour from his college
in north Georgia to take part in our biweekly
Eucharistic Hour and Bible study.
On the Feast
of Christ the King, 2000, Fr. Scott incorporated me into
the Movement, giving me a Bible, crucifix, and RC
Commitment Card, and I took my promise to be
a faithful follower of Christ very seriously. In the first
moment of solitude after the ceremony, I drummed ecstatically
on my steering wheel, overjoyed by my blessing and
call. Back on campus, I proudly posted my new
Commitment Card on my refrigerator.
A Technicolor Dream Comes True
summer day, a fraternity brother of mine suggested that I
try out for a part in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s
musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” being put
on by a semi-professional theatre out of Greater Atlanta Christian
School. I took the bait, and my amateur
skills landed me the all-important role of Isaachar, one of
Joseph’s brothers. Over several weeks of rehearsal, I befriended
many Protestants, including the star of the show. Joseph’s real
name was Jared Thomas. One night after rehearsal, Jared invited
me to Burger King, where he hit me with
a real whopper: “I want to become Catholic and
I want you to be my sponsor!”
Surprised and delighted, I accepted, and for the
next year, Jared would commute from UGA in Athens,
and I would drive from Georgia Tech in Atlanta and
we’d meet at the Cathedral for RCIA (Rite for
Christian Initiation of Adults), putting aside our college rivalry
for an evening of faith and fellowship. He would come
into the Catholic Church the following Easter.
When relating Jared’s conversion story to my
mother, she exclaimed, “There’s some crown waiting in heaven
for you, boy!” But to be honest, I had
done nothing at all. It wasn’t my apologetical skills or
exemplary virtue that wooed Jared to Catholicism; that was
the Lord’s work. Nevertheless, God wanted me to taste the
joy of being a “fisher of men” (Mt 4:19).
Up to the Priesthood
Half-way through RCIA (Fall 2000),
Jared invited me on an 11-day pilgrimage to Rome with
the Legionaries of Christ for young men discerning the
priesthood. Neither of us was remotely interested in becoming
a priest, but the $250 price-tag was a godsend to
bachelors like us. Besides, as an Industrial Design major with
a two semesters of Art History under my belt,
Rome’s artistic treasures tugged irresistibly on my romantic heart.
Though I came to Rome
as a tourist, God was silently sowing seeds in my
heart. Needless to say, I was enamored with the city’s
charm and captivated by its splendid basilicas, but the
human and spiritual qualities of our Legionary guide, Br.
John Bartunek, impressed me above all … and yet
not so much that I would willingly sacrifice our one
free day to participate in the optional retreat.
Only with the serious arm-twisting from
my Protestant friend did I make that step. I
was ultimately grateful to Jared, though, and asked him
afterwards, “Do you think God might be calling you to
the priesthood?” He immediately replied, “No way, he
wants me to be married.” His eyes conveyed that
this was his sincere conviction. “How about you?” he asked
me. I answered: “I wish I had your same confidence!”
Soon after my sojourn abroad,
I found myself in French class back at Georgia Tech.
When my professor learned how I had gone to
Rome with 120 young men considering the priesthood, she asked,
“Oh, are you…?” The eyes of the (predominantly
female) classroom converged on me as I said, “Je suis
ouvert à ça.” The real shocker came later though, when
I reflected upon my own words. “Wow, I
guess I really am open to becoming a priest!”
on the Shoes
Openness didn’t mean I was taking any
concrete steps, but one day I felt the urge to
ask my spiritual director, “Fr. Scott, how do you
know if you have a call to the priesthood?”
We talked it out, and
he gave me a book on discernment, Peter on the
Shore by Fr. Anthony Bannon, LC, but evidently the
enemy wasn’t eager for me to read Fr. Anthony’s
book. Right when I got home, Jared called and
got me excited about another book about another kind of
discernment: Boy Meets Girl by Joshua Harris. Peter was
destined to collect dust for the next few months,
as I purified my worldly vision of dating with a
more Christian idea of courtship. I eventually came
back to Fr. Scott with my vocational itch, however. He
said, “Didn’t I give you a book?”
time I read it cover to cover. It was
divided into two parts. First, God speaks: vocation as
presented by God’s Word. Then, man objects to the
call: I’m too young; I’m in debt; I want to
get married; I don’t have the support of my
family, etc. This book helped my general understanding, but
I still didn’t know if God was calling me in
“Obviously!” Fr. Scott exclaimed.
“You don’t buy a pair of shoes without trying
them on first. If you want to know if
this is for you, Andrew, you need to visit the
seminary.” That was just the sort of practical
wisdom I needed to hear. I decided to visit
the Legionary seminary in Cheshire, CT, … eventually.
His Sight on Two Fraternity Boys
I talk to about these ideas, at once exciting and
confusing? My good friend and fraternity brother, JJ Hernandez,
became the perfect listener. But he wasn’t much of
a talker at first. He didn’t tell me that
he had begun to think about the priesthood too.
Finally, he spilled the beans. What a consolation to have
a friend who understood and experienced the same sentiments!
We decided we’d visit
Cheshire together. The enemy must have been tapping our
conversations and thought, “Such noble aspirations mustn’t go unchallenged.”
I fell prey to his wiles and soon put
off my visit until “some time next year.” For four
years I had been longing for a certain summer
job, and I was finally old enough to qualify. After
applications and interviews, my dream came true, and I
wasn’t about to let it slip by.
When I was 16, I had participated
in the Governor’s Honors Program (GHP), a six-week summer
program at Valdosta State University for about 300 talented
high-schoolers who love to learn and excel. Palm trees,
good friends, the best toys (all on Uncle Sam’s tab,
mind you), and no parents – what more could
a teenager want?
my summer as a French major and Art minor, I
relished the idea of returning to Valdosta as an
RA once I turned 20. The RAs were in charge
of imbuing campus with mystique. Since I thrived off
of environments like this one, I couldn’t believe they
actually wanted to pay me to do what I
thoroughly enjoyed. But GHP and the summer discernment program
in Cheshire were two mutually exclusive options. God would
have to wait.
Savvy to my plan to procrastinate
my discernment retreat for the sake of GHP, JJ
leaked my stingy intentions to the Legionaries. That’s when
I got a phone call. Since I was unaware
of the JJ’s surreptitious scheming, I was awed that,
with just a few questions, Fr. Scott was able to
place his finger squarely on the issue: if I
take my dream job, I bump God’s plan off
my list of priorities. “Wouldn’t it be better to
give God the first shot?”
these Legionaries are sharp,” I thought! Fr. Scott
had me. If God wanted me at the summer
discernment program, I had to visit Cheshire ASAP. If, on
the other hand, I discovered there that I didn’t
have a priestly calling—all the better—, then I could do
as I liked. The very idea of turning down
the GHP offer killed me, but in good conscience,
I couldn’t destroy my chance to know God’s will.
When JJ then nonchalantly suggested that we go together
to Cheshire for the Test Your Call (TYC) Retreat
during Holy Week, I never imagined that I was playing
into his master plot.
A Climactic Easter
would pull a similar number on JJ soon enough.
Since he was from out of state and always struggling
to cover tuition, I arranged for my father to
give him a Delta Buddy Pass to Cheshire. What I
had severely miscalculated, however, was that the TYC Retreat
coincided with Jared’s big day. Even my spiritual director agreed
that, as Jared’s sponsor, I needed to be in
Atlanta for the Easter Vigil.
JJ might bail out if he knew I was
no longer going, I simply didn’t tell him – at
least, not until the last minute. As I
drove him to the airport, I lamented that he was
“beating me to the punch” but urged him nonetheless
to take plenty of pictures and to give me the
full report upon his return. If favorable, I’d visit
later on in May.
hours before his sacramental incorporation into the Catholic Church,
Jared unwrapped my gift in the corridor of the
parish hall. I knew Peter was his favorite saint, but
I never imagined he would have erupted with such
joy to see the gold necklace with a medal
of St. Peter. What a spiritual satisfaction to witness
my friend become a member of God’s covenant family.
Inklings of what I was made for perhaps?
A few weeks later, my fraternity was celebrating Steak
and Beans at a tavern in Midtown. As Scholarship
Chair, it was my responsibility at the close of
a semester to reward the academic achievers with a
steak dinner and to motivate the underachievers with beans. Shortly
before midnight, JJ took the microphone.
“I want to let everyone know that as
of tomorrow, all of my belongings are for sale: my
car, my computer, my ties (JJ had some very
stylish ties!), everything. I’ll be joining the seminary next
I was floored! JJ
had only 21 credit hours till graduation and a
serious girlfriend, and here he was jumping ship to
follow Christ. His prompt generosity and conviction challenged me
deeply, but this was no time for nerves to get
in the way of my event. I took the
microphone to close the evening’s festivities. Intuiting the
thoughts of my fraternity brothers, I boldly announced, “I won’t
be joining the seminary, but just so everyone knows,
JJ’s ties are mine!”
enough, I ended up inheriting half of JJ’s garage sale:
the office chair, desk lamp, Palm Pilot, and of
course quite the array of neckties. Little did I
know I’d soon be the peddling the same merchandise for
the same reasons for which they were now on
Late one night, JJ
and I sat on the front steps of Delta Upsilon
fraternity house, flipping through the pictures from his retreat
in Cheshire. I was moved by the fire in his
eyes as he passionately recalled the graces. “Everyone
is like you there. You’ve got to go, Andrew.
You’ll love it!”
A British seminarian, Br. James
Shekelton picked me up from the airport, and I
liked him from the start. He was witty, natural
and spiritually mature for his age. As we zoomed
down the highway, I thought I’d break the ice with
a profoundly religious question… “So, do you like Oasis
(a British band I was in to)?”
“I used to,” Br James replied
without missing a beat. It didn’t take long to figure
out he had acquired a loftier set of ideals
in life. As soon as I set foot on
the property of the novitiate, it dawned on me
that I was in a completely unique place. Dozens
of talented young men who could easily be laying hold
of the American dream were consecrating their lives to
the Lord instead, and they were contagiously happy about
I purposefully arrived five
days early for the TYC retreat because I wanted to
get a taste of unseasoned life in the seminary.
I accompanied the seminarians not only for Mass and
spiritual talks but also in P. E., choir practice,
and Latin class. Like the seminarians I had my
own cubicle, and the austerity left abundant space in
our hearts for Christ to be our sole banquet; never
had I feasted so sumptuously! The week flew
by, and I was thoroughly impressed.
“But I still don’t know if God is calling
me to this life. I haven’t received any thunder bolts,”
I told the retreat master in a one-on-one dialogue
just minutes before heading off to the airport.
He laughed. “I honestly don’t know
if you have a Legionary vocation, Andrew, but I
do know this. There are natural desires and supernatural
desires. To pursue a successful career, to marry, to
raise a family: these are natural desires that every
man feels. To feed souls with the Eucharist, to
preach the Gospel of salvation, to reconcile sinners with
God, to be another Christ in a world that’s dying
for lack of him: these are supernatural desires.
If God has placed these on your heart, then
perhaps you should consider if God is inviting you to
take the next step.”
didn’t get half-way through that sentence before hot tears
came welling up in my eyes. In this moment
of grace, God made it clear that he was
indeed extending such an invitation. How could I say no?
I resolved there and then
to participate in the summer discernment program. Of course, that
meant I would have to forego GHP. So be
it! I determined to resign my services just days
before they were to begin.
Hurdles at Home
Meanwhile, certain voices
began to rise in opposition. My father was especially
convincing when he appealed to my sense of justice.
“You have given your word to this summer job.
You can’t quit now.”
felt utterly trapped. God wanted me in Cheshire, but
it wouldn’t be virtuous to wiggle out of my commitment.
Confused and anxious, I called the priest I most
My spiritual director saw
clearly what I couldn’t. “Why don’t you contact the
director and let him know your situation? You don’t
have to say, ‘I’m out. Too bad for you.’
If it really is God’s will that you go to
the seminary, God will present a solution.”
obediently drafted an email explaining my bind, but as
I sent it off, I felt no hope that
a positive response was possible at this late juncture. I
was foolishly putting limits on God. Less than three hours
later, the phone rang. It was the director. “I
just wanted to let you know that I completely
understand your circumstances. My own brother went off to
seminary. Andrew, we were able to find a substitute.
Feel free to go, and may God bless you in
as I hung up, my feet were in the air.
Thankfully, my parents weren’t home because I did a
flip on their king-size bed. God had spoken! I
was going to the seminary!
It Was I Who Chose
The rest of my vocation story is virtually a
foregone conclusion. By the grace of God, I whole-heartedly
embraced my calling from the start and have always believed
in it. Over time, the steady nourishment of God’s
blessings and my own abiding sense of homecoming have given
me the assurance that I have found my place
within the Church, so that even when my vocation was
challenged, one deep-seated conviction helped me persevere: “It was
not you who chose me, but I who chose
you” (Jn 15:16).
challenges would come. My best friend, Josh, was so
troubled that I was going to consecrate myself to God
in celibacy, that he consulted his Protestant minister. “Why
would someone do such a thing?”
“Maybe he feels guilty!” was the reply.
So late one night, just days before
leaving home for good, I sat on the back stoop
of Alpha Xi Delta sorority house, trying to convince
Josh that my real motives lay elsewhere. We looked
at 1 Corinthians 7 together, where St. Paul expresses
his wish that all men were like him, referring
to his celibate state. We looked at Matthew 19,
where Christ declares that some people are called to
give up marriage for the sake of the Kingdom. Finally,
we considered the fact that Jesus himself chose not
to marry. With that came Josh’s verdict: “I knew
you were a good Christian!” Later he’d defend me
before those friends who tended to criticize.
But the most heart-wrenching experience came while
packing my bags the night before leaving for Cheshire.
My father walked in to my room silently and
sat down Indian style against the wall. Then he began
to reminisce out loud about all our good times
together: wrestling in the living room, hiking in Yosemite,
skiing on the lake, cheering me on at my
tennis matches or cross-country races. “And I just don’t
see why…why it has to come to an end!” His
voice cracked and then he burst into loud sobs.
I had never
seen my dad like this before.
Through the tears, I forced out the
conviction of my heart: “This isn’t the end, Dad. This
is only a new beginning. God will bless it, you’ll
see.” He stood up and hugged me so hard; I
knew it was an agony for him to let
me go (and I won’t even begin to tell what
my mother offered up at the altar of sacrifice).
I respect my parents so much for their faith-filled
support, despite the pain involved. I would never have
been drawn to the priesthood, if they had not
laid down their lives for me.
I’ll never forget the flight to Connecticut.
As I looked out the window, a blanket of clouds,
set on fire by the setting sun, blocked all
view of the earth below, as if Nature itself concurred
that the life I had been constructing up until
that point lay definitively in the past. As I
gazed upon this breath-taking skyscape, I thought, “Lord, you
are making all things new!”
Andrew was born in Honolulu, HI, in 1981,
the third and youngest child of Mary and Dan
Dalton. He grew up in a Catholic home with
his two older sisters, Cara and Jessica. In 1999,
he graduated from Lassiter High School in Marietta, GA, as
Valedictorian, National Honor Society President, Robert C. Byrd Scholar,
Mr. LHS, and Marietta’s top Scholar Athlete. He
discovered his Legionary vocation as a Sophomore at Georgia Tech,
where he proudly represented his school as Buzz, the
the novitiate in Cheshire in 2001, where he spent two
years building foundations for the spiritual life before professing
vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. He remained in
Connecticut for humanistic studies until 2004. After two
years in Rome, he obtained a degree in Philosophy. From
2006 to 2009, he worked apostolically with the youth
in Washington, DC, Bordeaux and Paris. Having completed his first
degree in Theology (2012), he will remain in Rome
as a priest to specialize in Biblical Theology.