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Turn to Jesus (Article)

He Makes All Things New
Fr. Andrew Dana Dalton

Fr. Andrew Dana Dalton LC.
Fr. Andrew Dana Dalton LC.
What happens to people in college?

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?

“God, 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 Cathedral.

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 Direction. 

“What’s that?” I wondered, taking a pen.  “I’ll ask him when it’s my turn.”

I couldn’t believe that this young priest was making himself available to talk to me face-to-face.  I had never seen a
Fr. Andrew Dana Dalton LC.
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 Church

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 personal priest!”

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

One 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).

Warming 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!”

Try 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?”

Oh yeah.

This 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 particular.

“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.

God Sets His Sight on Two Fraternity Boys

Who could 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?

Having loved 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.

In Cahoots

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?”

“Boy, 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

I 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.

Afraid 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.

Just 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?

Steak and Beans

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 fall.”

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!”

Sure 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 sale.

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!”

Visiting Cheshire

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 it!

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.”

He 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.”

I 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 trusted.

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.”

I 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 your discernment!”

As soon 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 You

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).

And those 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 college mascot.

Andrew entered 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.



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