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Turn to Jesus (Article)

The Truth Will Set You Free
Father Tobias Völkl LC (Germany)

P. Tobias Völkl , L.C.
Fr. Tobias Völkl , LC

White and blue are the colors of the Bavarian flag. It is said that they reflect the clear, transparent skies, sprinkled with some white clouds, on a summer day in this German state, as it is shown on the typical tourist postcards.

I was born in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, on June 11, 1971 as the first of two brothers in a Catholic family. The reality of Bavaria now, however, is not as picture perfect as it appears. Although it used to be a region whose culture was permeated by the Catholic faith, the influence of secularism did not spare it, even more in the city than in the countryside.

This reality took its toll on my faith, too. My understanding and experience of my Catholic faith as a living reality did not grow at the same pace as the other areas of my education. It didn’t even help much that the parish church was almost next door to my house. On Sundays, I attended Mass as I had learned from my parents, but during the rest of the week, I did not give much thought to the fact that the Lord was there. This was symptomatic of the division in my life, which grew more and more as I became older, even though I did not notice it. In a large part of my life, God did not play any role, even though there still was some consciousness and some unrest in my interior because I often felt that there had to be more to life than just studies and some diversions and the search for pleasure on the weekends.

In this environment, I finished high school. I did not hesitate long before deciding to pursue a career in mechanical engineering and registering at the University of Technology in Munich. Probably God had already called me to the priesthood during those years, but I was in no way open to perceive his calling. I remember that I had some isolated thoughts about becoming a priest, but I quickly left them aside by saying to myself that they were only due to momentary frustrations with my studies. A few people had asked me why I had not entered the seminary, but surprisingly enough, these questions did not come from people with a religious background who would have seriously wanted to help me find my vocation. Rather, they came from people who had little to do with the Church and who probably considered it already something extraordinary that I went to Mass every Sunday.

My studies at the university in Munich were hard and absorbed almost all of my time, but I had success in them and I found them very interesting. I seemed to have found my way there. Although I soon concentrated my interest on more theoretical questions of basic science, I also profited a lot from the required practical training. I applied successfully to one of the few summer training positions for university engineering students at Germany’s largest
P. Tobias Völkl , L.C.
Fr Tobias with Fr Sylvester Heereman in Bamberg, Germany, during the Pentecost Mass in the 2008 Youth and Family Encounter.
aerospace company (now part of the company European Aerospace and Defense Systems). There I learned more about many interesting programs, from the production of rocket engines for the European “Ariane” rocket to the assembly of helicopter engine systems.

Altogether, I studied for four years in Munich. But as the years went on, my inner dissatisfaction grew. My success in my studies had not brought the desired fulfillment. An idea grew in me that I had to change something with my life, but I still only thought in worldly categories. So I made up my mind to study abroad, at least for a year. This seemed attractive to enhance my career opportunities, but even more importantly, I hoped to have a new start in life in a new environment. The United States of America was my preferred destination, and in particular the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. I also applied to some other universities, however, because I was by no means sure that Caltech would accept me. But the research opportunities at Caltech corresponded particularly well to my interests.

It took a lot of effort for me to understand the American university system and to put together the application material with the required standardized test scores and letters of recommendation. But after more than a year of preparation, I had the admission letter from Caltech in my hands. Thanks to scholarships I had obtained before from the Bavarian state and the German federal government, together with the income from some paid research work I had done for institutes at the university in Munich, the financing for the first year was assured.

California Dreaming

On a summer day of 1995, I arrived at the Caltech campus. It was a moment I had dreamt of during all the time of preparation. The first days were rather difficult, since I arrived on a Friday evening, when all the university offices were already closed, and there was nobody to receive me. So it was very helpful for me to come across the schedule of a Sunday Mass on campus in a Caltech information brochure with the listing of all the student clubs. When I came to the designated place, I found a small group of students and other participants who had already gathered for Mass and who warmly welcomed me as a new member of the Caltech community.

When the priest arrived, I was really impressed, not only by his exterior with the Roman collar, which made him clearly recognizable as a priest, and which I had never seen used by a priest in Germany, but above all by the friendliness and serenity with which he treated everybody. Only later did I learn that the priest, Father Brian Wilson, belonged to a congregation called the Legionaries of Christ, which I had never heard of before. Although I do not remember any particulars of that Mass, I recall how impressed I was by the profound recollection with which Father Brian celebrated the Mass. In this way, he gave it the dignity it deserved, even though the surroundings were rather plain, since we did not have a chapel on campus. So I happily returned every Sunday for Mass, and probably because of my German punctuality, I was soon put in charge of the “sacristy,” which meant preparing the sacred vessels and putting together the wooden altar, which was stored in three pieces during the week.

But during the rest of the week, I continued living rather far from God. I soon found out that the studies at Caltech were very interesting, as I had hoped, but in the end the change of location did not bring about the desired change in my life. A question remained in my mind: for what end was I living with all the pressure to perform well on the exams and comply with all the other requirements of the studies? Success in my academic work at Caltech was still not enough to give meaning to my life.

Still, for the moment I saw no other way than to stay at Caltech and I was happy when at the end of my first year, after successfully completing the Master’s degree, I was offered a position with financial support which allowed me to pursue studies for a doctorate. My thesis project, on which I now began to work, had to do with the numerical simulation of nonlinear, turbulent flows on the computer. It was a rather theoretical topic, but that was what I preferred. Since it was part of a large United States government program, the research conditions were excellent, and I had access to some of the largest computers existing at that time in the world. One of them was called “Blue Nirvana” and so I found myself spending many hours in the Nirvana, but fortunately only in this virtual version, which consisted of thousands of lines of computer code and gigabytes of numbers, which were the result of all these efforts.

So my doctorate, on which I worked from 1996 to 2000, made good progress, although it meant many hours of tiring work. But even the prospect of a scientific career did not make me feel better about my future, and the obstacles in my daily life, which brought me further away from God, were growing at this time.

Freedom at Last

This only changed when a fellow student at Caltech, who had consecrated his life to God in the Opus Dei prelature, undertook the effort of leading me to a new discovery of the Catholic faith. Thus I experienced that the meaning of true friendship is seeking the best for the other person, and this experience helped me a lot to understand what it means that Jesus Christ wants to be my best friend. This friend persisted in inviting me kindly first to daily Mass and to some moments of prayer, then also to the center where he lived with two priests and other consecrated members. When I finally gave in and got to know this community, they gave me a great example of offering up their daily work and seeking to win others for Christ. Above all, I became convinced of their authenticity by their joy and their charity, which I immediately experienced as I visited their house for the first time. Only then did I begin to understand what it really means to live as a Christian.

This friend of mine also gave me the push I needed to make a good confession after a long time without frequenting this sacrament. With this, my life really changed. After I had received absolution after such a long time, I experienced great interior peace and also a deep conviction that from now on, with the grace of God, I would lead a life no longer in contradiction to my baptism, but corresponding to the love of Christ which I had experienced. Everything in the Catholic faith now seemed to make sense to me: the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession, whose frequent reception would give me the graces to persevere in these resolutions, the daily prayers, to which I became accustomed, and which kept me in contact with God as the fountain of my new life, and the wish to share this joy with others.

In this way, Christ became ever more the real center of my life. Because of this, the thought emerged that I could consecrate my life completely to him. At first, I had no clear idea where and how this could be, although I already felt a strong attraction to the priesthood. Therefore, it never really came to my mind to think of consecrating my life to God in Opus Dei, whose charism is mainly to sanctify oneself and others through ordinary work. On the other hand, I also thought that, after the life I had led so far, I was completely unworthy of receiving such a great gift as the priesthood. At first, therefore, I did not pay much attention to these thoughts and did not talk about them with anybody. Rather, I tried to live my daily life of work at the university as a Christian.

In addition, I looked for opportunities to do some active apostolate. First, I participated in a Caltech volunteer program, where my task was to help children in an underprivileged neighborhood of Pasadena with their mathematics assignments. But I was looking for something where I could work more directly for the Church and was glad to be invited to help at least in a small way with the Opus Dei youth activities, accompanying the children and giving moral and spiritual orientation to some of them. Later on, I could also help more actively in the Newman Center of Caltech, run by the Legionaries of Christ.

In the year 2000, Father Andrew Mulcahey, L.C., became the new chaplain for Caltech. Through him, I was even nominated to receive an award from the diocese of Los Angeles for my aid in the campus ministry. Although this was more due to the fact that the other students helped even less than me in the Newman Center activities, this rather curious event also helped to promote our activities and foster our ties with the diocese and the local parish, St. Philip the Apostle, where I liked to attend the weekday Mass every morning. One morning, the parish priest came up to me after Mass and showed me the diocesan newspaper, which had an article about the awards ceremony with a photo of all the students who had received an award, including me. The priest was happy that his parish was mentioned, since in the nomination for the award, Father Andrew had written that I belonged to this parish and attended Mass there every weekday. Even more, in the nomination he had also said that I was thinking of becoming a priest. Since it was read publicly in the little awards ceremony, it also served to give testimony of the vocation to the priesthood, and some of the attending diocesan priests and students from other universities commented positively about my plans.

At that time, I had already begun to think more explicitly about a religious vocation because I was finishing my thesis work and had to think about the time afterwards. In the year 2000, I was awarded the doctorate. On the diploma, the old motto of Caltech appeared: “The truth shall set you free”. This Gospel quote had become true for me in a very special way: God had led me to Caltech to find people who helped me discover my faith and come back to Christ, in whom I had found true freedom. Even more, in the time there I had become open to his call to religious life and the priesthood.

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”

The impulse of taking the step to actively discern such a vocation came after I read the book “The First Jesuits” about Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the foundation of the Society of Jesus. The example of this great saint convinced me that it was worth every effort to find out if God in his mysterious plan of salvation could call even someone like me to the priesthood and to religious life. The most obvious thing would have been to go to the Legionary priests who had known me for the longest time, and talk to them about this. But at that time, I did not see things that clearly.

Another factor was that I had had very little familiarity with the newer movements and congregations in the Church before coming to the United States. Because of this, I first looked to the older religious orders which I had known, at least by name, already from Germany. I found very good priests there, who helped me advance in my prayer life and grow in the confidence that God had called me to the priesthood. I was even ready to enter the novitiate of one of these religious orders, but after a long wait the provincial superior told me that even though he saw in me a possible vocation to the priesthood and even to his order, he considered it better for me to wait before entering the novitiate. At that time, I did not understand this decision, and at first it was a big shock for me.

Fortunately already before the decision came, I had made up the resolution to take it to Christ in the Eucharist, no matter what it would be. So after the phone call in which I learned about the decision, the first thing I did was to go to the parish church, which was only a few blocks away. The Eucharist was reserved there in a beautiful side chapel; in one of the stained glass windows, the scene of Jesus with his disciples after his Eucharistic discourse was depicted; at the bottom, there were written the words of Saint Peter: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6, 68). There, before the Eucharist, I renewed my decision not to let myself be separated again from Christ, but to persevere in any case, with the help of his grace, in a life close to him, through the sacraments and regular prayer.

At first, after the disappointing response I had received, I thought that I had to give up the thought of a religious vocation altogether and continue with my scientific career, even though it did not seem very attractive to me anymore. Through my contact with Christ, the attraction of following him more closely never went away completely and soon became stronger again. I realized, therefore, that I had to continue looking for the right way to carry out the vocation God had in mind for me.

Finally, by closing other doors, God led me to the place where I was supposed to be, as I soon found out. At that time, I did not know what to do anymore, and so I went back to the Legionary priests, who had always supported me when they had heard about my vocational plans, even though at first I had told them only that I was interested in another religious order. They continued supporting me now and helped me to get to know the Legion of Christ. Soon I realized that this was the place I had always been looking for. This conviction was only confirmed when I visited the Legionaries’ Center for Higher Studies and the Regina Apostolorum in Rome on the occasion of a pilgrimage organized by the Legion for young men from the United States at the end of the Jubilee Year 2000 for the 60th anniversary of the Legion’s foundation. On that occasion, in Rome, I also decided to become a member of Regnum Christi, a step which came very naturally after I had already been receiving regular spiritual direction from Father Andrew and had been helping in the apostolate of the Newman Center.

“Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10, 39)

Finally, in the summer of 2001, I was ready to enter the Legion’s summer program for vocational discernment, which took me first to San Diego and then to the Legion’s novitiate in Cheshire, Connecticut. In general, I felt at home immediately, but after my past experiences I still had some doubts about whether I was going to be accepted, especially because I was one of the oldest candidates. But at the end of the summer program, all my fears proved to be unnecessary since I was told that I had been accepted to the novitiate, and that I would go back to Germany to do it there.

In September of 2001, I arrived in Bad Münstereifel, a small town in a beautiful, hilly countryside about one hour south of Cologne. There I received my Legionary cassock and spent my two years of novitiate. The life of prayer, work and study, together with the necessary recreational hikes in the beautiful surroundings, did not cause me difficulties at all. But little by little I found out that I still had to learn a lot because I was still missing the most important thing if I was to follow Christ in this vocation: I had to learn to forget myself in order to gain Christ. Until then, even in the discernment of my vocation, I had thought a lot about myself and what would be good for me, but now I had to learn that following Christ meant thinking about him and others, and that only if I made this true in my life would I be able to come to the fullness of life which God wanted for me with this vocation.

After the two years of novitiate, I was admitted to the profession of the first religious vows on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, 2003. After that, I stayed in Rome to begin philosophy studies at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College. After the first semester, I had discovered a great interest in that discipline and saw myself already as a great philosopher. In reality, this conception of myself was rather ridiculous, and God had to show me again that his ways are different than what I thought. Because of the strong growth of the Legion, help was needed in the apostolate in Germany, and so I had to combine my studies with trips back to Germany to contribute something, even with menial tasks, to the work of the Legion there. At the beginning, this was difficult for me because I could not study as much as I wanted to, but afterwards I realized that what really counted was not splendid success in studies, but doing God’s will. Even from the human point of view, I could see the many advantages God had given me by this: the possibility to gain interesting apostolic experiences, the opportunity to do something to help my brothers, etc.

When I had completed the bachelor’s degree in philosophy, I began right away with my theology studies, which opened up to me a much wider view than philosophy had given me before. Of course, I also learned to appreciate even more the preparation which the first two years of studies in Rome had given me. With the theology studies, I also came very close to the immediate preparation for the priesthood. The three years of theology passed very rapidly and the moment of the ordination to the diaconate came. The spiritual exercises before ordination, however, confirmed me in the conviction that God was there in all the moments of my life to give me the fullness of life he wanted for me. I had only to let him guide me.

Father Tobias Völkl was born in Munich, Germany, on June 11, 1971. He graduated from high school in 1990 at the Karlsgymnasium in Munich. After one year of military service he studied mechanical and aeronautical engineering for four years at the Technische Universität in Munich. Then he continued his studies at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, where he obtained a Master’s degree in Aeronautics in 1996 and the doctorate (Ph.D. in Aeronautics) in 2000. Afterwards, he worked for one year as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the California Institute of Technology before entering the novitiate of the Legionaries of Christ in Bad Münstereifel, Germany, in September 2001. His formation continued with studies in philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College in Rome, where he obtained the Bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 2005 and in theology in 2008. Currently he is continuing his studies there to obtain his licentiate in theology.

Translation of the vocation story published in the book "Vivir para Cristo"



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