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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Finding the Road to the Priesthood
“When Jesus called me to be a priest, He didn´t make the way straight nor easy. I still marvel that Jesus could successfully get me ordained.”

Father Tom Loucks
Father Tom Loucks, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Grangeville, Idaho.
Grangeville, Idaho is home to what some say is the highest-tech Catholic school in a region of several states. All classes have computers and students start learning the keyboard in the third grade. There is ample opportunity for distance learning – taking classes via computer from remote facilities. And teachers use web-based courses to maintain their skills and keep abreast of the latest educational developments. This is Sts. Peter and Paul School, Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, Fr. Tom Loucks, Pastor.

Fr. Tom, as he likes to be called, was ordained in 1977, and has worked in several Idaho communities, sometimes offering Mass at several locations each weekend. Numerous mission churches that have no resident priest serve the scattered Catholic population of Idaho, and Fr. Tom has driven countless thousands of miles to serve the faithful. So it is natural that he sees computers and the internet as a way to shrink distances. It is easier to find him by e-mail than by phone.

A high-tech parish school might be unusual. But so was Fr. Tom’s road to the priesthood. It started early – but hit a few speed bumps along the way. “The story of my vocation would begin deep in my childhood,” said Fr. Tom. “Perhaps before I started to school I was thinking of being a priest. Before I received my First Holy Communion, I was thinking of being a priest. I´ve one memory of feeding the chickens on our little farm. As I tossed the wheat to the chickens, I was thinking about distributing Holy Communion to people. I remember talk in the family about me becoming a priest, though I think the original idea was mine, not another family member. I remember my Mother talking with her sisters about the possibility that I would become a priest. In the extended family I had cousins who did go to the seminary. None went further than high school.”

Like many men who hear the call to the priesthood, Fr. Tom met priests who had a huge impact on his life. He still remembers those who made the biggest difference. “Msgr. Nicholas V. Hughes was the first priest that I remember talked to me about vocations,” said Fr. Tom. “In one homily he said that the parish that didn´t produce priests shouldn´t have any. He had me talk with the diocesan vocations director Fr. (later Bishop) Nicholas Walsh at the bishop´s office. Fr. Walsh was willing to send me to Mt. Angel (diocesan seminary) to complete my high school education. I was set to go to Mt. Angel in the fall of 1961, my senior year. I came close. I needed a physical. I didn´t want to go to the doctor. I didn´t go to the seminary that fall.”

It seemed everyone was talking to Fr. Tom about the priesthood. Adults, non-family members were telling him it seemed like the best thing for him. He went so far as to write a letter to the vocations director the Jesuits – but was afraid of rejection and never put it in the mail. “I joined the Navy,” Fr. Tom admits. “Msgr. Hughes continued to be in touch with me by letter. I would write my reasons for not being a priest. He would respond why those were not good reasons. He always ended with, ‘If God wants you to be a priest, He will take care of all your needs.’”

Fr. Tom exited the Navy at the end of his enlistment and headed for the University of Idaho, very set on becoming a rich young man. He noticed that the new St. Augustine´s Catholic Student Center didn’t get much use. So, despite his avowed determination to avoid the priesthood, he became determined to energize the student center.

“I became very active in the student parish,” Fr. Tom said. “On Friday nights I would go clean the parish hall. I helped start the international dinners. I served on the parish council. People called me ‘Fr. Tom.’ I resented the name. I wanted to be rich! I had rejected being a priest.” But the priesthood had not rejected Fr. Tom. When Fr. Tom was a junior, Bishop Treinen of the Diocese of Boise asked him to study for the diocesan priesthood. Fr. Tom turned him down. But that wasn’t the end of it.

As he neared graduation a year later, Fr. Tom couldn’t shake the inkling that he was being called to serve the church. “Late in my senior year I started praying intently about what I should do with my future. I had worked for an oil company. I had tasted the wages. But I visited their headquarters and knew that they were not for me. My life was open. I told God that I would turn my future over to Him. But if He wanted me to be a priest, He had to send me a sign. The sign I asked for was the completion of a Russian Literature term paper by midnight on a Tuesday. I didn´t do anything about the paper until about 7 that evening. By 11:30 the paper was typed and
Father Tom Loucks
Father Tom is a fan of the great outdoors.
ready to be turned in. I had asked for a sign. God sent a very strong one.”

It was a rare case of a vocation resulting from a Russian term paper. But after talking with his mother and a good deal of prayer, Fr. Tom wrote to Bishop Treinen, who accepted him to Mt. Angel, the diocesan seminary. It was a challenge, because he lacked a background in philosophy and languages. But after three years, he had become a top student. However, he still had a few speed bumps ahead.

I loved the Scripture Study classes. I loved the study, the ideas, the history, the fitting of things together. I loved the hunt to reveal the culture and the time that produced the Word of God. I took every Scripture class that I could stuff into my schedule. I still love to read and study the Scriptures. Part of my decision to stay away from more philosophy classes was to have time for the Scripture study classes. It was a great trade! Instead of looking at nonsense, I was on an adventure with the Scriptures.”

But it was a time of great unrest – Vietnam, student protests, cultural revolution. Much was unsettled, so Fr. Tom took a two-year leave from the seminary. He spent the time working in the secular world. “During those two years changes were taking place in the Church in Idaho. One of my friends became vocations director. He and I would do a lot of talking about having me re-enter the seminary. One day Bishop Treinen opened the door by telling me that he hadn´t given up on ordaining me. A few days later he assigned me to be a seminarian in residence at St. John´s Cathedral. I spent a year there doing whatever needed doing; working with CCD, working with servers, doing part of the cooking, acting as a driver, visiting the shut-ins.” A year later, he was ordained.

“The day of my ordination was a small mirror of my seminary life. The Cathedral rectory was a mad house. The black clouds rose above Boise like I had never seen before. God sent an angel to me, Fr. Pedro Ramirez, a former classmate from Mt. Angel. Pedro walked with me for a couple of hours. I told him of my nervousness. I pointed out the ‘bad’ signs. He calmed me. When I told him that I was thinking that God might not want me for a priest after all, he assured me that God did want me and that I needed to accept the difficulties and overcome them. With a new calmness in my soul, I resolved to proceed.”

“The black clouds continued to boil above the city. When the congregation was asked to signal its assent to my ordination, thunderous applause broke out. I think they clapped for 15 minutes. During the ordination the clouds broke into a drenching rain. When we left the cathedral, a rainbow was stretched over the steps. The earth was refreshed and my new life had begun.”

Throughout a variety of assignments, Fr. Tom has stressed the importance of a strong prayer life. Last year, he joined Regnum Christi, which he says helps with his continuing spiritual growth. “When I think of the work of Regnum Christi, I see the continuing challenge to me, as a priest, to consistently confront myself. My life is simple. My needs are simple. Jesus takes care of me. One would think that would be enough. But, oh no, I have to contend with the evil that lives beside me and within me. I do not reject myself as an evil person. But I find that temptation is a constant companion urging me to look out for myself first. God is calling me to something more than I can be or do on my own. He sends me graces to live for His plan. He doesn´t ask me to compromise with the Culture of Death. He calls me to a prophetic witness against it. Jesus is counting on me to make a difference.”



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