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Turn to Jesus (Article)

A Family Interview for Mother’s Day
Fr. Joseph Burtka, LC, and his mother discuss the family life that fostered his vocation

El H. Joseph Burtka, L.C. con su mamá, en el aeropuerto de Roma.
Mrs Burtka with Br. Joseph in Rome 1991.

Question: Tell us about your family and your childhood in suburban Detroit, Michigan.

Mrs. Patricia Burtka: “We have 4 children: Fr. Joseph; Jim, a physician who is married to Colleen and has 2 children, James and Grace; Karen a lawyer and recently married Chris; Jeffrey, studying law and married to Allison.  We were always a close family.  Grandparents were an integral part in our lives.  Our Catholic faith was, and is, most important.”

Fr. Joseph Burtka: “I would consider myself a normal kid, a normal Catholic kid, product of a normal Catholic upbringing.  A good family, lots of love, but not without difficulties as well.  Catholic schools? – all of my life.  A good education, not only intellectually, but also spiritually.  Sunday Mass, basic catechism, but nothing special.  No long hours in the chapel.  No rosaries.  No visions.  I didn’t pray much – usually before dinner, sometimes before going to bed… I did more than my share of watching television, but also played sports, rode my bike or just got into mischief.”

Q: How did you first meet the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi?

Mrs. Burtka: “Through Fr. Joseph when he was in a boy’s club started by Fr. Lorenzo Gomez,
El P. Joseph Burtka, L.C. con su familia en el noviciado de Alemania.
Mr and Mrs Burtka with Fr. Joseph; March 1999 in Germany outside the noviciate.
LC.  After a while we were introduced to the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi at an evening with other parents of the boys.  Later, I was invited by Mary Anne Williams to a Regnum Christi prayer meeting called an Encounter with Christ.” 

Q: How did your son discover his vocation?

Mrs. Burtka: “It developed through Fr. Joseph’s contact with the Legionary priests in the last years of grade school, specifically after his first retreat.”

Fr. Joseph: “Amazingly enough, (Fr. Gomez) was a young man with a wide range of qualities not usually associated with the priesthood (at least according to a child of 13 years of age).  He was wild and full of energy, capable of outrunning and outplaying us in any sport…He was a great story teller – entertaining to say the least…In the end, he was one of us…and yet he was also different.  He was a man of God.  This fact awakened an instinctive knowledge to give him a certain distance, a special respect.  He has a gift, a special talent to help us come closer to Christ, not only by his words, also with his example.  Meeting Fr. Gomez and seeing him in action that weekend was something that left a permanent mark.  As he drove us home that Sunday wearing his dark sunglasses and praying his rosary, one thought kept coming into my mind: ‘So this is a priest’…”

Q: When did you sense the call to the priesthood and how did you respond?

Fr. Joseph:
P. Joseph Burtka, L.C.
Father Joseph Burtka, LC
“For me, it was a dark winter day, the 31st of December (when I was visiting the Legionary seminary)… I made my way to the chapel (for rosary) and knelt down in the back left corner…Br. Michael (Sliney, also from Michigan and a longtime friend) was one of the first brothers to walk into the chapel, with his bright white surplice on.  Little by little other brothers began to enter.  And then it happened.  ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be like one of them? ... Just for a little while?’ It was a soft, peaceful, warm type of thought that somehow entered into my heart.  It was just a thought, but at the same time it was different.  I knew that it wasn’t coming just from me.  I felt a sudden panic. But this ‘voice’ was so peaceful that I really offered no resistance.  Christ had just passed by my shore and I ran up to him to ask him where he lived.  The thought of turning back would never be able to take hold of me…After a few minutes I was amazed how peaceful the whole thing had been.  For so many years I had wrestled with the idea. This time it was different. Sudden, smooth, almost without effort. God’s will seemed so clear, but still very fragile. It was in this moment that I realized that my decision, being so weak, needed support and protection. Were I to think too much about what I had decided, perhaps I would get scared. Perhaps the allurements of six more months of university life would drown out this growing seed. I had to tell this to someone. Make it something objective. If not, there was the danger that I would later dismiss it as a dream, as something that never really happened. And so, off to Fr. Gomez.

--“‘Father, I uh, well, you see.  How can I explain.  I was in the chapel and…Father, I want to join the candidacy this summer.’
--‘Really.  Are you sure?  No, I think it would be better if you just visited for a while.’
--‘Father, I
P. Lorenzo Gómez, L.C.
Father Lorenzo Gomez, LC.
have to join.  I don’t want to give God half, I want to go all the way.  I will go as a candidate.’
--‘Are you sure?  Why don’t you think about it?’
--‘I am sure.’

 And that was that.  My will was firm.”

Q: Mrs. Burtka, how did you and your husband accept this decision?

Mrs. Burtka: “My husband says he knew Joe had a vocation for a long time – I suspected it.  Acceptance?  The separation was the worst thought – being so close (even Fr. Gomez did not think Fr. Joe would become a Legionary because of that).  As a diocesan priest he would have stayed in Detroit area, but that was not his call.  We, as our parents had done, must accept our children’s vocations, whatever they may be, or wherever they go with them.  It is not our will.”

Q: Fr. Joseph, how did you inform your parents of your decision?

Fr. Joseph: “As the dark, cloudy, Michigan winter months rolled on, I wondered how everything was going to end.  I still hadn’t told my parents.  On the one hand I wanted to tell them because I was suffering and needed to let it out.  On the other hand I knew that the moment I told them they would begin to suffer with me, and perhaps even more.  April was upon us and I decided to reveal everything…I think they took it well.  They weren’t overjoyed.  They knew what it would mean…” Oh.” – silence.  A puzzled look.  Maybe a little confusion.  But they always supported me.” 

Q: What has been the hardest part about having Fr. Joseph follow a vocation?  What has helped you accept and deal with it?

Mrs. Burtka: “Again the separation – in some way he now has a new family.  Our married children are ‘their own families’ too. It’s all relative. Accept and deal with it?  First, (it helps) knowing the Legion and being in Regnum Christi and accepting God’s will, not mine.”

Q: What have been some of the greatest graces you and your family have received through your son’s vocation?  How have you seen your son grow as a person through his vocation as a priest?

Mrs. Burtka: “(I felt) serenity and peace seeing our son become ‘another Christ.’ He’s older and with age, as we all do, he grows in God.  He has always willingly and humbly accepted everything the Legion has asked.”

Q: Fr. Joseph, what
P. Joseph Burtka, L.C.
Father Joseph Burtka, LC during his priestly ordination.
does it mean to you as a priest to be “another Christ?”

Fr. Joseph: “…I would say that to be a priest is above all Christ… intimacy with Christ. It is a special presence, a deeper love, a stronger desire to imitate Him, more graces.  It is a longing for holiness and an all-out effort to achieve it.  It is fight against the ‘old man’ (as St. Paul puts it, cf. Eph. 4: 22-24)… I must also say, however, that from the moment of my priestly consecration I have never been the same.  I have felt from the beginning a strength that was not there before… The priesthood marks the soul, changes our being, makes us consecrated to God for all eternity.”
Q: How has being involved with Regnum Christi helped keep you “spiritually” united with your son?

Mrs. Burtka: “Just knowing Regnum Christi and what it demands makes me part of my son’s ‘other’ family – unified in Regnum Christi’s ideals.”

Q: What would you say to parents who are struggling with their child feeling called or following a priestly or consecrated vocation?

Mrs. Burtka: “We are given children through God’s love – only for a little while.  They are ‘loaned’ to us, if you will, to care for, to nurture, to instill values – and then support the choice of their special call from God.  Their yes is not ours, but theirs – hopefully, as they move forward, our job has been done well.”



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