Fr. John Sweeney, L.C.

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The filing cabinet.

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Introduction

            A question I often get when meeting new people and telling them a little about myself is, “How did you choose the priesthood while you were so young?”  And I think the best answer to that question is, “I didn’t choose the priesthood. God chose me. I heard, and I followed.”

            I was raised in an average American Catholic family. I am the second of my parents’ three children. I enjoyed playing games with my older sister and my younger brother, but we argued, too. I watched cartoons and played video games. My parents brought us to Church every Sunday, and my mom always took a few minutes to pray with each of us as she tucked us in bed a night. In short, the Faith was a part of our ordinary daily lives, in ways that changed and matured over the years.

What is God’s call?

            Just like every kid, I was asked a lot what I wanted to be when I grew up. It got me thinking about what my “dream job” would be. My very first conclusion was not that I wanted to be a fireman, or a doctor, or an astronaut. All those things sounded exciting, but they weren’t related to what I liked most – dinosaurs. Unfortunately, considering that they are extinct, I could hardly think of a job that had anything to do with dinosaurs, other than digging up their bones. So that was it: when I grew up, I wanted to be a paleontologist. It was a mouthful, but dinosaurs are cool.

            All of this made me wonder how my parents found out what they wanted to do as grownups. So one day I asked my mom, and she gave me a very insightful answer. “You hear God’s call, and you follow it.” She told me that God has a plan for everybody. From when we are babies God has thought of our education, our jobs, and even our future families. And he calls each person to follow this plan that he made out of love. That made sense to me, but I worried, what if I don’t hear God’s call? How do I hear it? What does it sound like? “It’s like a little voice,” my mom told me, “but not one that you hear with your ears. One you hear in your heart.” Well, I couldn’t hear anything in my heart. When does it appear? My mom told me that it changes for every person. Some hear it loud and clear from very young, some only hear it in college or later. “But listen,” she told me, “and you will hear it when it comes.”

My mission

            When I was in fifth grade, things began happening very quickly. It was as if God was saying, “Hey John, listen up!” Although by that time my mom had become quite involved in the Church – at the parish, at our school, and even volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Baltimore – before then no one in my family had ever heard anything of the Legionaries of Christ or Regnum Christi. But that year my family met them, began to participate in the activities they organized, and helped out at the school they were starting in my area.

            For me, “helping out” meant becoming one of the first group of students. Although I wasn’t all that enthused with the idea of changing schools at first, there was something about the new school, the teachers, the staff, and even the students, that began to get me enthused. What most influenced me there was my contact with the Legionaries who stopped by for the sacraments and ministry. They spoke of Our Lord, of his mission for us, and of bringing the whole world to God in a way that set off a spark in my heart. After about the first month of class they invited me to participate in their boys’ ECyD program and, though daunted, I accepted. I have never regretted it. I went on several ECyD retreats together with other boys my age, including a few up in Cheshire, Connecticut, where the Legionaries’ novitiate was. It was on those retreats that I really began to form a personal relationship with Christ. I wanted to be his close friend. I wanted to imitate him. And I wanted to do whatever he was asking me – or calling me – to do.

            As I said, things were happening fast, and I still remember one night when I was going over it all in my head. I had finished showering as usual when a thought occurred to me. While I was showering, I thought, I could have slipped, hit my head, and died. But I didn’t. Why is it that, while at any given moment an unexpected accident could happen to me, it doesn’t? From the retreats I had learned that God is the only one who controls the beginning and end of our life, and that every moment in between is a gift from him. But then, I thought, what about “the filing cabinet”?

            You see, when I was fifteen months old, my mom was playing with me in front of a large filing cabinet we have in my house. I began to climb it by pulling out the drawers and trying to get on top of them. My mom left to answer the phone, but suddenly she heard the cabinet come crashing down, and she rushed back. All she could see was the back of the filing cabinet now lying on the ground. The only sign of me was my crying. While the corner of the cabinet had landed on a nearby chair, all of the drawers were extended to the ground, not leaving any room for me. Not even both of my parents together could lift the cabinet; my dad had to remove all of the files drawer by drawer in order to lighten it. And once it was off the ground, they found me unscathed. I was underneath the chair that had been holding up the cabinet’s corner. That was the only drawer that couldn’t open, and so I was in the only spot that was safe.

I began to look at this story I had heard so many times from another angle. Had I died then, it would have been before I committed any sins, and I would have been happy with God in heaven already. But I was pretty convinced that I could not have gotten underneath that chair without any help from my guardian angel. So why would God have allowed me to live on, struggling with my sins and temptations, instead of bringing me straight to heaven much sooner? My conclusion was that God must have some special plan for me. He must have wanted me to do something big and important for his Kingdom, so important that he preferred it to bringing me to heaven as a baby. I realized then that I needed to listen carefully to God to find out what this big important thing was.

One possibility that I could think of was becoming a priest. It wasn’t as out of the ordinary as other possibilities, but saving souls through celebrating the sacraments certainly was something big and important. But how could I know if that was God’s special plan for me or not? That is when I remembered that one of my new classmates had an older brother the Legionaries’ apostolic school up in New Hampshire. I was not yet familiar with the school, but I understood that it was a place for boys who thought that God might be calling them to be priests to discover whether or not that was truly their vocation. Well, I wanted to find out. If God’s special mission for me was what was at stake, and if that mission was so important that God saved me from “the filing cabinet”, then I didn’t want to wait longer than necessary to discover what this mission was. I wanted to go to the apostolic school.

That very night I told my parents about my thoughts and my decision. I caught them by surprise, and they didn’t know any more about that school in New Hampshire than I did. My mom assured me of her support for whatever I felt I was hearing God call me to. My dad was supportive, but a little wary of this unknown “boarding school”. He told me he would think about it after I graduated from eighth grade (I was in sixth at the time). I took comfort from St. Therese of Lisieux’s vocation story, which I was reading with my mom. And with the suggestion of one of the Legionary priests, I decided to lift a page from her story and begin to pray for my vocation. My mom always went to church early on Sundays to do a Eucharistic hour in the adoration chapel, so I asked her to start taking me with her. I continued to do my best at being Christ’s friend and following him at home and at school, with the help of the ECyD activities. And during the two years that followed, my desire to discover what God’s plan was for me, and to find out whether or not it was to become a priest, did not go away.

My family eventually managed to travel to New Hampshire and visit the apostolic school. We saw that the environment was that of a spiritual family, made up of boys and young men who seriously wanted to give their best to God and to discern if he was calling them to a total consecration or not, and the Legionary staff who mentored and helped them. This helped my parents to agree to let me attend for high school. And so, the summer after graduating from eighth grade, my dad brought me up there to drop me off. When he said goodbye, I did feel sad, but at the same time I was very excited to finally begin finding out what God’s plan for my life was, and most importantly, as I got to know my new classmates, I felt at home.

Conclusion

            But my story doesn’t end there. At the apostolic school I learned many lessons, and I made many friends (some of whom will be ordained priests with me). As I mentioned, I felt at home. I felt like I was in the place that I was meant to be. But what about the future? I was not sure at first what God wanted for me after I graduated from high school, if his plan for me really was to become a priest. But I kept listening.

Due to an invitation that was made the year before I arrived to New Hampshire, all of us went to Mexico in January of my first year there to visit the Legionaries’ apostolic schools in that country. There I met many more my age who were doing their best to be faithful to what God was asking of them at that moment. The whole trip opened my eyes a lot, and I remember making a visit to the Eucharist on one of the first days to thank the Lord for this opportunity. And in that visit, I felt that God was placing the answer I was looking for in my heart. Everything that had happened to me in the last few years, from my family’s introduction to the Legionaries of Christ to my participation in ECyD, from my Eucharistic hours to my arrival at the apostolic school, was God telling me that he wanted me to be a Legionary priest. He was leading and calling me along this path, and it was up to me to listen and follow. In that visit I decided to do just that.

After graduation from the apostolic school I entered directly in the Legionaries’ novitiate in Cheshire, the same one I visited so many times before. During these thirteen years of formation I have found that God was not done with his surprises for me, but I have tried to keep full trust in him. With his grace I hope to continue listening and following, and helping others to do the same, for the rest of my life.

Fr. John Sweeney, L.C.

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