Simple moments of grace
A vocation story may be either interminably long or consist in a single paragraph; for to do justice one would have either to plot out the whole path of his Christian life, mapping out his friendship with God one step at a time, or he might simply repeat with St. John:
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. (1Jn. 4:8-11)
That having been said, I think my capacity to perceive my vocation was due to three factors. First, since I am the sixth of nine children, by the time I came along my family had already become somewhat comfortably catholic and enjoyed the grace of family prayer and peace. My parents had walked the path of Christian life for some years by that point, and demonstrated the prudence in raising me that only experience can give. I got the best part of everything, I gratefully suppose.
The second factor was much more interior and only indirectly perceptible for others. Perhaps by temperament, perhaps by grace, or perhaps both, growing up I was very pensive, to the point of being absentminded at times. I had many examples of Christian life to see, and I naturally analyzed everything in terms of my insatiable desire to be happy. By temperament I analyzed; by grace I was never satisfied with incoherent happiness, in spite even of my own incoherence at times.
This leads me to the third cause for my embarking on this journey that has led to religious life and the priesthood, namely, a very lively sense of God’s presence. From the earliest I can remember, the world around me has been nothing less than God’s fingerprint, an intrinsically optimistic and beautify reality. When I was told at a young age that there were people in the world who denied God’s existence, my natural reaction was, “They should come out into the back yard with me and I will show them God.” I have since realized that people feel atheism normally as the eclipsing of God’s presence by the suffering of life, and that perhaps I too might not believe in the God they seem to have experienced. I’ve studied many proves for the existence of God, but to this day few convince me as much as my experience of him in the superfluous beauty I was surrounded with as I played in our neighborhood creek.
The other column of my faith has always been the Eucharist. This is pure grace. I was an altar boy since the second grade, and I had many moments of profound faith in Christ’s presence. Once I arrived to the sacristy after Mass and discovered that the chalice and ciboriums were left there without having been cleansed. I couldn’t help but genuflect in the presence of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Another time, I was feeling very sick but it was my turn to serve Mass. I struggled through the whole Mass to keep my stomach under control, but just as I finished ringing the bells I had to discretely make an exit to the Church garden. As I waited for the nausea to pass, I could not shake the thought, “I cannot receive the Eucharist like this, because God deserves a better tabernacle… He is.” Another time I was kneeling before the altar to ring the bells during the consecration and sin was weighing heavily on my heart. As the priest raised the host and I rang the bells I began to fight the tears back. I wasn’t thinking anything, there was just a disparity between my heart and the Eucharist. These simple moments of grace, accompanied by an acute sensitivity to Jesus’ humility in the Eucharist, are some of the most vivid memories I have and serve as pillars for my life of prayer even today.
But why the Legionaries of Christ? My elder brother was earmarked the family priest, so I never gave much thought to the idea, for or against, even though, thanks to the good example of many priests, I knew I could be happy as a priest. Instead I had three ambitions in life: to have a large catholic family, to have a house with a basement and a pool table in that basement, and to have a job that didn’t require too much deskwork. I didn’t have an intense ambition for any profession in particular. As long as my work paid for my family I would have been happy. So when my brother invited me to visit him and spend Holy Week with him in Cheshire, Connecticut, during my junior year of high school, I naively agreed without the least inhibition because life was good and simple. It was the first retreat I had ever participated in, so I wanted to do it right, whatever that meant. We had a Lenten penance service at the parish just before I was due to go to Cheshire, so I figured I’d better do a good confession. I siked myself out about it, and that so much so that when the pastor gave us a surprise general absolution I felt completely robbed and a little bit angry. Now I had to go to a seminary, whatever that is, and do a retreat, whatever that is, and I haven’t been able to confess! So I went to Cheshire with that on my heart. I don’t remember much about that retreat, except the confession. I figured I could leave my sins with a priest I would never see again, and began to prepare myself to make a good confession. I did so, and I stepped out of that confessional and simply knelt down in the pew in front of me, enveloped in something I had never been able to express before. You see, my faith had always been like intellectual boxing gloves I used to defend myself from the protestants who surrounded me. But this was the first time I was able to formulate what faith meant for me ever since I discovered God in the back yard and in the Eucharist: Jesus Christ is my friend. He reached down into the darkness and pulled me up, and it was the same loving hand that I had known for a long time but had not till then recognized so personally.
From then on, every time I came in contact with the Legionaries I felt more at home and more at peace. I would grow exponentially in my Christian life somehow by that contact. I was happy, even though I still had not thought about becoming a priest.
I went to Rome for the closing of the Holy Year with St. John Paul II. There my brother asked me if I wanted to try out the Legionary vocation for a summer after finishing high school. I told him I wanted to get married someday. He responded that the desire for marriage is natural, and that everyone experiences it, and that to experience it is a good sign of a healthy person, but that it was not necessarily a sign that God was not giving me the grace to become a priest. Somehow that was enough, and I gave him my word. And I went, although much to the surprise of my friends and family. Again, I felt at home, at peace, and began to grow in my Christian life, and that so much so that it seemed natural to me to just remain there, even though I had not really felt a “call” to the priesthood. I told my parents I would stay, and I hope they saw it coming. I thank them for their support in spite of the sacrifice it would imply for them. I think they just wanted me to be happy, and so they let me make this decision without objecting.
Our group became fast friends over the course of the summer. God’s grace would inspire one to generosity, and then another, each in his own time. As we ended the summer we were accepted one by one into the novitiate. I was clueless as to what novitiate was, but I was home, so it didn’t matter. During the eight days of ignatian spiritual exercises before beginning novitiate, actually nearing the end as we spoke about the Church and the needs of souls, the penny dropped and a conviction formed in my heart that I have never been able to deny since, and which has only grown stronger with the years.
I didn’t run. I didn’t even want to hide. The Christ I discovered in the Legion was the same God in whose presence I would play as a child and who I knew in the Eucharist. And that has not changed. He is the faithful friend, the pearl of great price, who made selling everything seem as if I were leaving nothing because I was gaining absolutely everything by being in communion with him. And that has precisely been my experience ever since.