P. Peter Mullan, L.C.

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A Wiffleball Bat Adventure

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            In hindsight, my vocation began the day after I was born. Yes, even as a newborn things already started coming together for my future priesthood. But it is only in hindsight, after having heard God’s call to follow him, that my miraculous survival as a baby makes sense.

Born with a block in my intestines, they flew me in a helicopter from my hometown in Elkton, Maryland, to Baltimore for surgery. I still have the scar from that surgery across my stomach. Before the operation my mother knew her catechism well enough to baptize me herself. So one day she gave birth to me, and the following day she gave birth to me spiritually. No time to lose for God.

Fortunately my parents were part of a charismatic prayer group. At one point the prayer group came in and prayed over me. I also had friends and family around the globe praying for me. Quite a lot of attention for just another baby, and number eight in the family at that. With the support of so many prayers I pulled through the operation fine. I also learned to fight for my life, for something more that God had in store for me. An adventure had begun.

My family, the beginning of my adventure

From the fact that my mother baptized me, you can gather what type of family I come from. My parents brought all ten of us children up in the faith, and both of them played a unique role in our education and development. My father is an astronomer from Northern Ireland. He loves the faith and loves teaching others about the faith; he prepared each of us for first confession and first communion. My mother is an artist and a musician who always had something creative for us to do, whether faith-related or just for fun. School was a cinch for us Mullans: For any problem we had with our homework, Dad would help with math and sciences, Mom with English and art. All bases covered.

I am number eight of the ten children. With so many older siblings there were plenty of activities going on. And between five older sisters and two younger ones, I naturally became the tag-along of my two older brothers. We all learned to share with everyone, including household chores. Thanks to God’s Providence and my parents’ hard work, we never lacked anything growing up, despite being so many, and we benefitted from all the extra attention and activity.

Since I was on the younger end of the family, oftentimes my older siblings would be off at college, working, playing sports or similar activities. And with very few boys my age in the neighborhood, I came up with a way to keep myself entertained. With my trusty wiffleball bat I would go behind the shed in the backyard and play imaginary games and adventures. A bat can act as all sorts of weapons: sword, gun, bazooka, bow, spear, you name it. I would spend hours outback playing. Those imaginary adventures were a prelude to what my future vocation would entail. I had no clear idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up, but those hours playing out behind the shed perhaps God was getting me ready for other types of adventure.

As I mentioned, my parents worked hard so that we would have everything we needed for our education and overall growth. I was able to study at Catholic schools from kindergarten to high school. For gradeschool I went to the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales’ Mt. Aviat Academy. And for freshman year of high school I attended the Oblate Fathers of St. Francis de Sales’ Salesianum School, an all-boys high school in Wilmington, Delaware. How much I owe to the Oblates, and what a difference a solid Catholic education has given me.

As in any school, I came across friends who were both good and bad influences on me. I got in trouble for the usual things any boy does at that age. Luckily for me, once my friends started getting into seriously bad things like drinking, pornography and drugs, I knew where I stood. I learned to respect the parameters my parents had taught all of us children, and so I was spared an entire spread of possible bad habits.

Between myself, my older brother who is a Legionary priest and an older sister, Margaret, who is a consecrated laywoman with Regnum Christi, people sometimes wonder what our family was like growing up. How do you get those vocations from a family, along with all of my other siblings who are involved and practicing their faith? No, we did not pray rosary from dawn to dusk. A single mystery once a week was about all we could handle. We certainly always went to Sunday Mass, but with the parish a block away from home, that was never too hard. So what was the secret to the family?

All ten of us children were always involved in activities, whether sports or otherwise. Summer camps were a must, as well, because our parents wanted us to develop all of our talents as best we could. I think that was just as key to my vocation as the spiritual side of my upbringing. And the spiritual side itself was always presented as attractive. We would do plays as a family for the feast of the Epiphany; we would put up a Hallelujah banner for Easter and a Thanksgiving banner in November, with everyone helping to decorate. And the best treat of all was the family confession night: Anyone who went to confession got to go out to dinner afterwards. Being so many children, going out to dinner was a rare treat; my father simply wanted to make the Gospel real for us, where it says that there is much rejoicing and feasting in heaven over the repentance of one sinner. Without forcing us to go to confession, we learned the joyful side of the faith!

My brother Michael had thoughts of entering the seminary early on, unlike me who came as a surprise vocation. It was through Michael that we became involved with the Legionaries of Christ. In 1992, when I was 10 years old, I began going on trips and camps with the Legionary priests in Connecticut, Washington DC and Wisconsin. The trips were definitely adventure-packed: hanging onto poison ivy-ridden cliff sides to keep from plunging into the Potomac River; sneaking onto a local golf course to play manhunt at night; playing 50 against 50 dodgeball games where I always seemed to end up with a headache from a line-drive to the head. All in good fun, and with the Legionary priest as the first one to come up with the next adventure. The real adventure was beginning, not just my make-believe ones!

Also in 1992 Michael joined the seminary. Adventures and tagging along began to merge: He would call home from Germany, Spain and Rome and tell me about his trips. At the time, I had no thoughts of joining the seminary, but I could tell he had set out on the adventure of a lifetime.

The call

After five years of being a part of the Legionaries’ boys club, I finally felt the call to join. It was all very straightforward and easy: During a homily Father Lorenzo Gomez mentioned that God could be calling some of us to become his priests. After five years of visiting the seminary, I enjoyed the sports, the good food and above all spending time with the seminarians. Life with the Legionaries looked simple enough, so I decided I would give it a shot, once I finished high school.

That first thought of joining the Legionaries came around Christmas 1996. At Easter 1997, I visited the seminary in Connecticut on my own, and they assigned me with the high school seminarians. It was the same amount of fun, but now with seminarians my age. So when one of the guys asked me if I was coming back for the summer trial period, I said, “Sure!” Who wouldn’t want to spend an entire summer having so much fun, while also giving the vocation some serious thought?

The summer program lasted a month, and I could not have been happier. Sports, hikes, a trip down to Washington DC, all with 50 other boys my age from across the US. I was not sure what type of test I had to pass in order to join, so at the end of program I asked my spiritual director, “So am I allowed to join?” He seemed surprised and said, “Of course you’re accepted!” That was that, I was all set to join.

Things were not quite so clear for my parents. Whereas I had spent the summer in Connecticut, only 4 hours from my home, the seminary program was changing campuses to New Hampshire, which was more than twice the distance away from home. Since I was only 15 years old, my parents said it was too far away from the family. It was a wake-up call for me: The very thought of not being able to go back sent me running to the chapel to pray. Definitely not something I was used to doing! It was then that I realized just how much I felt called to join the seminary.

When my parents saw how much I wanted to join, they suggested we pray a novena. Novenas normally consist in nine days of prayer, and our family has a special devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux. As a sign of confirmation for me to join, roses were to show up unexpectedly on the fifth day of the novena. In my case, we only had two days before I was supposed to get back to the seminary. And so it became a nine HOUR novena, express delivery.

Once the nine hours finished, I assumed the novena had finished with no roses, no joining the seminary. I headed off to an Orioles baseball game with my best friend. I got back home after midnight, and was surprised to see my parents still awake. My mother told me that she had received an inexplicable impulse to buy stamps that afternoon, without realizing what was on them. Only that evening, scouring the house for any sign of roses, she looked at the stamps: a booklet of 120 yellow rose stamps! I can only imagine how humbling it was for my parents to be bought out by stamps to allow me to join the seminary. But allow me they did, and I was the happiest kid on earth as I headed off. That was the beginning of an enduring friendship with St. Therese of the Child Jesus, who also joined the convent at 15 despite opposition. She knew what I felt like, eager to begin the adventure.

Seventeen years getting ready

            While sports and good food might work to get a young man to join the seminary, they are not exactly sufficient to guarantee his life as a priest. When people ask me why it took me 17 years to get ordained a priest, I realize it was because I had A LOT to learn. Life is more than fun and food, and the journey towards ordination had to ensure that I learned a few lessons.

My two years at the high school seminary in New Hampshire were still full of food and fun. The Lakes Region there is a boy’s winter wonderland: sledding, skiing, and ice hockey on Lake Winnepausakee. The curriculum was geared towards seminary studies, while also guaranteeing a good high school education. For me, those two years flew by, and before I knew it I was entering the novitiate.

The most important area of a future priest’s preparation is his spiritual life, his friendship with Christ. The novitiate is the formation period dedicated to his spiritual formation. I did my first year of novitiate in Cheshire, Connecticut, and the second year in Germany. It was especially in Germany where I learned to see Christ as a real person, a real friend, the captain of my adventure platoon, who lives with me, and through me wants to reach so many others. Those are ideas that I had heard before, but as a future priest it took time and experience to let Christ become the center of my life.

I professed my religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience on September 8, 2001, near Cologne, Germany. My next stage of formation was humanities, at our college in Cheshire, Connecticut. I spent two years studying classical humanities, including Latin and Greek. While I enjoyed the studies, I was only 19 years old at the time, and had a rough time learning to let go of my whims and comfort. It was time to learn to grow up and let go of my own likes. I am grateful to my superiors during that stage in particular, since they had to put up with all my moods and caprices.

Philosophy in Rome came next, from 2003 to 2005. If the preceding two years were tough for me, those two years in Rome were a breeze; they practically flew by. With events like John Paul II’s 25th jubilee as pope, his final sickness, death and funeral, followed by Pope Benedict’s election, what a blessing to have been in Rome for all those moments! That is where I learned to experience the Church as something real. Despite language and cultural barriers, everyone gathered in St. Peter’s Square shared the one faith. This  love for the Church made that vague adventure begun in 1997 much more concrete: to serve the Church as a priest.

In 2005 I took a break a break from studying and began a four-year internship, with the purpose of ministering to people more directly. I spent my internship working at the Legionaries’ novitiates in Monterrey, Mexico, and Cheshire, Connecticut. I had a similar experience as in my humanities; this time, I had to learn how to put all my talents at the service of others. The high ideal and dream of serving others as a priest can be very inspiring and all, but how ready was I to work and give myself to make that service real? It was another important stage of growth and maturing, while helping younger men entering the Legionaries to adapt to religious life.

The last five years of my formation I spent in Rome, from 2009 to 2014. During those years God went in-depth with my preparation, making sure I learned several important lessons for my priesthood. First of all, I arrived to Rome ready to study licentiate in philosophy. I knew that those remaining five years of formation were about acquiring a personal experience and knowledge of the faith through diligent intellectual work. Only then could I be of help to others later on in my priestly ministry.

A second lesson came through my extra-curricular ministry of  giving tours of the Vatican. By explaining St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, I discovered my own faith in a much deeper way. One hundred and forty saints’ statues ring St. Peter’s Square, with the Prince of the Apostles buried under the impressive 44,000 ton dome designed by Michelangelo. The tremendous beauty and glory of those sites taught me to appreciate the power and the glory of God’s grace shining through our weakness. Those saints came from all walks of life; St. Peter was a common fisherman from Galilee. Yet they all triumphed, thanks to opening up and being generous coworkers with God’s grace. The gifts I receive as a priest are to empower all believers to experience this power of God’s grace in their own lives.

A third lesson was definitely the most painful for me. In 2009 we discovered that the Legionaries of Christ’s founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had led a double life and committed serious crimes. That discovery caused a deep shock for all of us, and we spent the last five years to a renewal of the order, under the close support and supervision of the Vatican. Through that renewal we discovered that there is an authentic charism in the Legion, and that we all participate in that charism. Just like the Church, the charism comes out in all, and needs the cooperation and humble service of all, in order to be complete. It has nevertheless been a very painful process, where we have lost some of the men I most respected. The question has naturally arisen whether this order is for me.

I grew up fighting fantasy battles, but Christ wanted me to fight another sort of battle, with the rules he laid out in the Gospel. And so I see myself as carrying out my calling to the priesthood in this band of brothers, the Legionaries of Christ. May all of us Legionaries learn his way of carrying out the mission: loving others to the point of dying for them.

The real adventure begins

Like any soldier about to embark on his first real mission, I am full of mixed emotions before my ordination as a priest. I have been in training for 17 years now, with solid habits formed. But what exactly is waiting for me at the end of this parachute landing into unknown territory? Only Christ knows. If there is one thing I have learned from my training with him, it is that I can rely on him for assured success and victory, no matter what. The fighting promises to be intense, and I know I will come away with some serious scars. But I cannot think of any better company to fight in than his, and I am extremely happy and proud to have been called. May he keep me close to him until heaven.

Fr. Peter Mullan, L.C.

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