“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11): the Lord called a young agnostic to be his priest
The priesthood remained in the collegiate years that followed a possibility, but not an obsession. It was foolish to treat the Lord as a rival to my joy and fulfillment, since He had already shamed my pride in leading me to embrace the faith I had so often mocked. I was a slow and stubborn student of the divine pedagogy as I continued to learn many lessons.
The whispers of a priestly vocation interrupted the usual peace of my thanksgiving after Mass. Only months before beginning college, I was baptized, confirmed, and received first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil. As a freshman, I sensed in the chapel an invitation to bring Christ’s Eucharistic presence to others and to draw wandering souls to the solace of confession. My neophyte theology was sufficient to connect these two sacramental attractions to the priesthood, but these longing abruptly turned to revulsion as reflected on the privations of the priestly life. Had not the Lord already asked enough of me? At times the demands of Gospel living weighted heavy upon a conscience formed in comfortable secularism accustomed to dictate its own law. God’s objective law clashed was already clashing my human securities. I had set aside the cheap thrills of my pampered peers, but thought it audacious to renounce as well the legitimate consolations of the married state. I would please the Lord best raising a hoard of children as a faithful father. Other men could be priests; the Lord was asking too much.
My interior misgiving never, however, separated me from the Mass. I continued to attend and to remain in thanksgiving for so great a gift. I rarely experienced sensible consolation in my Eucharistic thanksgiving, but thought it unfitting to run back to daily life after the King of the Universe deigned to nourish me. Over time my resistance subsided. I knew that I did not need to decide my future immediately and still had more than enough work ahead in learning what it meant to pray and live as a Catholic. The priesthood remained in the collegiate years that followed a possibility, but not an obsession. It was foolish to treat the Lord as a rival to my joy and fulfillment, since He had already shamed my pride in leading me to embrace the faith I had so often mocked. I was a slow and stubborn student of the divine pedagogy as I continued to learn many lessons.
Christendom College provided me with a full immersion in Catholic culture. Literature, History, Science, Philosophy, Theology, were woven together into an integral worldview in which the story of the world began to make sense. There was more now to my life than the weekend; more on the horizon that a rich retirement. My university studies thus offered the leisure to penetrate the original works of the best thinkers of the Western Canon as I constructed a comprehensive catholic vision. Years earlier, figures like Augustine and Aquinas had taught me that it was possible to be an intellectually serious believer. Now their thought could more fully shape my own as years of accumulated secular prejudices and biases melted before the scorching ray of truth.
My formation was not, however, restricted to the wisdom of the classroom or the library. Whether realizing the work of others or enacting my own compositions, I thrilled in entertaining and occasionally inspiring others through stage performances. The practices involved also honed bonds of comradery between my performing peers. I thus found a modest outlet for my dramatic talent that taught me communication skills indispensable for a life eventually dedicated to preaching. In addition to developing in the artistry of drama, I learned the new art of dance. While I was initially reluctant to waste my time of such frivolities, I soon came to appreciate it charm. The dances were both surprisingly fun and surprisingly formative. As a boy, I had been warped in a hyper-sensual culture that presented girls as objects of selfish delight. The ballroom was a place where gentleman respected the dignity of their complementary companions. The rules of the dance allowed for intimacy without invasion and fostered a beauty without banality.
Off campus, I often visited the DC Planned Parenthood center where I would pray and offer counsel to families entering for abortion. Snarky orange-vested Planned Parenthood volunteers would attempt to distract would-be victims lest they stop to speak of an alternative to killing their innocent children. Their stubborn tenacity in devoting their Saturday mornings to such infernal occupations inspired my own resolve to rise early each weekend to attend 7 am Mass before driving to the nation’s capital to pray and work for life under sun, rain, or even snow. The jarring contrast between good and evil made more evident the reality of spiritual warfare. Our enemies were not of flesh and blood. The doctors who were betraying their healing art to kill and the volunteers convinced they were serving the women they were damaging were in desperate need of God’s saving grace. Before such spiritual maladies, I appreciated more acutely the priest’s unique role as doctor of souls and considered again my own possible calling.
At the heart of Christendom’s role in forming my Catholic ethos was its function as a school of prayer. Early in my studies, I implemented the sage advice of committing the first half hour of my day to mental prayer in the chapel each morning, no matter how late the events the previous evening continued. I also joined fellow students who would gather daily in the chapel to bookend the day with communal Lauds and Vespers. Classes would cease at midday so that student and professor alike could share the pews and fill Christ the King Chapel with the Lord’s praises during the Holy Mass.
The drama of sanctity could be lived in the isolated fields of Front Royal, tucked within the Shenandoah Valley. No barbarians stormed the hills to slaughter us in hatred of the faith, but each day offered its small deaths to sin and selfishness. Living in community was an enriching change from my youth as an only child. I spent my senior year as the Head Resident Assistant, a position that enabled me to see the best and the worse of my peers. It was an invaluable opportunity to set aside my personal preferences to serve those around me. Though the work left me often tired, I thanked God for the chance to meet, accompany, and support a wide range of students, many of whom I never would have known as well without the leadership role entrusted me. The responsibility for the good of my students also spurred me to a fuller dependence upon God’s grace. I would therefore offer fasts most Fridays of the year for the spiritual benefits for the needs of those around me.
During senior year, I also made my first visit to the Legionaries of Christ seminary in Cheshire, Connecticut. My first contact with the congregation came via a link on a page of recommended religious orders on the Ratzinger Fan Club website. The young, expanding, dynamic order with presence around the world and Papal encouragement piqued my interest. I discussed a trip to one of the many Test Your Call retreats with a friend, but our plans never materialized. However, during the Christmas break of 2006, I finally met the Legionaries in person for the first time. The energy, enthusiasm, dedication, and charity of the men immediately impressed me. The young men gathered from around the world were eminently talented and could have pursued successfully fields that would have permitted them a family and a room more luxurious than a cubicle. They spoke of transforming the world for Christ and were willing to cooperate with grace in the hard work of interior transformation without which all other apostolic aspirations remain vain dreams. Whether praying in the chapel, sweeping the halls, playing basketball, scrubbing toilets, or studying Latin, they combined a virile strength and kind charity in all of their activities. My initial week with the group left me much to consider, but I was not yet ready to commit.
During my years of college, the married state remained a live option. One young lady in particular made such noble vocation more attractive. Her laughter brought me more joy than my own. I could think of no one who would make a better wife and mother and yet I could not quite give my heart to her fully. I cannot explain why and would have been dismissed as a fool had I ever dared voice my inarticulate conviction that the Lord was calling me to serve him in a particular way. Through a singular grace of the Lord, I have never regretted explaining to her my decision to join the seminary under stars outside the hall of our final dance.
I began my formation with the Legionaries in Cheshire in the summer of 2008. Candidacy was a delightful blend of prayer, sports, study, and fellowship for two months. Together, we discerned the Lord’s call, grew in Christian virtue, and transitioned from the habits of our previous lives to those of the religious state. By the end of the program, I was eager to begin the rigors of novitiate life, confident that the Lord would continue to transform me. Indeed, novitiate stretched each of us, both physically and spiritually. We moved briskly from Adoration, to physical training, to Gospel studies, to kitchen work as we strove to serve the Lord and our brothers with utmost generosity. I had never prayed so much nor showered so often in my life. Just as I settled in to the novitiate’s intense rhythm, rumors circulated in early December that our oversized novitiate class would be sending some of its own to other Legionary novitiates around the world. I wondered whose life might be changed, but thought little more of the rumors. On the eve of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, our novice instructor publically asked me “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” He had a renowned sense of humor, so assumed he was kidding. However, as he continued to announce the destinations of other brothers, I realized he was serious. After a brief trip back to Virginia to see my parents, I found myself in the German novitiate in time to celebrate Christmas oversees.
For someone accustomed to academic success, not knowing how to ask for salt—let alone articulate deeper insights—was humiliating. My new companions showed me exquisite patience and charity, but could not relieve fully my frustration. As I peeled potatoes with a stranger with whom I could not communicate, I wondered what I had done with my life. Nonetheless, the dream of someday brining Christ Eucharistic presence and the mercy of Reconciliation sustained me in the darker moments.
Only months after settling in to my new home abroad, news broke of Marcial Maciel’s despicable sins. I was difficult to fathom how a man held up as a model of sanctity and apostolic labor could have been guilty of such abominations. I prayed for the victims of his crimes and wondered what consequences these truths would have for the congregation. In the midst of the confusion, I could but entrusted myself anew to the Lord. I knew that the charism of a religious order belonged to its founder. St. Francis would have been the first to attribute the origin of his order to Lord rather than to his own human ingenuity. I waited patiently for the Church’s guidance and clung firming to the rock of Peter in the person of Pope Benedict XVI. In my apostolic internship after my first profession, I learned to confront with a spirit of reparation the sufferings Maciel’s betrayal caused those who had trusted him. At the same time, I saw while working in Chicago with the Lumen Institute the manner in which Legionaries were continuing to serve through the sacraments, spiritual direction, schools, and camps.
In the summer after my first year of internship, I enjoyed my first experience of Mexico as an Assistant in the Curso de Hispanidad for diocesan seminarians and priests interested in learning the Spanish language and Hispanic culture. At the end of my enriching stay, I received word that I would spend my next year of apostolic work teaching at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. I thus returned to Chicago to pack my bags and share a goodbye dinner with my community before returning to the airport for a red-eye flight in time for orientation at Pinecrest. While I would have preferred teaching university students, I treasured the challenges of teaching over a hundred middle and high school boys. Unlike adults, boys are incapable of polite boredom during a dull class. Their instant feedback allowed me to develop courses that channeled their energy and engaged their interest. It was a true school of pedagogy in which I was constantly planning and adapting how best to transmit the faith in a manner that would make a lasting impact.
After a rewarding year at the school, I came to Rome to begin a licentiate degree in Philosophy. After years away from sustained formal studies, I welcomed the chance to examine more attentively the chief questions that shape lives and cultures. The formation received would later enable me to begin teaching at our university Regina Apostolorum during my subsequent theological studies.
My years of theology brought a more profound contact with sacred scripture and the great theologians of Church history. Outside the classroom, I continued work begun in 2011 with the UNESCO Chair of Bioethics and Human Rights. As a tour guide of the eternal city, I was able to relive the thrill of first seeing Rome with those who were visiting from afar. In particular, I worked as one of the Vatican Museums official guides for the Art & Faith tour that synthesizes art, history, and spirituality. I also helped to cofound the UpperRoom Holy Hour and Social for university students from around the world studying abroad in Rome. I also worked as a mentor for the Sinderesi program that forms university students in the current issues in light of perennial philosophy and the social doctrine of the Church. My summer experience before my final year of theological studies was spent in the Manhattan offices of the journal of religion and public life First Things, where I wrote weekly articles, proof read articles, fact checked pieces, participated in events, and enjoyed the friendship of the hard-working staff.
My final year of theology studies culminated with my diaconate ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 13 at the hands of Cardinal Angelo Comastri. Prostrated on the ground in the heart of the Church, I sensed my own weakness and utter dependence upon God’s grace. The prayers of the earthly congregation joined those of the heavenly host in the litany of the saints to strengthen us to rise from our weakness for the laying on of hands. As we transitioned to the consecratory prayer of the Cardinal, I listened to the words I had been meditating upon in the previous days. I imagined the words essential for the validly of the ordination in the bold text of the ordination booklet as they were being pronounced in my presence. I glanced up at Bernini’s Holy Spirit window and then back down at the successor of the apostle through whom the Spirit had just worked to make me His deacon. The nerves present at the beginning of the ceremony subsided as the joy of the moment filled me. Moments later, my rector clothed me in the stole and dalmatic for the first time so that I could take my place among the clergy in the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.