St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Path to Holiness

When I started writing this, I intended to write a blog article about supporting and promoting vocations. I then realized I should first tell you a part of my own vocation story, since it has shaped many posts written on this blog.  It didn't lead to me priesthood (no matter how much I wanted it to), but it's still my path to holiness. 

(I hope you don't find it too boring.)  So here's how it goes.

I'm a cradle Catholic, raised by good Catholic parents. Because of them, I was able to have Catholic schooling growing up- first at my parish's grade school, Assumption, and then at Bishop Kenny High School, both next to each other in Jacksonville, FL.  I had thought about becoming a priest as a teenager, and became more convinced that this was my vocation.  Really attracted to the liturgy, I served Mass often.  I had come to know the several priests at my parish. From each one, I got to see different aspects of the priesthood- parish priest, high school teacher, military chaplain, canon lawyer, just to name a few.  I liked what I saw.  After a visit to Saint Meinrad in southern Indiana with my parish youth group during my senior year of high school,  I applied to the Diocese of St Augustine, was accepted, and started in the Fall at Saint Meinrad College to discern and to study, hoping to be ordained a priest around 2004.

Saint Meinrad
I loved being a seminarian.  I grew up a lot and was challenged a great deal.  I must have thought of quitting more times than I can count, but at the same time I knew that God wanted me to be there. There were about 100 students in the College (more than half were seminarians), 100 more seminarians in the graduate School of Theology, and 135 Benedictine monks who ran the place.  I learned a lot while I was there, but I wish I had taken my studies more seriously so I could have learned more.  With most of the guys in my class being lay students, we also had our typical college moments (some of which are still reminisced about at reunions despite my own embarrassment).  I took part in many of the ministries a seminarian would do, teaching religious ed and offering retreats to the local parishes in southern Indiana.  I'd go home during breaks and in the Summer to work at the chancery, Catholic Charities, and/or take part in parish life in northern Florida. There was a small contingent of students from St Augustine studying at Saint Meinrad; we got to know each other well, especially with the 12 hour long car rides to and from home.  Jason Trull was a couple years ahead of me; we were from the same parish and had attended the same grade school and high school.  I'm proud to say he's celebrating 10 years of priesthood this year.

St Augustine Cathedral-Basilica
I also loved the diocese that I studied for.  St Augustine was a smaller diocese, with just over 100 priests, 52 parishes, 9 missions, and just over 100,000 Catholics at that time.  Within the clergy, all the priests seemed to know each other; most of them knew or were familiar with us seminarians.  If I was traveling a needed a place to stay for the night, I could always count on staying at the rectory of a nearby parish.  Bishop Snyder had been the diocesan bishop since I was two years old.  He was the bishop who confirmed me in 8th grade.  He handed my high school diploma to me 4 years later, and then inspired me while in the seminary.  I don't think any other diocese could have been as welcoming and supportive.

I traveled a lot, which really broadened by experience of the Church.  Saint Meinrad was on the edge of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, minutes away from the (Arch)Dioceses of Louisville, Evansville and Owensboro, so we were able to get a good sample of the Church's life in all of them. I also traveled to other seminaries for different events or just to visit- the Pontifical College Josephinum, Mundeline Seminary, and Notre Dame in New Orleans, to name a few.

Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral
Saint Meinrad College closed in 1998, so I lived in Chicago for little, finishing my undergraduate coursework for Saint Meinrad at St Joseph Seminary (the diocesan seminary at Loyola University).  I experienced an Archdiocese that is much bigger than anything I had ever seen.  To give you an idea, Chicago had one archbishop who was a cardinal, 10+ auxiliary and retired bishops, and well over 1,500 priests (including the religious) who served 3.2 million Catholics.  I remember trying to wrap my head around how big the archdiocese was, and how it was possible that two priests serving in Chicago may never meet each other.  I had never heard of a vicariate, couldn't figure out why a Church would need so many auxiliary bishops, and never found out what the diocese's vice chancellor actually does.  Big archdiocesan liturgies usually involved multiple languages- five was the most I had experienced at one Mass (English, Latin, Spanish, Polish, and Vietnamese).  I also had the opportunity to interact with Francis Cardinal George three times while I lived there- I can tell you he's a pretty neat guy.

Now to be completely honest, at times I was far from being a model seminarian.  I was still in college, and therefore not exempt from arrogance or stubbornness.  I didn't always follow the rules, and didn't have to be as mischievous as I was.  I should have practiced more self-restraint in certain relationships.  A little more piety would have been better, too.

As you know, I didn't make it to ordination.  When I graduated from Saint Meinrad in 1999, I decided to finish a second undergraduate degree in social work from Loyola University and pursue an internship with Catholic Charities Chicago (the largest Catholic Charities in the nation).  I had every intention on going to Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans the next Fall, but by then I knew that God had something else for me.  I had an innate ability for problem solving, and was very drawn to meeting the temporal needs of people.  I knew I couldn't be both diocesan priest and social worker; and God needed me to a social worker.  (God's will wasn't as clear to me back then as I'm making it sound now.) Around the same time, I met the woman who would later become my wife, and that pretty much sealed the deal.

Leaving seminary life was much harder than I thought it was going to be, at least the first few years.  I really missed the life of the seminary community- the fraternal comradery, liturgical prayer, and the intriguing dinner table conversation that only want-to-be theologians could have.  At home in northern Florida, I couldn't go to Mass without someone coming up to talk to me.  Either they didn't know that I had quit and wanted to ask how things were going, or they had heard I left and asked me how I was doing- in the way that you would ask someone who just got dumped by his girlfriend.  Needless to say, I felt a little heartbroken, and that I had broken the hearts of others.  It was especially hard when reminded how bad the Church needed priests, or if I saw a vocations poster that had my picture on it!

It was also difficult for my then girlfriend (we're married now).  I moved to Pennsylvania where she was from.  We dated for 5 years before I proposed, two or three years longer than we really needed to.  The extra years were my fault- while she was hoping that I would propose, I was too busy trying to figure out why God didn't want me to be a priest even though I had really wanted to be one.  I had been preparing myself to love everyone (like a priest should), and had to learn how to lovingly dedicate myself to one person.  Eventually, I stopped arguing and surrendered to God's will.  I proposed, we got married the next year, and now we have two beautiful children and will be celebrating 6 years of marriage.  God's will can't be more clear now, especially when one of the children needs a diaper change or the garbage needs taken out.

I didn't end up a priest, yet my time in the seminary was far from a waste.  My own spiritual growth aside, I have a broadened experience of Church that few Catholics have.  I've seen the celebration of every sacrament.  I participated in the dedication of two churches.  I've watched men who started out as curious seminary applicants put on a stole and chasuble for the first time several years later.  These unique experiences have definitely impacted me, and now I apply them to the life of my parish and my own family as a dedicated layperson.

To be fair, not everything was positive.  I also had a good view of the many problems in the Church.  I remember too well when one of the seminarians from my diocese was dismissed only 3 months away from his priestly ordination.  When I was at home, I observed the bishop and his staff deal with the clergy sexual abuse issues as best they could at the chancery, and figure out how he was going to explain these concerns in his report for the pope during the upcoming ad limina visit.  The bishop would sometimes talk about these things when we shared a meal, and I knew how much all of this weighed on his shoulders.  At another time, I watched in shock as I saw on the news a certain Chicago priest whom I had lived with walking into the courtroom for his trial, charged with pedophilia.  It's important for me to say that even though I have seen more than my fair share of scandal, I still love the Church.  No matter how ugly it was, nothing can take away from the reality of the Gospel.  If the scandal with Judas couldn't stop Jesus and the Apostles, then no scandal can ever stop the Church.

Just as the Church keeps going, so does my vocation story.  (No worries, I'm concluding here.)  Only God knows what will happen next, and that's probably a good thing.  Each of us has a vocation story or a path to holiness, whether ordained or layperson, married or single.  We may not share it as openly, but it does shape us and the people around us, even if we're not aware of it.

I've always enjoyed listening to the vocation stories of others.  Please consider sharing a part of yours, no matter how similar or different.  I'd love to here what you have to say!


  1. Paul, It was a privilege to read every word of this posting, and your blog is very good. You should stop apologizing and warning your readers ... Not needed!

    It is an equal privilege to see what a fine man, father and husband you have grown to become. Your serious and honest discernment was evident to all of us at Meinrad, even if we did not tell you at the time.

    Your authentic testimony here - in my view - is the ideal vocations story, regardless of the end result. First and foremost you have grown in your baptismal calling to holiness and you have sought the will of God. Those of us who were seminarians but became married men and fathers are better for the experience of intentional formation against the backdrop of celibate priesthood.

    Just as we are better husbands and fathers because of that experience, priests today will grow in their calling by our witness of commitment, mercy, sacrifice and holiness within the domestic church. This is how the Communion of the Church works.

    Many blessings on your ministry of family. Keep writing. You are a good man!

    Peace, Dan Sarell (St. Meinrad College, Class of '97)

  2. Ok here goes. My story is far from finished.

    Part 1:
    I think of work as my "secondary" vocation. In my last year of college I decided that I didn't want to take so many chemistry classes; there was something about the life sciences that excited me more. This required me to change my major from biophysical chemistry to biology modified with chemistry - a hodgepodge made up major (that didn't even include a biochemistry class!) that my college let me get away with I think only because by my graduation I had taken about 10 more science classes than any one major would require. Somehow I came to decide that I would take the MCATs, just in case I wanted to go to medical school. The year after college I participated in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Cleveland, OH and I decided I would apply to medical school, just in case. I got in and thought I would give it a shot; there wasn't anything else I could think of that I really wanted to do. I made a decision that if I realized it wasn't right for me, I would have the courage to withdrawal and figure out what was next. I can't really remember now, but I don't think there was much praying involved in these steps I was taking. Fortunately though, it seems to have worked out for me. Medical school was really hard, but I liked what I was doing. I felt like I had a purpose, even in the beginning where we never set eyes on a patient. I initially thought I would specialize in something comprehensive like infectious disease or oncology, but slowly came to realize how much I loved family medicine. I didn't decide to go to medical school because I wanted to help people - for me that would have been a given in whatever career path I chose - I decided to go because I like people. I'm the type of person that actually does want to see the 324 pictures you took on your last vacation and hear the story behind each and every one. Family medicine is about getting to know people first and foremost and for me I think, and I hope others would agree, it has been a perfect fit. Certainly not easy - primary care doctors get dumped on more than anyone - but I can honestly say that I like what I do.

  3. Part 2:
    As for my "primary vocation", I am still trying to figure that out. When I was much younger, like second grade, I thought I wanted to become a nun and teach. At some point that faded away and since then I guess I've always pictured one day becoming a wife and mother, even if for me I might actually have to adopt rather than have children of my own. Interestingly enough, long before I realized I might have fertility problems, I became fascinated with stories of adoption, especially of older children who no one wanted, so maybe that was something God planted in my heart a long time ago on purpose. After a long period away from the Church, and an even more painful (but thankfully shorter) period of trying to be a faithful Catholic on my own terms, I have finally been able to take that first step in learning to submit to God's will alone. While the only thing in my life that has changed has been my heart - hardly a "tangible" thing - I am so much happier now, so much more at peace. A big part of that step for me has been accepting that the Church is who she claims to be and that my faith, in thinking with her, is the most important thing in my life. A very large factor in me falling away from the Church was feeling overlooked (for many reasons, I do not feel that there is such thing as a single vocation) - I'm not exactly a type A personality, but as a physician you can imagine my discomfort with uncertainty. I felt like God forgot to give me a primary vocation! Obviously that is not true (more like selfish and indulgent) and I'm actually really thankful now that I was never faced with a major life decision before, when I was not at the place I am now and my expectations and desires were so different. So I feel a bit behind, like I need to go back ten years or so and do the discerning that faithful Catholics are supposed to do before they start their lives. I am trying to be patient though, and trust in God's plan for me. Trust that He never let me stray too far from what He wanted for me and that the circumstances of my current life are things He can still work with for His greater glory. I know what I want, but I am trying to be open to God surprising me. Prayers are always appreciated!

  4. Part 3:

    Finally I know that all of us have an overarching call to holiness. No matter what our primary or secondary vocations are, we are called to reflect God's love for His creation in all of our words and actions. This is a huge challenge, one that for the first time in my life I am truly starting to understand, but it's pretty exciting too. So whatever tomorrow brings - whether we're on vacation, or dealing with an unexpected natural disaster, or just doing what we usually do everyday - God gives us so many opportunities to be His hands and show His compassion. And with that, so many opportunities where others remind us how much God loves us - even me, despite how many things I have done wrong in my life. God is so merciful!

  5. I throughly enjoyed your path to holiness. I am a parishoner at Resurrection - Fr. Jason's church. He's an amazing priest but just as his path was the priesthood, God has taken yours elsewhere. Please don't apologize. Yes we need priests but we also need good practicing Catholics to set a great example. My favorite part of your blog is found below because I feel the same way. No matter it seems something comes out every other week about the Church, it is still MY Church and where I feel closest to God. God bless.

    "I do have to say, even though I have seen more than my fair share of scandal, I still love the Church. No matter the scandal, it doesn't take away from the reality of the Gospel. If the scandal with Judas couldn't stop Jesus and the Apostles, then no scandal could ever stop the Church."

  6. Around Christmastime 1999, during my senior year of college, I had dinner with a young priest I had met through some mutual friends. He broached the subject of the priesthood with me (and I'm very glad he did, as I tend to think priests could do that sort of thing more often when talking with young men), saying something to the effect of, "You'd make a good priest."

    I replied that I had given some thought to the priesthood, but I had recently started dating Jocelyn, and I felt that it was my vocation to marry. (Fast forward to now: we've been married since 2001.)

    The priest, in turn, said something very wise: Whatever vocation you choose, he said, you should feel that you're giving up something.

    He then went on to say that when he meets prospective seminarians who say they would never want to be married or have children, that's a cause for concern. How much would they really be giving up by becoming a priest?

    This priest's counsel really gets at the nature of vocation. We ought not choose to live our lives the way we ourselves would want to live them, but rather we should choose to live our lives in accord with the way God wants us to live them -- which always, always involves sacrifice on our part.

    All this is to say that from my perspective, Paul, it would seem that your (formerly) strong desire to want to be a priest has greatly helped you to be a better husband and father.


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