I knew I wanted to be a priest in second grade
My father came home one day from Plant 8 at Pontiac Motors with a big smile. He had just been awarded $6,000 for suggesting a cost-saving measure to General Motors. With that, he told me I could go to the high-school seminary at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit that fall. I was 14 and, at the time, the eldest of eight children (the twins arrived five years later).
Thoughts about the priesthood had been on my mind since second grade. It is fascinating that it was admiration for my pastor, love for the Mass and the church, examples of saints and the urging of the Dominican Sisters of Oxford (our teachers) that motivated me finally to apply to the seminary in the fall of 1965.
My first weekend home from boarding at the seminary in ninth grade was quite traumatic – the noise of all my siblings was quite jarring after the disciplined silence of that first week. Soon, however, adjustment set in and those weekends were a joyful part of my formation as a priest.
The high-school seminary was a great place to be – academically, formationally, spiritually and emotionally. In my senior year, I fell in love with a girl, whom I had met on a retreat, of all things. But, in the end, she loved someone else even more.
College at Sacred Heart Seminary was a greater challenge, which is as it should be. While I was there, I came to understand that being a leader doesn’t mean satisfying everyone, not even my friends, but rather seeking to please God. That is a rough lesson. The other challenge for me was always to be intellectually honest, to seek the truth and try to pare away prejudices and biases. It was the truth as present in Jesus Christ that really grabbed my whole heart.
Three of us from our graduating class were sent on to study theology in Rome at the Gregorian University and to live at the North American College. The greatest lesson of all sunk into me during those years: It was the realization that I am incredibly unworthy to follow Christ, let alone to stand in his place. Augustine’s Confessions really helped crystallize for me my own sense of sin. In addition, being in Rome taught me much about culture, art, music and literature – but most of all about faith and our beloved church. To be so near to our Holy Father was a great privilege. Although I had many doubts along the way, they all had paled in comparison to the strength of God’s call to me to be a priest. However, during my retreat, just prior to being ordained a deacon, I had the greatest temptation of all: I began to doubt the reality of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. This was like pulling the rug out from under my feet. I was devastated. I remember speaking during the retreat to my spiritual director, Father Douglas Osborn, who was one of our senior priests. He was with me for the retreat. He told me to rest in the faith that had always been part of my life and this temptation would flee. In fact, that is just what happened. It is a constant reminder to me of the fragility of faith, of how it must be nurtured and guarded else it will die.
It is strange that after all those years of preparation, my memory of what actually took place at my ordination is pretty vague. Now, 30 years later, I can say that there is no other life I would rather have. Few years go by before God surprises me with something new to tackle as a priest. It has been my privilege to give my all and allow God’s grace to do in me what I know I cannot do of myself.
Every vocation story is different, unique – as it should be. God calls each of us to holiness in the way that God knows will most assuredly get us to heaven. Listen to that call and heed it. Our salvation does depend on God’s grace leading us on the path best suited for ourselves.