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 | By Stephanie Van Koevering

A Journey of Faith: From Michigan to Rome

Raised in Battle Creek, Michigan, Jacob Derry’s path to the priesthood was thoughtful and deliberate, much like the man himself. Recently, FAITH editor Stephanie Van Koevering spoke to the seminarian as he continues his studies in Rome.

Jacob’s call to the priesthood didn’t happen all at once. Instead, a gradual realization emerged after college, cultivated through friendships and clarified in the midst of personal trials.

“Friendships were a key part of it,” he says. “I had a few friends in college at the University of Michigan who showed me what it meant to live faith and how to pray. It was also friendships after college in Indianapolis that pushed me to attend daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration and, generally, be more open to the work of the Holy Spirit. Then, there were friends who told me that they could see me as a priest and encouraged me to pray about vocation.” 

While faithful friendships surrounded Jacob, that did not make him immune to the challenges of life. “I was 24 years old, and I went through a season of trial. A good friend from high school unexpectedly passed, a couple of other friendships became tense or distant, and I was also experiencing a lot of uncertainty regarding my professional work.”

It was in these trials that Jacob could more clearly hear the Lord’s call. “One thing that comes about in any relationship is a moment to grow in trust. I just had to trust Jesus with all these things that were going on. And to trust meant sharing more of myself with Jesus. Opening myself up in prayer, Jesus helped me to see how much he desired a close friendship with me. He has been so faithful and generous all throughout my life. He doesn’t stop calling. He doesn’t stop pursuing my heart. Now, I want to be a priest to invite others to experience the love of the God who never stops pursuing them.”

God has continued to guide Jacob, first, bringing him to seminary in Detroit and then, further seminary formation in Rome. His time in Rome, marked by academic rigor and cultural adjustment, has been a transformative period leading him to a deeper love.

“Overall, it's been incredible. I’ve been blessed to have learned so much about myself, about the Lord, and about the Church, too,” he says. “It has been kind of twofold in the sense of growing in love with the Lord and with his Church. And yeah, there are parts of it that are difficult, but that's what draws the love out. We can’t really love if we aren’t willing to sacrifice.”

One of the challenges that Jacob faces is the distance from family, friends and the comforts of home. “I have felt very poor spiritually at times being here, being away from all that is familiar. And Rome offers a lot of ways I could distract myself or numb that discomfort, but I’m trying to choose the Lord and allow him into those areas of distress and loneliness. He wants to be with me in those moments just like he was years ago when I was initially discerning the call. Jesus wants our entire selves not just part of us. When things get tough, he has been so great at gently reminding me to trust and reassuring me of his love and goodness.”

While Jacob admits that Rome can be filled with various potential distractions (the pasta, gelato, ancient ruins and tourism), he is also quick to point out the many ways that he is daily pointed back to God and the Church: the tombs of saints, the frescoes of the Blessed Virgin Mary on most street corners and priests and religious sisters walking on their way to pastoral ministry or studies. “All in one place, you see both the beauty and the brokenness of humanity, so you also see the beauty and brokenness of the Church.

“The Church has struggled in many ages throughout history. This age is no exception, but I have a firm hope because the Holy Spirit is still at work!” Jacob is filled with hope for the Church because of his encounters with saints like the apostles Peter and Paul, his discussions with fellow seminarians and classmates and opportunities he has had to experience the Church in far-off places like Ireland, Slovenia and Poland.

He also has encountered the beauty of the Church in its leader, Pope Francis.

“Meeting him was wonderful,” he says. “I felt like I got to see Pope Francis as a person, and not just how he's portrayed by the media. When you see him up close, when you see his eyes, he has this amazing life and absolute joy within him.”

Jacob saw the pope again at World Youth Day last summer.

“Of course, it was from a distance, but it was still powerful,” he says. “I could tell how much he loves the Church and how much he wants to share the Gospel with young people. That was the most animated I have heard him in his speaking, in his preaching. And the young people responded…”

“Each day of World Youth Day, the pope would arrive at the venue by car, so there were hundreds of thousands of young people lined up to see him. One of these days, we were all waiting for him, and from the hill that I was standing on, I saw a teenage boy about 50 yards in front of me climb a tree so that he could get a better view of Pope Francis passing by. It was almost exactly out of the Scriptures — Luke, Chapter 19 where Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get a better view of Jesus passing by.”

“That’s when it hit me: the pope is Jesus Christ on earth for us. He is the shepherd of our Church. That’s a huge responsibility, and I want to pray for him to carry that cross fruitfully.”

This summer, Jacob will return to Michigan for a time before heading back to Rome for two years of continued study.

“I am grateful to be here,” he says. “God is faithful, and the opportunities are enriching my faith and helping me grow as a disciple, which will, ultimately, make me a better priest when I return to the Diocese of Lansing.”