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 | By Sean O’Neill

A river of God’s love

There is a thread of God’s love and God’s call that, from the start, has wound like a river through the life of Father Kyle Shinseki. Father Kyle was born in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, and was adopted when he was only four days old. His new parents brought him to their home in Līhu‘e, Hawai‘i, a town of 10,000 souls.

His rural high school in some respects was not very different from a high school in rural Michigan. He had a required agriculture class and, while he was quite active in musicals, the swim team, and student government, the biggest club at his high school was “Future Farmers of America.” He comments, “You’d see people in boots wearing surfer shorts and a T-shirt walking around because they’re going from the ranch to the ocean.”

There was little in the way of religious upbringing that Father Kyle received growing up. His mother had grown up Episcopalian, but religion was not really a focus for the family.

After an encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe during his freshman year in college, he began to spend time with some Catholic friends as a sophomore and then started going to Mass with them before embarking on the RCIA process as a junior. “It was wonderful,” he says. “I had this new purpose, new meaning to my life, and an understanding that I was created by God, that God loved me into being, and that I wasn’t some mistake, or an accident.”

“I was asked by a priest, two months after I became Catholic, whether I had thought about becoming a priest, and it really kind of freaked me out, to be honest. I said, ‘Well, yeah, never going to do that!’ So, I pushed it aside.” The Lord had not finished with him yet, though. When he went to grad school in Los Angeles, he fell in with some friends who were in a parish choir, and that helped keep his faith alive. Similar influences were brought to bear on Father Kyle when he took a job in Phoenix, Arizona, where his boss was a daily communicant. Father Kyle started accompanying him to noon Mass every day. 

A chance meeting with a young professional man who was part of a group that had been begun by the Jesuits in Havana, Cuba, in 1931, provided another tributary to the swelling estuary of awareness of God’s call. “I had a certain affinity for one famous Jesuit, St. Francis Xavier, because my family background is Japanese and St. Francis had been sent to Japan to evangelize.” The chaplain of the group, Agrupación Católica Universitaria (ACU), became a major influence on Father Kyle, especially during the retreats the chaplain gave, in which he illustrated his talks with inspiring stories about saints from the past. Father Kyle believes that that was the point at which the seed of a vocation began to take root in his heart. As a member of the ACU, a Catholic men’s Marian sodality, he studied Aquinas and Augustine and many of the other writings of the fathers of the Church and again this welcoming environment nurtured his faith.

“I never thought that would lead to a vocation,” he says. But there was always that nagging doubt in his mind about his call. In order to avoid the issue, Father Kyle went to business school to study for an MBA. “I thought, ‘Well, if I get a good business degree, I can start a family, be able to support kids and whatnot.’ That was my logic, at least at the time, trying to convince myself.”

After graduation, he went to work for Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati. Coincidentally or not, the Jesuit parish church was right across the road from the company headquarters. Father Kyle muses, “So I feel like God had literally cornered me and I could no longer ignore the knocking at the door.”

At a retreat in Miami, the same priest who had inspired him so much before happened to be there. After one of the talks, Father Kyle started jotting down some notes and the idea of a vocation kept butting in insistently, “it seemed like out of nowhere.” God was again planting clues, like safe havens along the river of love, and drawing the young man onward into His plan to draw all men and women to Himself. He decided to speak to the priest about how his thoughts kept straying to the idea of a vocation to the priesthood. The priest answered, “Well, I always thought you might have a vocation, so I’m glad you finally brought it up,” and encouraged him to speak to a vocations director.

After this bombshell, Father Kyle left the retreat in shock but noticed he was also experiencing tears of joy. With some trepidation, he explained his decision to his coworkers, his friends, and his parents, that he would enter religious life to study for the priesthood. When he told his parents, his father, who was not a religious man, told an anecdote. Father Kyle explains, “When I was a baby, my parents took me to a Buddhist temple to do a sort of special christening or blessing that they do for babies. And the Buddhist monk said that I would grow up to be a monk someday. So I guess he got the religion wrong, but he wasn’t far off with the rest of it.” After his initial time of Jesuit formation, Father Kyle came to realize that, “I had been swimming against the current, but when I finally accepted the Lord’s invitation, it allowed me to be carried by His current.” 

In due time, Father Kyle resisted the call no longer, joined the Society of Jesus, and was ordained on June 9, 2018. Father Kyle has been pastor of St. Mary’s Student Parish in Ann Arbor for less than a year, and finds the excitement and enthusiasm of the students infectious. However, the parish community is also intergenerational. “We have people who graduated from Michigan 50 years ago and stayed in the Ann Arbor area, and they’re still involved and very committed. We have three different strategic planning committees and each of them has everyone from freshmen in college up to 80-year-olds. So, it’s just kind of beautiful to see those generations sharing their own experiences and faith and ideas together.” 

There is also a vibrant Hispanic community, which has been around for about 25 years, with doctors, lawyers and engineers at the University of Michigan, but also hourly workers who have just arrived from Guatemala. “We have Nigerians and Kenyans and folks from Haiti here. And we have a growing Filipino community that’s been organizing more and more events.”

And so, that river of God’s love flows on in Father Kyle Shinseki’s life and seems to be bearing much fruit, both in his life and in the lives of those with whom he comes in contact. His story stamps upon our minds and hearts the fact that God calls every one of us into that same loving relationship. Gently and without coercion, He tasks each of us with our own unique and personal mission in the world, to bear much fruit, fruit that will endure.