Psalm 63:2
O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.
I do not want to stretch the Scripture reference too far. But I am returning today to part of my story of why I believe what I do. And, since this is national vocations week, it fits. This first stanza from our Responsorial Psalm is an important part of what I would describe as the truth that drew me and holds me where I am.
There is a famous Christian poem titled “The Hound of Heaven” that describes God as a hound that pursues the Christian soul, especially during the soul’s initial movement toward God. It has also been said that if we take one step toward God, he runs 10 miles to meet us. And, the soul senses this movement of God. When we begin to search for him, he makes it clear that he is searching for us.
But, let me turn to my story. I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I had been engaged to be married before considering the priesthood. This engagement I broke off because I could see that there were problems with the relationship that would have kept it from growing properly into a good Christian marriage. Now, remember that this happened when I was only twenty-one or twenty-two years old! It had to be the grace of God that I could see through the problems and limitations that this relationship had.
I broke it off because I could see we did not have enough to make a solid Christian marriage. It was complicated by the fact that she was not Catholic, and wanted me to leave the Catholic Church. Even though she said she could accept it, she never did. Proof of that was that after I broke off the engagement, and after I had applied to the seminary, she called (she was living in Virginia) and she said that I could become an Episcopal priest, and we could still get married.
She did not understand. So I was correct in walking away from that relationship. Now, before I leave that part of my story, I want to speak to those of you who are pursuing a relationship. There is a line in St. Paul’s writing that says that Christians are not to be unequally yoked. You would not try to have a dog sled being pulled by… an Alaskan Husky dog and a Chihuahua. It would not work!
In the same way, if we are honest about what God calls us to be, we will not seek a relationship for marriage that is not with a faith filled individual. It would be a mistake – hear me now – it would be a mistake to think that your faith would eventually bring the other person to faith. That can happen, but why start with such a handicap? If you are thinking of marriage, and your faith is strong, keep running toward God and look around you. See who is running with you toward God and look for your spouse among those people.
I did not do that, and it cost me a lot of heartache, until I realized what God was asking me to do.
How did I know that God was calling me to the priesthood? Well, I was taking classes at the University, and there was a priest there taking classes as well who was on a sabbatical. He was also a military veteran. We talked a lot. During that year, he asked me a number of times if I ever thought about being a priest. During the first half of the year, I laughed because I was engaged.
But, six weeks after I broke off the engagement, he asked the question again. This time, I stayed on the subject and asked him why he kept asking me that question. His response was very simple: “I think you have the qualities to be a good priest.”
Two weeks later, I walked across the street from the University to the Chancery and applied to the seminary. I walked away from my dream of getting married. I walked away from my dream to be a military officer, because I believed that was what God had called me to. I applied to the seminary, and I never looked back. All it took was for someone to say “I think you have the qualities to be a good priest.”
At that time, I belonged to a Catholic charismatic prayer group here in Omaha. I remember talking to them about my dreams and my engagement. And I remember the night I told them about my change of plans. I said I had some good news and some bad news. I said the bad news was that the engagement was off, and they were sad for me. Until I told them that the good news was that I had applied to the seminary.
That made a huge difference. I even remember one of the young women from the group coming up to me that night and saying “why does God always get the good ones?” I laughed at that. But I knew I was headed in the right direction.
It felt on some level that I might be rushing things. But because I was the one who broke off the engagement, I was not worried that I was going into the seminary on some sort of a “rebound.” I was confident that I had heard the call that God had made for me. I was so confident, that I said I was going to continue without change. And God was going to have to do something big if I was making a mistake. Well, here I am more than forty years after those events.
I know I have done, and continue to do, what God wants me to as a priest. But here is one more little surprise. There is a place in the Scriptures that says “set your heart of the Lord, and he will give you the desire of your heart.” Well, first of all, if our heart is set on the Lord, he is the desire of our heart! But God does not stop there! I had a desire in my heart to serve as an officer in the military.
At first I thought that was by my going through West Point and serving as an Army officer. That was taken away from me because of my shoulder. So I tried the Air Force, but I left that to go to the seminary. Then, after I was ordained for five years, I did become a military officer. I became a Navy chaplain, and worked for the Marine Corps during Desert Storm. Yes! Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines.
So, by pursuing God above all else, which I knew was the right thing for me to do, I walked away from a marriage that would have been disastrous for me and I walked into a life as a priest that fulfilled dreams that I thought would never be filled. I walked into the life of the priest that has led me through many twists, turns, and assignments. I walked into a life that has led me to you.
I would leave you with a quote from St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of diocesan priests. It is on a plaque that hangs in my bedroom that was a gift from my nieces. It reads: “to live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; to be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; to share all the sufferings; to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds; to go from man to God and offer him their prayers; to return from God to man to bring pardon and hope; to have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity; to teach and to pardon, console and bless always, my God, what a life! And it is yours, O Priest of Jesus Christ!” Amen.