Thursday, December 09, 2004

Going to Carolina in My Mind

Though I grew up I Massachusetts (home, by the way, of the champion New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox), I consider my second home to be South Carolina, where I lived for five years before entering the Jesuits in 1997. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about South Carolina. OK, the Carolina-Clemson brawl, which finished the football season, might be part of the reason. So, too, might be my angst at the fact that Steve Spurrier, long-hated former coach of the evil Florida football empire (almost as evil as THE evil empire—the New York Yankees), is now the coach of my South Carolina Gamecocks. That means, I suppose, that I’m going to have to find a way to like him. But I’m not there yet (pray for me).

However, why I’m really thinking of South Carolina is the fact that I’m preparing to take the final step in my work toward the priesthood, and South Carolina, more that any place else, was where my vocation was nurtured. It was there that God placed in my life good and faithful friends who helped to bring out the best in me. I owe my vocation in many ways to people like Lisa, Tom, John, Becky, Kevin, Mike, Tim, Cindy, Cristy, Mary, Loretta and the many others too numerous to name whom I worked, partied and ministered with for those five years.

My work with them lead to my accepting the position as youth and young adult ministry coordinator at Saint Peter’s parish in Columbia. This was the first time when I felt confident that I was doing what God wanted of me, so much so that I turned down an opportunity to teach in Japan. I thought that perhaps this was to be my vocation, and I loved the kids and all the good things we were able to accomplish in my two years at the parish. I couldn’t imagine that this wouldn’t be what God wanted; it was all going so well (not perfect, but well). Yet, God had something else in mind. And so it was, on that Palm Sunday weekend in 1996, Lisa, Tom and John there with me, that God suggested another possibility. We were at the “Youth 2000” retreat and one of the priests there was giving a talk about his vocation. I’d heard similar talks before, this wasn’t really any different. Yet, as I listened to the “same old stuff” a thought entered my mind, a question really, it asked: Why aren’t you doing that? I was a bit taken aback because I knew it wasn’t me doing the asking. I felt compelled to give an answer, but I wasn’t ready to at that moment. Later that week I called the Jesuits and asked for information.

Why the Jesuits? I’m not exactly sure. I’d never even really met a Jesuit. Yet, at some point I’d arrived at the conviction that if this time ever came, the time to be a priest, I was likely to be a Jesuit. As I read the materials that arrived in the mail soon after, I knew why. The Jesuit approach to spirituality and ministry is what I’d been looking for; somehow I had intuited that along the way, now it was clear. Less than a year and a half later I was entering the Jesuit novitiate in Grand Coteau, LA. And even before I entered those doors, God had already taught me a lesson. Doing his will comes at a price, and requires sacrifice. God had given me the best friends I’d ever had and placed them with me to nurture my vocation. But, in order to pursue that vocation, I had to leave them behind. I miss them dearly, and I have not been able to return for a visit in a couple of years. Yet, as I contemplate my vocation to the priesthood in preparation for the final step in my formation, there they are so present and so important to what I’ve become because we were willing to risk that separation for the sake of God’s will. They started me on this journey in joy and pain, and others have done the same these past seven and a half years of similar joys and pains. Yet, with its ups and downs, with its successes and failures, I wouldn’t change it. If I can be a good priest, it will only be because I was and continue to be willing to sacrifice even God’s greatest gifts for God’s greater glory. And, anyway, though separated by geography, they are not left behind, they are in my heart and in the substance of my vocation to love and serve God and God’s people.

So, if you see me smiling, caught up in my thoughts, don’t worry, I may just be going to Carolina in my mind, and thanking God for the people there with me.


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