Last weekend, the Diocese of Trenton hosted the Marriage Summit, a program over two days that examined the state of marriage in society at large, and specifically among Catholics in our Diocese, the call to the vocation of married life. In my presentation at the Summit, I developed a conversation around the theme of “The Whole of Life,” adapted from the first canon on marriage, 1055. This coming week, I will have the opportunity to join my brother transitional deacons, and to be led by Bishop O’Connell in our canonical retreat in preparation for the Ordination to the Priesthood, my call to a new vocation.
For myself, the Marriage Summit gave me pause to consider just what the “whole of life” means for me as I approach Holy Orders: I am a son, brother and uncle; I was a husband, and remain a widower which ties me in both intangible and in powerfully spiritual ways to the married life; I am a father, considering proudly the maturation of my three sons into fine young adults.
I am a deacon, having served as such for more than a decade now, with that accumulated ministerial experience. I spent more than three decades in the business world, with a perspective that included exposure to critical business issues on three continents.
This context is my own, personal “whole of life” – so far; it is what I will bring to my ministry as a parish priest. Shortly before entering the seminary in 2013, I read Fr. Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” I found it offered powerful insight, beginning with that basic image that in life, each time we stumble, it does not need to be falling downward. The image more powerfully reflects tripping up a step, that stumble in life that may have slowed us or knocked us down, but then we realize that we fell onto the next step going upward – maybe even two steps ahead! Yes, it was a fall, but it is a fall forward, a fall upward.
My path has not been a straight line to the priesthood, but it has been a very whole, very complete life, with tremendous joy found in my family, even in the darkest days of struggle. In thinking of this falling metaphor, I was reminded of the powerful moment in Jerusalem a year ago when I looked out across the Kidron Valley, at the very steps that Jesus and his disciples likely used from the Upper Room to the Garden of Olives, steps upon which so many have likely tripped and fallen … only to get up again.
Discernment of this vocation invites consideration of a powerful dimension of surrender to God’s will. Complete, total, unconditional surrender to God’s will is intimidating. A few weeks ago, I did not know where I would be assigned as a priest, and now I do know. More importantly, I don’t know what may be next in God’s plan for my priesthood: who will I meet in the parish in need of a conversation about Jesus? What will make up their own “whole of life” context in which I am called to be their priest and spiritual guide? Where will God and the Bishop need me to go five, ten or fifteen years from now?
Those questions have a simple answer: surrender, and, Thy will be done. As I shared in a previous blog post (July 31, 2013), I like this God of Surprises! I ask only that He continue to give me the courage and grace to look forward to each day’s surprises, and the firmness of will and heart to embrace the unknown.
Newark Coadjutor Archbishop Hebda once told us in the seminary that the “natural habitat of a diocesan priest is in the parish.” Even at the cusp of that mission, I am most sure that I am not done falling up the steps of life; each stumble happily adds to my own context, my whole of life. During this coming retreat, I hope to spend time quietly presenting myself to Jesus, and listening for His direction. Soon, God willing, I will add “priest” to my whole of life context, but I will still be father, brother, son, uncle and widower.
Sometimes when we fall forward, we end up on a landing, with multiple directions to choose the course. Please keep Deacons Arian, Jarlath, Jason, John and I in your prayers this week; our formation journey has brought us to this landing, this sacred time of retreat. May God bless us, and give us calloused knees for the stumbles yet to come.