I got serious about my religious and priestly vocation because after I got to graduate school for the first time, I soon realized that I did not particularly want to be there – at least not for the doctoral studies in French. On the faith front, I wasn’t sure exactly what I believed any more, although I was pretty sure that I WANTED to believe. And curiously, I never stopped attending Sunday Mass, although – with all the righteous fervor of a 21-year old – I definitely had my “issues” with the Church.
Still, having arrived in Durham, NC in a 1967 Chevy Impala with all my worldly possessions and not a single local contact, I needed to connect with people somehow, somewhere (outside the Department of Romance Languages, that is!). “Church” seemed as good a place as any – force of habit, I guess. Or maybe God’s grace… Because enough, to my immense surprise, all the things in my life that energized me and kept me sane and happy were connected to my growing involvement at the Newman Center.
For the first time in my life, I met young Catholics my own age who CHOSE their faith, and who spoke about it freely. I also met and shared faith with many Protestant peers – which led me to the Bible in a serious way. A weekend retreat with Campus Ministry put my doubts to rest. I wasn’t sure what exactly had happened to me – certainly no dramatic visions or lightning bolts. But in the days and months thereafter, I slowly understood that I had met the risen Christ, and was entering into a personal relationship with him.
Before long, I was playing guitar and singing in the folk group. I was serving regularly as a Eucharistic minister and a lector. I was involved with (and helping to lead) an ecumenical charismatic prayer group. And I was gratified (if somewhat puzzled) at the number of friends and acquaintances who were regularly seeking out my listening ear. So as my disaffection with grad school grew, I found thoughts of priesthood (which I had briefly considered in 7th grade) returning to me. It didn’t hurt that about six of my peers – in what was really a fairly small Newman “core” group! – were entertaining (and admitting to) similar thoughts.
As grad students will do, I went to the library and began to read about my “options.” I considered diocesan priesthood, perhaps in the Diocese of Raleigh, where the Catholic population was growing rapidly and the priests remained few in number. But I still had a yen to be a teacher, so I started to consider the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and the Jesuits.
And that’s pretty much what I knew about religious life at the time – that religious priests might do other things besides work in a parish. That, and the fact that they lived in communities together. Even back then, I could see that the number of priests was likely to continue to decline over time, while the number of Catholics seemed likely to continue to grow. I was not especially daunted by the prospect of a celibate life, but I was pretty clear that I did NOT want to live and work alone.
During my second year at Duke, a Jesuit came as the new Newman Chaplain. He connected me with the Jesuit vocation office; and inspired by the writings and vision of our charismatic Superior General at that time, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., I was soon “sold, sealed, and delivered.” I entered the Society in the late summer of 1976 – still knowing amazingly little about the religious vocation which I was embracing.
The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were mostly abstract concepts; and the shared spirituality and charism of the Society of Jesus remained undiscovered treasures. I think I nearly gave my poor Novice Master a heart attack early on, when I told him that I admired Ignatius Loyola’s ideas, but I felt more affectively connected to St. Francis of Assisi! (You’ll be glad to know that this is no longer true, and it hasn’t been for a long time. I just had to get to know St. Ignatius before I could come to love him…)
God knew what he was doing. The more I learned and grew into the life I had chosen, the clearer it became that I was absolutely called to be a vowed religious and specifically, a Jesuit. I was right about the teaching part, and also about the call to community life. But there was so much more about the consecrated life to be learned and lived and savored. And while for us Jesuits, our priesthood and our religious vocation are closely intertwined – as Ignatius intended – I think that today I could more easily imagine not functioning as a priest than I could imagine not being a vowed Jesuit religious. I am grateful to God for my vocation every day.
This weekend (February 2-3), the Church celebrates the 17th annual World Day for Consecrated Life. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is blessed even now with the prayerful presence and service of nearly 3000 religious priests, sisters, and brothers. Our own Archbishop is a Capuchin Franciscan; and our local history has been enriched by two canonized religious – our Redemptorist bishop, St. John Neumann, and the foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Katharine Drexel.
I know that many of you were educated and formed in your faith by religious sisters, brothers, and priests; and your membership at Old St. Joseph’s suggests that you value belonging to a parish run by Jesuit priests and brothers. I join with Archbishop Chaput in urging you this weekend to “implore God’s choicest blessings upon all in consecrated life.” Say a prayer of thanks for the religious women and men who have inspired you. Thank a religious sister, brother or priest for what they do, and for the witness of their lives. And ask God, for the good of the Church and the world, to call more young women and men to consider a vocation to consecrated life.
©2013 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.