I came into the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass at Gesu Catholic Church in Downtown Miami in 2013: I was baptized, received first communion and was confirmed at that mass. Sometimes I can’t help but to think that I’m only 7 years old. Funny as that may seem, I truly do think of my life as a very stark “before and after” story; not to say that our Lord has yet finished transforming me. Thank God.
Growing up I had every opportunity, every advantage, that a person could hope for. We were perhaps not wealthy but we were well off. I had two amazing and supportive older brothers who were the best role models I could hope for. Although my parents divorced when I was young, my mother (with whom I lived growing up) remarried when I was only 9, meaning that I didn’t go long without a father in my life. My mother, to her own credit, is as resilient and savvy as a person can be.
In our youth, we did not grow up with any sort of faith life. We occasionally attended a local non-denominational church, but it was more social than it was sacred. My mother was raised Catholic, but like many young people, left the Church at her first glimpse of intellectual freedom. It would be 40 years until she returned. Through my teens I played a lot of tennis, played hooky from school, went to the beach and did all the non-spectacular things that were afforded me by my comfortable life.
When I got to high school I became acquainted with drugs and alcohol. By the time I got to college, we knew each other quite well. I attended Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, thinking at the time that I was going to be a sports agent (and so was drawn to their rather exceptional Sports Management program). I dropped it after one class. By my junior year I was committed to a double major in English Literature and Spanish Language with a minor in partying.
The second semester of my junior year I went to South America for a study abroad program. During my time there I took my nightlife to the next level. Even during my time abroad I could not escape the desire to hide behind being constantly inebriated. I started to notice an actual problem. The first time I ever walked into a Catholic Church as an adult, it was by myself, in Argentina, desperate for some sort of consolation that I did not understand. By the time I returned from this trip, I became starkly aware that these habits of drinking and drugs, of never really allowing myself to be sober, were because I was avoiding the very difficult question with which we all hopefully come to terms: What was I actually made for? More specifically, do I have a purpose and, if so, what is it?
One of the primary ways that God has so clearly provided for me is through my family: I remember within a week of being back on campus in the semester following my study abroad, I called my brothers for a conference call (thank God this was not an uncommon occurrence). To this day these men have walked with me and God has continued to pour out his grace through them. In that call I described where I was at, how I was breaking down and asked what to do. By this time, my mother had found her way back to the Catholic Church after about 40 years of very committed practice of Transcendental Meditation. During her reversion, my brothers had taken their own interest in Christianity and naturally there was an exchange of ideas. This led to both of my brothers choosing to enter RCIA in 2011.
And so, at my brothers’ recommendation I picked up the Bible for the first time ever. I also read C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (although they recommended Mere Christianity). This book showed me that I was very clearly fighting and losing a battle for my own soul. It illustrated a reality that I instinctively recognized but could not articulate. For the first time in my life, I consistently went to Church, and at the Basilica in Downtown St. Augustine no less. I sat quietly in the back of Mass, knelt when others knelt, stood when they stood and fumbled through a lot of prayers. I will never forget my fascination with the priest. I’m sure it’s been said before, but the truth is that, I didn’t know what that guy was doing up there, but it seemed so important as to be transcendent. This is what drew me home to the Church. It was not a theory, or an idea, or being struck down on the road to Damascus. It was the reverence of a priest who I never met, whose name I to this day do not even know.
By the time I graduated college I had committed to entering RCIA myself. Still a bit reticent, I was particularly drawn to the fact that it was free and I could drop out whenever I wanted, no questions asked. During my journey I began to meet other young Catholics. Primarily they were college students, but they showed me what authentic faith and witness looked like in a group of people (college students) that I simply did not think of being capable.
In the intervening months, I drove home from Miami to visit my parents for a weekend and met Dan and Stephanie Burke. We had a friendly visit and they were at times obviously probing in their questions to see where I was in my walk of faith. I realized through our talks that I didn’t know much, that I didn’t know our Lord at all, and that I wanted to go deeper. It was one of the first key moments of someone helping to reveal what the actual call to holiness looks like.
In truth, the first years after my conversion were not at all what I expected. I thought that coming into the Church meant endless consolation and overflowing joy. What I found instead was that Catholicism was hard work, and it seemed it more than I bargained for. God was asking for transformation; I still wanted to be comfortable. For the next few years the same two things would happen every six months or so: I would talk to Dan who would challenge me to go deeper and I would struggle with the idea of priesthood and my vocation.
The question of priesthood took a long time to progress because it was so foreign. Not only was I not raised Catholic, I had never actually spoken to a priest until I was in my twenties. So I continued for years doing what I felt was simply expected of me. I worked in the professional world and I dated (the work was much more successful than the dating). I remember speaking in the last few months to a very holy priest and he recounted one of the most important moments of hearing God’s call to a priestly vocation. He was dating a fantastic girl in college. She was beautiful, smart, had a great family, his parents liked her and she was obviously just a catch. One day, he broken up with her without fully even knowing why. In the months he realized it was God calling him to be His priest.
And so, God, in baby steps, appears to have led me along, giving me everything that a human being could ask for. If I lost a job, I got a better one. I had a community of people seeking me out to walk with them in holiness. I was invited to work with youth groups and ministries. In 2014, I began writing reflections of the Sunday Gospel readings for a small apologetics ministry. This experience gave me a depth of understanding and a passion for the scriptures that I had never experienced. God continuously placed people and through them extended invitations to be called tenderly into deeper relationship.
Infrequent as they were at the time, my little conversations with Dan proved to be incredibly helpful. Through his books, our talks and recommended reading I realized where sin had sunk its teeth deep into who I was and that prayer and the Sacraments were my vital antidote. I could only go a month at best without falling into mortal sin, and I was constantly frustrated and dejected over my inability to progress meaningfully. Then one day at the advice of a spiritual director, I began praying over Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon”. This passage hit me right where it hurt. I knew to this point, without saying it, that I had to choose God fully and that I had not done so.
In early 2018 I was working as the Director of Operations for a real estate investment group in Jacksonville. I loved the people that I worked with, the work itself was engaging and the pay was good. Yet I could not escape my desire to use whatever gifts God might have given me in service of the Church. Ironically, the CEO, an evangelical Christian and a good friend, felt that I should do something similar. He felt that I should be a teacher, a priest or work for a non-profit. We worked out a deal that would let me leave in the summer to pursue other opportunities.
As I came into my last couple weeks of work, a friend called from Tampa to suggest that I begin my period of transition with an Ignatian retreat. In fact, he insisted on it. I was more than reticent and kind of annoyed that he wouldn’t just let me decline and go about finding a new job. I had been on silent retreats before and while I liked the idea, I found that people weren’t particularly silent and that I could find more peace and quiet at home than anywhere else. When I finally consented to doing a three-day retreat, he insisted on five. When I caved and agreed to five, he pushed for eight. All in all, I had my last day of work on a Thursday, moved my things on a Friday, and was in a retreat center on the other side of the state by Monday. The only word that I can use to describe that experience is “lifechanging”.
For eight days, I turned off my phone, left my computer behind and found complete rest in the Lord. For the first time in my life, I felt that prayer had actually put me fully in the presence of God. Not only that, not every prayer was a frantic plea to make His will known to me. Instead I could simply be present and abide in Him. Not only was prayer deeper than ever before, but my spiritual director during the retreat cut me right to the core and challenged me in all the right ways, and essentially, to “go for it” in my next opportunity.
I pursued a job as a development officer with FOCUS (The Fellowship of Catholic University Students) with full force. I had zero experience in fundraising and I had never worked for a non-profit or any sort of organized ministry. Needless to say, it was a long shot. I mention the long odds because I can only think that it was by God’s grace that I eventually got the job and worked for the most faithful, authentic and joyful community of young Catholics that I had ever been a part of. Being a witness to these young men and women, their families, their holiness and their love for the Lord is what gave me the courage to pursue holiness unabashedly and to eventually hear God’s call to the priesthood. I would not be where I am without my experience at FOCUS.
During my time with FOCUS, my prayer life intensified and the question of seminary returned. I committed to a 6 month period of abstinence from dating to spend time with our Lord and better hear him (All first-year FOCUS missionaries do a one-year “dating fast”). In doing so, seminary changed from being almost entirely intimidating to significantly appealing. As I spent the next few months praying, talking to people and getting to know the priests that served FOCUS, they showed me that there was more to priesthood than sacrifice, and real joy could be found there. The irony is that the desire to give my life to the Lord as his priest only grew.
After some extended conversations with a few vocation directors, I was committed. Furthermore, I was committed to pursuing priesthood in a religious order rather than the diocese; it was just a question of which one. With such little interaction with religious orders in my early life, it was difficult to sort out the orders that I might consider. Naturally, I called Dan again. We talked, I visited him and Stephanie in Alabama for a few days, and they invited me to continue to deepen my relationship with Apostoli Viae. Finally they let it slip that Apostoli Viae was looking for their very first seminarian. Despite visiting with and researching a host of other orders, the desire to serve AV not only remained but grew stronger. As I learned more about the AV charism, attended Sojourner’s meetings and consumed all the content I could find, it became obvious that the Lord was calling me here. I was a seminarian looking for a home, and AV was a vibrant home looking for a seminarian.
Even in its infancy, AV’s charism was at the heart of my own spiritual foundations. It was through AV that I drafted my first ever plan of love way back in 2014. It was through AV that that plan flourished and changed. The guiding principles of AV were what taught me the foundations of prayer, and oriented me to pray in a way that actually grew in relationship with Jesus Christ. Prayer went from being something nice and recreational to something essential and formative, often challenging.
Since the announcement of my attending the seminary with AV, I have made several calls to existing members to better know the community. I want to say thank you to the community at large for being a place that gives me encouragement, consolation and fuel in my desire to know our Lord. I am excited to share the rest of the my life with Apostoli Viae and it gives me great hope to know that I am on this journey with such a faithful and devoted community.