This week I'm running a series, For the Love of the Church, written by my friend Jacob Boddicker, SJ.
Jacob is a Jesuit scholastic originally from Iowa, and is currently studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in preparation for ordination. He has an academic background in archaeology, history, and philosophy, and his interests include music, science fiction/fantasy, and writing.
Make sure to check out:
My vows took place on a warm Saturday morning, and after a lovely reception I was loading my things into my best friend's car and heading to my folks' place in Iowa. The next morning I attended Mass at the parish where I grew up, seeing the faces and places that connected me to my earliest memories of my fiance, and afterwards my friend and I were back on the road headed to St. Louis. I already knew the Church was waiting for me there; I couldn't wait to see her.
I arrived late in the afternoon on a cloudy, humid day, and my Jesuit brothers helped me carry my meager possessions up to the third floor of an old, brick house just off the campus of St. Louis University. I said goodbye to my friend and spent the next several hours unpacking and thinking about vows and the new life I had just begun. Classes would start in a week and I would begin studying philosophy, something I knew precisely nothing about.
The first day of classes came and I was hit with a sudden realization: I am on a college campus. After two years in the novitiate, surrounded by men, I was suddenly tossed back into the sea of the world, and there were attractive women my age all over the place. This is not to say I suddenly doubted my vocation; not in the least! Nor is it to say that I feared for the integrity of my vow of chastity; hardly. What it is to say is that I realized I had no idea how to live that vow of chastity in a positive way; in other words how do I, as a chaste celibate, love an attractive person?
My heart knew only one way of caring about someone I was attracted to: I called it "the heart of the prince." This is the heart that pursues, that throws itself out hoping to be accepted, the heart that seeks relationship and, ultimately, a shared life. I knew that this wasn't how I was to love anyone (except the Bride of Christ, of course, and I already "had" her heart and she had mine). I knew, too, that Christ had called me to love all people, and I could not withdraw my heart from someone just because I found them attractive and feared, say, falling in love. What to do?
In my prayer I brought the matter constantly to Jesus, and over time I began to see that there are two hearts, primarily, by which a man loves a woman totally and chastely, both of which I knew Christ was asking of me regarding everyone I encountered. A husband loves his wife totally and chastely; a father loves his daughter totally and chastely as well. The latter heart is the one I needed; the former heart is the one I had. I needed a new wineskin of a heart to contain the new wine, and so began the slow and steady interior work of reshaping my heart. The Church, as is her wont, helped me immensely, bringing into my life a number of religious sisters that really put a "face" on her and made her that much more real. One of my earliest friends ended up joining a religious community at the end of my first semester; now she is Sr. Rachel of the Eucharistic Lamb. My best friend, after two years, joined the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. I met SrColleen Mattingly, SrSusan Francis Graham, SrChristine Kiley, SrChristine Hoffner, and many other wonderful sisters that really helped bring the Bride of Christ to life for me.
But what really changed my life was the opportunity to be the chaplain for a group of women on campus called the Daughters of Isabella. Just when I had, in my prayer, begun to realize I needed to learn how to become a spiritual father to the people of God, one of my brothers approached me and asked if I would take over his position as chaplain for a group on campus once he graduated. When he said they were called the Daughters of Isabella, I knew it was an answer to my prayer. Daughters. How perfect.
Thus began two years of such blessed ministry and growth, and to this day I am still friends with several of the women I served, and a few of them I do very much consider "daughters". One of them has since become a Carmelite sister; another is in discernment. Another spent two years as a missionary in Thailand; another teaches at a beautiful Catholic school out west, and the others have spread all over the country doing God's work in their own way. Since then Jesus has brought many "children" into my heart, and there are a number of people who, contrary to what I deserve, look to me as a father figure in their life. For the past few years in particular, the number of Father's Day greetings I receive on Facebook, via email, and via post far exceeds what would have been possible were I to have wed and had children of my own.
When I entered novitiate, I thought I was entirely giving up that part of my heart that desired to be a father. Yet I have discovered in the last ten years that everything I gave to God in my vow of poverty, He has returned to me, but in His way. I won't dare say God is finished perfecting my heart, but He has brought it a long way, and some of the greatest graces in my life has been to have that privileged insight into the work He is doing in the soul of someone to whom I have ministered; as I described it to one of my spiritual "daughters," the greatest joy of any parent is to see their child grow up. To see a soul mature in the Lord, to heal or to overcome obstacles that kept them from living the abundant life Christ won for us on the Cross; there's hardly a greater joy for me.
While I learned a tremendous amount during my study of philosophy, the re-education of my heart from a princely to a fatherly heart was perhaps my greatest lesson, a heart that belongs to Christ and His Church and loves from that vantage point rather than any other. For all the many, many people--men and women, priests, religious, and lay--who have helped Christ in this work, thank you. You know who you are! It doesn't take a village to form a priest: it takes a CHURCH.
If you missed the first installments, pop over to read: