Meet RJ, S.J.! - {Vocations Awareness Week}

Friday, November 11, 2016


This week is National Vocations Awareness Week. I'm celebrating by sharing the stories of some of my friends who have answered the call to the religious life. Here's an overview about the week.

Today we're meeting R.J - newly ordained deacon, midwest guy, who also happens to be my swing dance partner!



The first thing to know about me is that I didn’t grow up Catholic. That’s right, I’m a convert. I grew up in a “culturally Christian” home, that is to say, that my family celebrated Christmas and Easter and I would say I was raised with very Christian values. While my family was never opposed to religion, going to church was never an essential component in my family’s life. Yet, I was always very fascinated with religion and God.

In third grade I decided I wanted to go with some friends to their church and see what it was all about. Mainly, I wanted to know where they were going every Sunday for several hours on end and why we couldn’t hang out. They assured me that they were going to something called “Sunday School” and that it was fun and I should come with them to check it out. That’s where I learned about accepting Jesus into my heart. There are a lot of details that have faded due to the passing of time, but what remains is this strong sense of peace I felt when I started to learned about Jesus and how powerful it felt to belong to something special I could take with me everywhere I went. So, with the desire to accept Jesus in my heart I was baptized in third grade.

I don’t intend to highlight every single event in my spiritual journey in this brief essay, but I use this event to highlight what St. Ignatius of Loyola would call a touchstone moment. These moments serve as anchors in our spiritual journey. They are moments that we often only recognize with prayer and reflection, and they are those moments where we are absolutely certain that God’s grace is operational. For me, this moment is not only important because it would serve as the moment of my Baptism, that would take more reflection at a later age, but because it serves as such a powerful stance to take in the world—to let Jesus into my heart and be open to the grace that follows. I’ve never regretted the decision of my third grade self, even if I didn’t completely understand what that would mean for the rest of my life.

 Here I am relaxing at the crisis center where I worked as a social worker.
A second touchstone moment comes with completing the RCIA process and being received into the Catholic Church. By the time I was a senior in high school, having spiritual conversations with my friends was a regular fixture of my life. I was and am blessed to have friends from a wide array of Christian denominations. We didn’t always agree, but we did love each other. I can clearly remember conversations ranging from some aspect of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to discussions on the Rapture to questions concerning why Jesus’ words are recorded differently in the four Gospels. By the end of my junior year of high school, through these conversations and prayer, I felt called to be in full communion with the Catholic Church. This highlights a second essential element of discernment, spiritual conversation. Prayer is never a solitary experience; after all, prayer is our way of communicating with a Triune God who loves us unconditionally. Moreover, to assume that I could have made sense of my world and prayer at that time all by myself is humorous at its best and dangerous at its worst.

It would also be about this time that I would discover two of my greatest passions: Swing Dancing and Social Work. Swing dancing all started my sophomore year when my high school put on a school musical, which was essentially a medley of musical numbers from all across the spectrum. I was cast in a swing dance number featuring Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood.” It was an East Coast Swing routine with aerial stunts and I was hooked. It didn’t stay there, of course. By the time I was in college I was going to Swing Dancing Clubs twice a week and teaching on the side to have some spare cash. I loved dancing, but I loved sharing that passion with others almost as much, maybe more.

Here I am teaching Swing Dance with the young adults last February. Another one is coming up next week!
My passion for Social Work started before my freshman year of college when I saw a poster at a department fair at summer orientation that described “You’ll need a Social Worker when…” The poster started with those words in large bold letters and then proceeds to describe a wide array of situation where people find themselves in need of a social worker. I knew that I had A LOT of help and support getting to college and it was at that moment that I knew I had to do that; I had to be a social worker.  I don’t remember if I said out loud at that moment that I was going to be a social worker, but it didn’t take long for me to put that into action. Just before it was time for me to register for my second semester of college I was in the office of the School of Social Work and by the time I left I had my college road map all laid out before me. I share these two anecdotes to bring up a third important element in discernment: desire. These seemingly unrelated stories actually stem from the same desire, the passion for being with and serving others.

 It was a similar sign to this one. I was taken by how often social workers could be involved in people's' lives.
So how does becoming a Jesuit priest fit into all of this? Simple, these three elements: recognizing and reflecting on our touchstone events, having spiritual conversations with others (including prayer), and recognizing our desires, are not static one-time events. They are dynamic events and moments that continue to shape our lives the more reflect upon them and pray with them. A year after graduating college I began to feel like there was some more to what I had been called to do with my life. God was calling me to something deeper. I loved what I was doing very much. I was a social worker for a youth shelter working with an amazing team of people. I had a car, a roof over my head, a nice TV/Stereo system, and an Xbox. In an effort to understand this feeling I turned to those things that had helped me in the past, which ultimately led me to asking, “God, what do YOU want me to do?” I reflected on where I was certain of God’s grace acting in my life, both at that time and in my past. I prayed and had conversations with friends and family about what I thought God was placing in my heart and I listened to their responses. I got better at trying to name what desires I felt and how God might best call me to answer those desires.

 In addition to Swing Dancing and Social Work, I loved coaching high school football. Here's one such coaching moment from my phase of formation just before theology studies.
Then, one night, after prayer I sat up in bed and it was as though the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I realized that God had been putting the answer in front of me for some time in some of the people that I had been taking to about these desires. God was calling me to be a priest. But being only a few years a Catholic I had no idea where to start, so I did what I thought was the most sensible thing at the time. I Googled the word ‘vocation’ and went through the results emailing the vocation directors one by one. Fortunately for me, the ones who would contact me first (the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis and the Jesuits) decided I should go on a discernment retreat that summer. Independent of each other, they sent me on the same retreat.

What do novices in Minnesota do when it snows? They go sledding, of course.
This would start me on the path of discerning the Society of Jesus as the path toward serving the world. This journey has certainly had its share of bumps, moments of confusion, wrong turns, and uncertainty. But they’ve been made smooth through the process of reflecting on my touchstone moments, recalling those moments where God’s grace and my relationship with Jesus were at their closest. I have navigated the churning waters by being in conversation with good friends and family, with priests and religious, and with God. I would not be where I am today without any one of those essential people. I have found hope and consolation in naming my desires and reflecting upon them with God and those listed above.

On October 22, 2016 I was ordained to the transitional diaconate. With God’s grace, I’ll be ordained to the priesthood as a member of the Society of Jesus in June of 2017. I still swing dance, and love it. I am incredibly grateful for my social work training and those I’ve been privileged to encounter along the way. I am indebted to my friends and family for their love and support. And I’m amazed by our wonderful God who has always been with me, as my third grade self proclaimed after baptism, “I have Jesus in my heart.”

Here I am receiving the Book of the Gospels as part of the ordination rite. The bishop tells us to: Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.
Hope you've enjoyed this series! Make sure to check out David and Bro. Victor's stories, and Jacob's For the Love of the Church series:

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