Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.— John 21:18
Some years ago I brought our son Brendan, then in grade school, to work with me for the day. Among other activities that day, he drew a picture for a dear friend of my own dear friend Patty — a young man who had recently enrolled at United States Military Academy My son had already been thinking for some time about a career in the military, and it excited him to know that there were colleges specifically geared toward such things. He sent the drawing and his best wishes to West Point, and began to shape his own dreams around the U.S. Naval Academy and the Marine Corps.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Patty was herself at West Point for her young friend’s graduation and commissioning. She shared photos with us from throughout the weekend, and the boy who left home four years ago has become very much a fine young man, fit and confident, dashing in his India whites. Brendan was impressed.
I remember once sharing with a different colleague that Brendan hoped to be a Marine one day. His response? “Well, at least you have a few years to talk him out of that…”
As Brendan prepares to enter high school in the fall, I think more frequently about the possibility that he could be called to combat one day, and it frightens me. But someone has to do this job, and if he is called, who am I to refuse to let him answer, when I have benefited so much from the lives of those who have gone before?
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Around the same time that Brendan was drawing that picture, Gabe began seriously contemplating the priesthood. Admittedly, at age seven or so, seriously contemplating may be defined rather loosely — but today he is approaching his twelfth birthday and has not wavered. This spring, recognizing that I hadn’t spent much one-on-one time with Gabe in recent months, I offered a day in which we could do whatever he wanted. As a result, we found ourselves at Sunday morning Mass at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, at the end of which Fr. Michael, the rector and our former pastor, introduced him as “a future priest, Father Gabriel.” We were greeted by a dozen or so seminarians afterward, including a couple from our neck of the woods, then we went to brunch with Father.
During brunch Father and I both made an effort to include Gabe in the conversation, but several times the discussion turned to more “grown-up” topics: men’s evangelization, stewardship, work and home life. I apologized to Gabe on the way home for not doing a better job of steering the conversation to include him.
“It’s not a problem,” he said. “I learn a lot listening to you guys talk.”
I see him, hear him, in these situations, and think he’s serious about this vocation. Father thinks he is, too. I’ve written about this before … and a friend characterized the religious life, in her view, as a sort of “performance art,” which I took to mean richly symbolic and interesting, but ultimately strange, impractical, and somewhat meaningless. Needless to say, I disagree.
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A year or more ago, an an older man I know learned that these two sons of mine aspired to the military and the priesthood. “How old are they?” he asked, and when I answered, said, “That says something, that they are thinking seriously about service at such an early age. You must be proud.”
I am. And frightened. For both of them.
Then yesterday a mutual friend of Patty’s and mine stopped me in a stairwell at the university to ask how the long weekend was. “And what’d you think of Patty’s photos?” she asked.
I told her they hit me hard, in a way I hadn’t expected. Those photos, coupled with Memorial Day and the knowledge that two priest-friends of mine are being reassigned to new parishes (our associate pastor is one; Prairie Father is the other), made me think not only about service and sacrifice, which are hard but noble things, but also about obedience, which for Americans, it seems, and men in particular, can be tougher to stomach.
Both of my older sons currently feel called to a life I don’t believe I could lead — a life of obedience in which the very clothing they wear will publicly signify that they are subject to a higher authority and held to a higher standard. Should they continue on their respective paths, they will be scrutinized and criticized; assigned relentless, sometimes monotonous, work; bear impossible burdens; and pour out their life-blood, figuratively and possibly literally, for people who may or may not appreciate or acknowledge their sacrifice.
This alone would be too much to wrap my air-conditioned, pillow-padded mind around…and then I think of the confidence our leaders inspire in me. Am I confident that my oldest son won’t be sent marching into Hell for political gain? I am not. Am I confident my middle son will be able to shepherd his flock without getting crosswise of a government and a society who has little use for Truth and even less for faith? Not at all.
And they will be expected to serve, to sacrifice, to obey, regardless. I don’t know if I would be strong enough to do that. I pray to God that my sons are better men than their father.
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In addition to observing Memorial Day, we’ve also celebrated the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost — Christ’s Great Commission before returning to His heavenly Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit so the disciples could carry out that commission. On Ascension Sunday, our deacon spoke in terms of graduation to describe the bittersweetness of Jesus’s departure, and it makes sense: Christ Himself was “graduating” from his earthly ministry to assume his true heavenly kingship, but so, too, were the Apostles about to leave behind what they knew (or thought they knew) before to answer a deeper call and become something greater still — a new Body of Christ on Earth.
Then on Pentecost, our associate pastor related the story of his ordination as a transitional deacon (on the way to priestly ordination) — how, in our archdiocese, those seminarians being ordained begin in the pews seated next to their families, then at a certain point, are called forward before the altar and “never return again.” They are no longer the men they once were, but are public persons and servants of Christ.
Reflecting on his words brought to mind a Scripture passage that has often troubled me:
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” [To him] Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” — Luke 9:61-62
In the past this passage has felt almost heartless, but in the context of Father’s story, it began to make sense to me.
Once we are called to something — a vocation, an act of love, and opportunity in life to do real good and to do it well, we should act immediately and rejoice in doing so. As believers, in particular, we should have confidence that God is working for the good of all, and that not one of His sheep will be lost or wasted. In this light, my sons should rush headlong into the unknown, provided they are heeding the Master’s call.
The road that stretches before the feet of a man is a challenge to his heart long before it tests the strength of his legs. Our destiny is to run to the edge of the world and beyond, off into the darkness: sure for all our blindness, secure for all our helplessness, strong for all our weakness, gaily in love for all the pressure on our hearts. — My Way of Life: The Summa Simplified
Go get ’em, boys.