My junior year in college, I decided to leave the seminary. Don’t fret. We know how the story turns out. Today I would say that I was skittish, but, back then, it was the biggest event of my life. (Of course, everything in college was the biggest event in my life.) I had made this decision with the help of my spiritual director, and it was time to inform others.
My meeting with Fr. Huntzinger, the director of pastoral formation, went well. I explained that I would be going to the University of Kansas. “I understand, Terry. You need to find yourself.”
This was the 70s, but, even then, I didn’t understand the phrase. “Find myself? No, Father. I am going to find girls. I want to date.”
“Yes, well, that’s all part of it. Isn’t it?”
It was the meeting with Monsignor Fick that I dreaded. He was the Vice Rector of the seminary, the academic dean of the college, and a legendary professor of English. Msgr. Leonard J. Fick had come to the Josephinum as a baseball playing, small town Missouri boy. He joined the faculty and never left. Thin grey hair swept over the crown of his head. Mastery of the muscles in his face and forehead allowed him to express himself without a word. With a large but solid stomach, he looked like an ancient senator in Roman collar, and he spoke with a stentorian voice, which we all loved to imitate. It came from the caverns of his lungs, typically preceded by a Churchillian rumbling. “Gentlemen, I have the privilege of welcoming you to yet another academic year at that august institution, located on the banks of a river the Indians once called the Olentangy, the Pontifical College Josephinum.”
I would have chosen his classes over going to a movie. When he told us that the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, on the Queensborough optical billboard, were the eyes of God, looking down upon the world of Jay Gatsby, I was hooked. I signed up for every course his taught.
I remember his recommendation of literature.
Gentlemen, should you be ordained, and I realize that’s a distant yet disturbing proposition, you will responsible for a homily, every week, for the rest of your lives. What are you going to talk about? The theology that I learned in these hallowed halls was swept away by the Second Vatican Council. Yours may be as well, for all we know. But, if you’ve read a good book, you’ve got something to start with. Now, whether you can follow that up with a salient thought remains to be seen. We shall strive mightily so to equip you.
No one went to Monsignor Fick for spiritual direction. The story was that all who did were recommended to the rosary. Yet nothing happened at the Josephinum beyond the purview of Monsignor Fick, so I had to explain my departure.
This wasn’t spiritual direction. This was the dean. He remained behind his paper-stacked desk, sipping an ice tea from an open drawer. He greeted me, motioned for me to sit and rolled his belly back into the recliner. I had his full attention. I just had to survive it. Whether out of expediency or clemency, he started the conversation.
“Terrance. I understand that you have decided to leave the seminary.”
“Your mind is made up?”
“Yes, Monsignor. I want to take a scholarship I was offered at the University of Kansas.” I left out the part about dating the women of Kansas. Scholarship is what mattered to Monsignor.
“Have you given any thought to whether you would like to be—what do they call it?—a permanent deacon?”
“No, Monsignor. I’m thinking law. Maybe politics.”
“Yes, all or nothing with you, Terrance.”
“The thing is, Monsignor, I just don’t know that I would be happy as a priest.”
Monsignor Fick took a sip of tea and shifted his weight towards me. “Happiness? Hmmm. Strange thing about happiness. Those who look for it spend their lives searching, while those who do what God asks of them, who embrace the work God gives them, find that happiness slips up, and taps them on the shoulder.” Having delivered himself of that wisdom, he shifted back, smiled and awaited its effect upon me.
“I need to think about that, Monsignor.”
“Do so, Terrance. In the meantime, I shall send the requisite papers to the University of Kansas. I wish you well and shall pray for you.” No one malingered with Monsignor. Our conclave was concluded.
One can argue with the advice, though, obviously, I didn’t forget it, which is always a sign of something strong. And it’s not far the Gospel’s message or the title of the first letter of Pope Francis, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). Compared to what has preceded him, Jesus is water turned to wine. In him, the joy and life of God pour forth richly. And the Holy Father began his letter, writing,
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew (§1).
Neither the evangelist nor the pontiff are naïve optimists. They know that life that is brief and burdensome. The Gospel is good news, not a gimmick. It tells us that our lives our meaningful, that we’ve been given a task to do. To give one’s self to the Lord is to enter into the joy of the Lord, a joy deeper, more delightful, than ephemeral giddiness.
Joy is a sign of the Spirit. The Holy Father writes,
There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved (§6).
Some search for joy all their lives. Give yourself to the Lord, embrace your vocation. Do it again, more deeply. Joy will creep up and tap you on the shoulder. That’s how the story will end.
Isaiah 62: 1-5 1 Corinthians 12: 4-11 John 2: 1-11