I remember that, when I had come back to the Church after so many years, I really had no idea what becoming a priest entailed. With the Nazarenes, becoming a minister is largely an act of volition--you can study, or not, be ordained, or not, and as long as you tow the party line and a church is willing to hire and support you, mazel tov--you're a minister. So I naturally assumed that making a lifelong commitment to service in a celibate state under a promise of obedience to a bishop would, well, be the same, right?
At least I did some research before I made a complete fool of myself. I'll admit, I was (and to a fair degree still am) impressed with my intellectual abilities--I don't make any claims to be the smartest person I know, and in fact I have met many, many people who make me feel like Gomer Pyle talking to Einstein--but I was bright, and I knew from my studies that bright men became Jesuits. It was like the Harvard of the priesthood. So, I got online, got a phone number, and called up a Jesuit.
Two weeks later I knew I wasn't going to be a Jesuit. I can't actually tell you exactly why or how I knew, I just had a gut feeling that God wasn't calling me in that direction. Keep in mind, this was long before I knew there were "conservative" and "liberal" Catholics, and I certainly had no idea what label I was or they were, I just knew. Those of you who have "just known" will get it; those who don't, sorry. At any rate, with the Society of Jesus crossed off the list, I decided to give the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas a call.
Now, I can recall from years ago--back in high school even--thinking to myself that if ever I did become a priest, I probably would join an order. I very much respect and even admire diocesan priests, and the ones I know have talents I'll never have and live great and holy lives, but somehow I felt it wasn't my calling. To this day, parish priesthood "intrigues" me, and I wouldn't mind giving it a try for a couple of years, but God is going to have to do some serious rewiring here if that is going to be my lifelong mission. And no, that's not a dare.
Still, I wanted to be open to wherever I was being led, even back then in my second early experience, and so I had lunch with the vocation director. This led to involvement in the local young adults group in KC, regular parish involvement (serving, lectoring, EMHC-ing, etc-ing), and for two years I very much discerned a call to diocesan priesthood. Most of the time, I wasn't even bitter about it.
At the time, I was privileged to work with people with disabilities (a field in which I continue today--until mid-July, anyway), and I had the awesome job of Special Olympics Director. Essentially, I got paid more money than I needed to go to sports practices and events, water parks, baseball games, and even the ballet and the State Fair. This allowed me to enjoy quite flexible office hours and, therefore, to get as involved in the discernment process as possible. I went to daily Mass as much as I could, went to Confession almost as much as I should, and really developed spiritually. More than anything else, though, I prayed for direction. Where, oh where, was God leading me?
As it turned out, after two very blessed and growth-filled years, it wasn't to the Archdiocese. I imagine it was a bit like getting out of a long-term serious relationship (something, it may shock you to find out, I have never been in)--relieved, if you're honest with yourself that it was not, in fact, where you were supposed to be, but still a little sad, seeing all that time and energy you spent... not wasted, but not used as you had expected.
Around this time (Spring, 2007), I began making retreats to Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in northwest Missouri, where a friend of mine had been a student some years back (they have a minor seminary there). Here was an intriguing possibility--could I actually be called to something as radical as Benedictine monastic life (not, I'll grant you, as radical as, say, the Carthusians, but thems just crazy); could I really live in one place, with the same guys, for the rest of my life?
So I started praying and making retreats. It was a two hour drive, which made it a little taxing at times, but I always felt refreshed when I left. At this point I had been praying the Office [the Divine Office is the prayer of the Church, consisting of praying the Psalms and reading scripture throughout the day] by myself for around two years, but once I realized the beauty and power of chanting it in community, I was hooked. I began chatting with Fr. Benedict, the vocation director, and after several meetings, a grueling psychological evaluation, and interviews with the Abbot, Prior, and Novice Master, I was decided that I should move into the Guest House there for a time, in order to further discern in close proximity. I moved to Conception, MO on 1 January 2008.
I went to Conception looking for a quiet place to die. It sounds a little morbid, I'll grant, but it's true. I loved the idea of a quiet life of study, teaching, and manual labor. The seminary, the apple orchard, and the choir stalls were all I saw ahead of me, and I enjoyed the thought. After three months of volunteer work there, I left the Guest House and moved in to the monastery. Abbot Gregory and I chanted a Psalm together in front of the Tabernacle, I hugged all the junior monks, put on a black tunic, and moved all my stuff to the northernmost cell on the third floor, one of the few remaining with hardwood floors, with a staircase above it on the wall closest to the Basilica, giving it a sort of loft feel. It was a great cell.
For another three months, I continued largely in the same work I had done as a volunteer, only now I was Postulant Richard, and I ate with the monks in silence instead of with the guests in loudness. It was a good life, and when I wasn't working, sleeping, or watching Deadliest Catch with Fr. Frowin and Postulant Adam, I was praying. We prayed a lot there--something like 3 hours a day, between chanting in community and Lectio in our cells.
And all that praying kept sending forth a theme--bring the Gospel to people. Now, I will never, ever disparage the fine men of Conception Abbey and the excellent work that they do there for God and His Kingdom: the Guest House hosts thousands upon thousands of retreatants every year, the Printery House produces devotional material, and the monks provide spiritual direction to people from all over the country; still, as I meditated upon what God was calling me to do, I realized that most of the ministry there involved people coming to the Abbey--there was more coming and less going. And, honestly, I felt called to go. Even if it meant actually going from that place I loved.
I discussed it with my superiors, and, after 6 months of living quietly and simply, I did the hardest thing I have ever done--I packed up my car, and I left Conception. I had been accepted to the Peace Corps, and I was going to Kazakhstan.
In the interest of brevity, I'll simply say that Kazakhstan was great, but that the Peace Corps was not at all what I had dreamed of in college. Additionally, going from the extremely religious environment of a monastery to the extremely secular one of government employee was, in retrospect, entirely too much of a transition to make suddenly, especially on the other side of the planet. Were I able to do it all again, I probably would have chosen something like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or some other Catholic international organization where I could keep and express my beliefs and tie them to my work. I stayed in Asia for two months, and once again, I was back in Kansas, trying to figure out what to do with my life. It was Winter, 2008.
...and the economy had just tanked. After trying unsuccessfully to find a job in Wichita, which was hit very hard by the recession, I again packed up, and again moved. I was very much sick of moving, and angry at being forced to leave my beloved Kansas, but my car and I found ourselves in Indiana, at my parents' house.
A month later I attended the March for Life, and that--finally--is where we get down to why I'm writing on Br. Paul's blog right now. For those of you who have never been, the March is often like a giant Catholic family reunion, and if you don't randomly run in to at least 5 people you know from elsewhere, you're probably not paying attention. So it was that, walking down the Mall toward the Capitol, I struck up a conversation with Bishop Jackels of Wichita. It was brief, but afterward I thought to myself that perhaps I had not given the diocesan priesthood enough of a chance. After all, I hadn't even gone to seminary, which, in many ways, is where discernment really begins. Sure, I had found a job, but beyond that I didn't exactly have any plans at the moment, so with nothing really to lose, I called the Vocation Director from Wichita, the diocese of my youth. He asked the general preliminary questions, and after we agreed to meet--it so happened that he was planning on a trip to St. Louis to visit the seminarians at Kenrick, and since it was only 4 hours from me, it seemed a good spot to get to know each other. Besides, I had several friends who were studying there, so I could make a weekend visit of it.
The morning I was going to leave I got an email--there was an emergency, and he had to cancel our meeting. I was disappointed, but I figured that since I had already made the plans, and spending time with old friends is always preferable to sitting around in my jammies watching TV, I might just as soon make the trip anyway. It turned out that I had a great weekend, and when Sunday rolled around, I decided to go to Mass at the Cathedral Basilica there (because if ever you are in St. Louis, you owe it to yourself to go).
When I got back to Kenrick, I asked my friend who the religious were who were serving at that Mass. He told me that they were probably Dominicans, and that got me interested—I had never known much of anything about the Order, and although it had been brought up to me before when discussing possible vocations, my inevitable response was “I’m too thin.” Still, something about seeing Brothers Timothy and Luke up by the altar made me think, and so I looked up the website of the Central Province. Twelve months later, here I am--accepted as a Novice Candidate, (somewhat) patiently counting the days between now and 25 July.
I want to be a Dominican because I still want to go and take the Gospel to people locally and across the world, and despite my assurances to the academic dean 7years ago, I want to preach. From what I have seen, Dominican life seems to be the balance of contemplative and active life for which I have been longing since I left Conception two years ago, and all of the friars I have met have been good, affirming men with whom I can see living and working many years down the road. It is my hope that I would be a positive addition to their ranks.
I found Santa Maria sopra Minerva because I wasn’t paying attention when I walked out of the Pantheon, and although I was intending to go back toward the Piazza Navona, I found instead one of my favorite Roman churches--long before I knew of its Dominican heritage. In this, as in my whole life, grace has led me, even when, and usually especially when I have not been paying attention. After Protestant college, monastic life, and Central Asia, I went to DC and saw a bishop from my home who made me think about diocesan priesthood which led me to call the vocation director who set up a meeting he couldn’t make it to which afforded me the time to go to a Mass and observe two men from an order to which I had never given any thought.
I hope that this is the place for me. I hope I'm done traveling for awhile. And I know that as long as I sincerely seek the will of God in this as in all things, His grace will never fail to lead me.
~Richard Romero is an accepted candidate for the novitiate class of 2010/2011 for the Central Province of St. Albert the Great