Fr. John Freund recently shared his vocation story with Fr. Astor Rodriguez as a part of the Vincentians Vocations Stories series. The Vocations stories can be found on Youtube on the Vincentian Vocations Channel.
A podcast of Fr Dennis H. Holtschneider CM, President of DePaul University, USA speaking about his vocation journey is available here.
Two Superiors General of the Congregation of the Mission – Fr. Gregory Gay (2004 to present) and Fr. Robert P. Maloney (1992-2004) share the story of their own vocation in an interview with Fr. Astor Rodriguez, Vocation Director of the Eastern Province. In the threshold of the Holy Week their testimonies give an excellent occasion to learn and reflect on the priesthood and Vincentian vocation and indeed all our vocations as shared by these two recent successors of St. Vincent de Paul.
Fr. Pat Collins CM, Director of Vocations in Ireland and the UK writes about his vocation story below.
Let me share the story of my own vocation. My parents were devout Catholics who went to daily Mass and prayed regularly with the family. I was nurtured by the example of their faith and felt close to God from an early age. As a young boy I tried to go to daily Mass, joined the Legion of Mary and had a niggling sense of being called to the priesthood. In a way this was not surprising because my father had three brothers who were priests, and I also had a lovely first cousin who was a priest in Sydney, Australia.
When I reached adolescence the idea of being a priest lost its attractions. I felt it would be nice to get married have a home of my own and do my own thing. For a time I decided I’d become a doctor instead. That way I would be able to help people without too much self-sacrifice. When I was in sixth year in secondary school I spent a good deal of time thinking about my future. The idea of the priesthood, unattractive as I found it to be, kept resurfacing. I felt that if God was absolute — and I knew he was — then he deserved an absolute response from me. I can remember asking my mother if she thought God was absolute. “Of course I do” she replied, “Why do you ask.” I replied, “If you think God is absolute surely he deserves an absolute response. That being so why didn’t you become a nun?” My mother laughed and said, “Why do you think that getting married is not an absolute response. Being a wife and mother is my way of responding to God.” While I could see what she meant, I knew that I was different. I felt called to respond to the absolute nature of God by giving myself absolutely to Him as a priest.
I can remember two significant incidents that occurred before I left school. On one occasion one of the priests who taught me asked me what I was going to do when I left. I said that it was possible that I might consider the priesthood. He asked me if I had any idea of what the priesthood was like. I responded by painting a rather grim picture of priestly life, its loneliness, hard work, lack of wealth, obedience and so on. When I finished, the priest responded, “well Pat I can see that you have a very realistic notion of what the life is like!” (I have since discovered that my picture of the priesthood was far too bleak.) Some time later I was trying to study in my bedroom. My father knocked on the door, came in and said, “your mother sent me up to ask you what you intend doing when you leave school.” I paused and said, “I am thinking of the priesthood, but I have not decided yet.” He responded, “so you are thinking of going for the Church.” At first I didn’t know what he meant. Then it struck me that it was his way of saying I was going to be a priest. “That is right” I replied, “I’m thinking of going for the Church.” Strangely, neither of my parents mentioned the subject after that.
When I completed my Leaving Certificate exams I hitched my way around Ireland on two occasions, with school friends. At one point on the second journey we went to Kinsale in county Cork. We stayed in the youth hostel. One evening my two friends said they were going to the cinema and asked would I like to come. I said, no, I wanted to write a letter to my parents. So they headed off. I went and sat on a wall that overlooked the sea. Beneath me was the vast expanse of water, in the distance were the twinkling lights of the town in the fading light of the Summer evening. As I sat there I had quite a religious experience. Everything took on a symbolic meaning. I felt that the ocean represented the infinity of God, while the twinkling lights in the distance represented the ephemeral attractions of this fleeting world. I felt that I was suspended between them both. It was reminiscent of my old dilemma about the absoluteness of God demanding an absolute response, which for me, meant becoming a priest. As I sat there I knew I had no real choice. If I was to be true to my deepest self, I would have to give the priesthood a reluctant try. As soon as I made up my mind I wrote a letter to my parents to tell them of my decision. Although I posted it, I don’t think they ever received it. Certainly it was never mentioned when I returned home a few days later.
Although I had decided to become a priest, I had no idea what kind of priest I’d like to be. I thought it was important to find out what God wanted for me. I decided to go and see my former headmaster. Fr. O’ Flynn was a man I liked and trusted. He had given me a good deal of affirmation at a time when I was lacking in self-confidence. The two of us went for a walk in Howth Harbour. We chatted about my future. I told him that I wanted to try the priesthood but I felt no attraction to the Vincentians. He asked if I’d like to be a Jesuit. “No” I replied,” the studies are too long.” “Would you like to go on the missions?” he asked. “No, I don’t want to leave Ireland,” I responded. “What about the diocese, then, it always needs priests. “Again I said no because I knew that I did not want to live alone. Then I said to Fr. O’ Flynn, “I didn’t really come to discuss the issue. I wanted to get your opinion. You know me well. What do you think?” When I said this, I had in mind the fact that God’s providential plan for my life would be expressed through him. He asked me a question, “Pat do you think that it was by chance that you were born in Clontarf so near to a Vincentian school?” He had me there because I did not think that anything happened by chance. “I suppose not,” I said. “Well Pat, you asked for my opinion. I think it was providential that you went to a Vincentian school. Furthermore you have all the qualities to make a good Vincentian.” I felt snookered by what he said. It sounded convincing. And although I didn’t feel emotionally attracted to the Vincentians, I decided that God was calling me to join. I told my parents about my decision when I got home. My mother was shocked as if she had no idea I had been thinking of the priesthood.
The next day, I headed into Dublin with my father and he bought me clerical clothes, a Douai Bible, the Imitation of Christ, and a new watch. The following day, the 4th of September 1963 I kissed my tearful mother good-bye and my father drove me to the seminary. I had never seen it before. It looked so forbidding, a bit like a prison. Although I had entered because I was sure God was calling me I sometimes hoped I would have an excuse to leave so that I could resurrect my old plan of becoming a doctor. But I had no excuse. Many other students left in the uncertain but exciting days that followed the end of the Second Vatican Council, but I remained. Eight years after entering, I was ordained on the 6th of June 1971. All this time later, I thank God that I did become a priest. Times have not always been easy but I have loved being a Vincentian and all the adventures it has involved. These days I feel that I have a vocation within a vocation, namely to devote all my energies to the urgent task of the new evangelisation called for by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.