By Br Andrew Tarleton LC
“But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’ Because everywhere I send you, you shall go, And all that I command you, you shall speak.” (Jer 1:7)
It has been 17 years, 11 months, and 13 days since I left my home in southern Louisiana to follow the call. It’s been a long journey. There have been moments of unforgettable joy when God allowed me to see myself clearly as an instrument of His grace, and there have been moments of difficulty that seemed impossible to overcome. But now looking back, I would not change a thing. Every moment, whether overflowing with joy or overwhelming in difficulty, has been beautiful. Every step has been worth it. St. Paul teaches that, “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (Rom 8:28)
The Best Imperfect Family
The greatest gift that God ever gave me were my parents. I grew up in a family that was far from perfect. News flash: there are no perfect families. But my family was a family in which love flourished alongside human imperfection. I think that is the greatest lesson to learn in a family: persevere in love despite human weakness and imperfection. I have an incredible older brother, now a father of three, and a brilliant little sister who will finish med school within a year’s time. We had clear priorities in my household: God, family, school, and LSU football—generally in that order. Though when Bama came to town on a Saturday, football might jump to first place for one night.
We are cradle Catholics. My parents worked very hard to send us to parochial schools for which I am very grateful. I always did well in school. We used to ride those traditional yellow buses to and from school every day. We were the first to be picked up in the morning and the last to be dropped off in the afternoon. My goal as a student was to finish all my homework on the bus-ride home to play video games the moment I stepped through the door of our modest home. I also tried out all types of sports: baseball, soccer, basketball, track, and football. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly good at any of them. Many times I would not finish the season because I did not have the required discipline. The exception was football, which I especially loved. I played two full seasons and learned a lot about dedication and hard work on the practice field during those long hot Louisiana afternoons. Approaching the last years of elementary school, the question of high school was becoming an issue. There were a few options in my hometown, but I was sure of one thing: when I finished eighth grade I was going to a coed high school despite any protests on the part of my mother. Going to a high school without girls was out of the question. But all that was about to change.
Hearing and Following the Call
I will never forget the first time I met a Legionary of Christ: sharp, dynamic, and passionate about what he did. I was invited on a retreat by some relatives. I do not remember much about that first retreat, but I began to see my faith and relationship with God in a different light. I joined the Legionary youth group (called ECyD). We met about once a week to study the faith, pray, and have fun. We had other activities as well like awesome summer camps. We even went to see Pope John Paul II on one of his trips to the US. Little by little, my relationship with God was growing. This went on for about a year or two. Then one spring the youth group organized a trip to the high school seminary (Immaculate Conception Apostolic School). I was not really thinking about being a priest to be honest. But I loved all the activities we did with the Legionaries. So of course this one would be no different. Going on that retreat would change my life forever.
While I am a proud southerner, I have to admit that New England has a beauty all its own. Among that beauty is snow. We traveled to the high school seminary in New Hampshire in early April and there was still snow on the ground. But the most beautiful thing that happened in that little school nestled in the White Mountains had nothing to do with its natural beauty.
From the first moment I stepped foot in the high school seminary, I felt something special. There were no visions, no miraculous conversions, no out of body experiences. I encountered guys who were young, enthusiastic, and happy. It was shocking to me that these guys didn’t have anything that I thought was necessary for happiness. They did not go to parties, they did not play video games, and, most importantly they went to school without girls. And yet they were happier than I was. I said to myself I don’t know what they have, but I want it. These guys were giving God the first chance in their lives and I wanted to do the same thing. I did not tell anyone at the school, but in my heart I knew I would be back.
I arrived home several days later and I told my mother I wanted to be a priest, I wanted to be a Legionary of Christ, and I wanted to go to high school seminary in New Hampshire. My mother very lovingly told me that if I wanted to be a priest that was wonderful—but I had to wait until I was eighteen. Looking back now it is what any sensible mother would have told their twelve your old son. But sometimes the most sensible course of action is not necessarily the best course of action. My mother probably thought it was a phase. Sometimes kids want to be a policeman, then an astronaut, then a priest… This phase would pass like all the rest. Only it didn’t. Every day for two months I would go to mom and tell her that God was calling me to be a priest and I wanted to go to school in New Hampshire. She would pat me on the head and tell me to wait till I was older, and probably think to herself when was this going to end.
After a month or two of this I finally told a Legionary priest that I wanted to go to the high school seminary. I told him that my parents were more than skeptical about the endeavor. He told me that if my parents did not give me permission than I could not attend. But he also agreed that he would come to speak to my parents. A few days later he came to visit my family. So we sat down to have dinner but nobody was speaking about the vocation. So I looked at Father and said, “Isn’t there something important that we should be speaking about here.” But my mom made it very clear that this conversation was going to be had when I was not present. After dinner my parents sent my brother, sister, and me to our rooms so that they could have a serious conversation with father about their son moving to New Hampshire to the High School seminary.
The good priest did his best to explain how the high school seminary is a place for young people discerning their call to the priesthood while at the same time they are always free to leave. My mom was not really on board with the scenario. She had obvious misgivings about distance, age, etc. So she looked over at my dad and said, “What do you think about this.” My dad was not really enthusiastic about the idea either. But he said something very wise, “Ten years from now when my son could be on the wrong path, which can happen to any kid, I don’t want to look back and regret not allowing my son to pursue a religious vocation when he wanted to.” The resistance was beginning to cede. They decided to let me go for the summer and try it out. But they thought I would die of culture shock and be back by summer’s end.
So we began preparation for the summer program. I wrote essays, we bought the prescribed number of khaki pants and white polo shirts, and lastly a plane ticket. The night before I left for New Hampshire my mom came into my room as she always did to pray and kiss me good night. And she found me crying in my bed. She thought to herself that this was her opportunity to talk me out this. After months of being dead set on leaving home to follow the vocation maybe I was finally starting to waver. So she asked me what was wrong and told me that I could stay home if I didn’t want to leave. I just looked up at her with the sincerity of a twelve year old and said, “I’m not crying because I don’t want to leave, I’m crying because I know that this is what God is calling me to do, but it is so hard for you to let me go.” It was there that my mom realized for the first time that this was something special.
The next day I was on an airplane from the gulf coasts of Louisiana to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Adapting to a military-like boarding school was not easy. Waking up early, daily mass and prayer, and most difficult of all separation from family are not small sacrifices. There were perks too: hiking in the mountains, swimming in the crystal clear lakes of New Hampshire, canoe wars, trips to Boston. But despite the difficulties, I was happy. All the while I was growing in my desire to give my life to God as a priest.
By the end of the summer, I decided to stay for the school year. At summer’s end all the guys go home for several days. Afterward, if they personally want to attend the school, are accepted by the school, and receive permission from their parents, they return for the school year. I told my mom over the phone that I wanted to attend for the school year. She told me that they we had a round-trip ticket for the summer and could not buy another ticket to return for the academic year. She suggested that I wait a year and go back the following summer to try it out. I told her that I did not want to wait another year and that if we could not buy another plane ticket then I would not be returning on the round trip ticket back to Louisiana. I would be staying. And stay I did. My parents made the greatest leap of faith ever and allowed me to stay. I will forever be grateful to them for making the ultimate sacrifice of offering their son to God to be His priest. Without their generosity I would not be where I am today. Today my parents say they would not have changed a thing.
Seeing God’s Hand on the Journey
That was nearly eighteen years ago. A lot has happened in that time. While there has been continuity from that first ‘yes’ made so many years ago, it has been a ‘yes’ put to the test many times. It is a decision that I have had to freely renew each day. To pretend everything has been sunshine and rainbows does not give justice to the sacrifice of giving one’s life nor to the constancy of God’s grace. It’s in the pain and difficulty that God’s grace truly shines and where love is truly forged. I would like to share three of those difficult moments which have been pivotal in my vocational journey and the lessons that they taught me.
God’s Plan for You is Bigger than Your Problems
The first lesson came 10 years after entering the Apostolic School during a particularly difficult moment in my vocation. My congregation was going through a crisis that caused me to question the meaning of my own consecration to God. It was like the moment of crisis in a marriage where the honeymoon is long over, difficulties come, and you forget why you got married in the first place. When I was struggling with this, I received other terrible news. My brother had entered treatment for addiction. After a month of treatment, the program offers a week for families to participate and help their family member in their process of healing. My whole family went. During that week, there was one moment that I will never forget. Part of the healing process of the patients is that they meet in a group together with all the family members. In that meeting each patient must tell each family member all things that they need to do and change in order to help the patient progress in their journey toward sobriety. My brother and I loved each other. We were generally on friendly terms, but I had always been far away following my vocation. I was sure he had a list of petitions and complaints concerning my physical absence—rightfully so. So when we sat down face to face I was ready for the worst. He looked at me and said very calmly. “I only want to ask you one thing: that you stay exactly the way you are. Never change”. We hugged. We cried. And I remembered the meaning of my consecration to God. Not only did my consecration to God have meaning, it meant something to the people I love the most. I went to support my brother in his darkest hour and he ended up helping me in my darkest hour. Today my brother has been sober for many years, is a college graduate, and is married with three kids. Lesson: God’s plan for your life is bigger than your problems.
True Happiness Is Found in Self-Giving
Two years later I received my first pastoral assignment: youth work in a school in Chile. I was excited. I always wanted to go out of the country. I arrived ready to take on the world. There were a few problems though. First, I did not speak Spanish. Second, I had no idea how to navigate the intricacies of a huge school. Needless to say it was not what I expected. I felt useless and far away from everything. One day the frustration overtook me. I looked for some place to be alone and let it all out. I went to the small chapel in the house where I lived. But I did not want anyone to walk in on me so I went to the sacristy and stepped outside into the night. I walked along the wall of the chapel sat down on the ground and hung my head. I ended up directly on the other side of the tabernacle. I prayed and I told God I did not think I could keep this up. In that moment God filled my heart with the certainty that He would give me the strength and that I needed to throw myself into serving others the best I could. After that raw moment of prayer I was filled with peace. I gave myself completely to pastoral work in the school the best I could. Youth work, retreats, spiritual direction, being chaplain to the sports team, English classes…whatever was needed by the school where I was called to serve, I was there. My four years in Chile turned out to be the best four years of my formation. Now I love Chile. Lesson: True happiness is found in self-giving.
No One Can Love You Like God Loves You
Toward the end of formation there is a very important moment: the profession of perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These are like marriage vows: “till death do us part”. It was an event for which I had been preparing for a long time. I had discerned, and I had sought advice from those who I trusted. So I wrote my letter asking to be admitted. A month or two later I received an acceptance letter. I was elated. As the day approached, I was ready—or at least I thought I was. I was happy with the decision. But the night before the big day I was lying in bed and began to question whether or not I was good enough. I wondered if with all my sins and weaknesses if I could live up to the expectations of the world, the Church, of God. Maybe there was some woman out there who would love me for who I was with all my weaknesses and imperfections without the seemingly inaccessible expectations. In that moment God spoke to my heart in a very profound way. He made it clear that even if there were some incredible woman out there that loved completely the way I was, that He already loved me that way and infinitely more. The next morning I professed perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Lesson: No one can love you like God loves you
He Takes Nothing Away and Gives You everything
I have shared this story many times in various forms. It’s a special story. But my fear is that people read this story and think “what an awesome story, look at what that guy did.” If there is one thing I want people to get it out of this story is that I am not some amazing guy that did some amazing thing. I was the most normal guy and it was God who did something amazing through me. I hope my story helps people to realize that God can do incredible things in their life too—if they let Him. Sometimes we think that if we let God into our lives we are going to lose something that makes life happy, beautiful, and fulfilling. We are afraid that that He may take something away. I give my story as a gift to see that nothing could be further from the truth. And I repeat together with Benedict XVI: “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and gives you everything. When we give ourselves to Him we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.”