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Vocation Stories


John Michalowski, SJJohn Michalowski, SJ

Parish ministry, St. Joseph Church, Salem, NH

Though I grew up in a Church-going family, I never wanted to become a priest. In fact, when one of our parish priests asked me if I wanted to be an altar boy, I turned him down and said that I was too busy. Besides, in a large parish with four morning Masses, who wanted to get up for a 6:30 AM Mass? I respected God, but there were limits. On the other hand, I was a member of the Sodality of Our Lady at St. Thomas Aquinas High School and a member of the Christian Life Community at College of the Holy Cross. I was growing in my understanding of faith and growing in my prayer life. I knew that the love of God and the love of neighbor were linked. While at Holy Cross, a group of us would visit Providence House, an old age home, where we would sing and dance with the ladies on Friday nights. Later, we would join those who went to Worcester State Hospital and go to someone's apartment for the rest of the evening. It was a good time.

Fr. Joe LaBran, S.J., one of the chaplains at Holy Cross, ran two 5-day Ignatian retreats each school year. During my junior year, I made one and it began my personal journey with the Lord. The presentation was on the crucifixion and on what Jesus had done for us. The talk ended with three questions: "What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?" I stayed behind in the chapel and began to make the Stations of the Cross. As I prayed through the Stations, I began to sense more and more that Jesus was saying to me, "I did this for you. What will you do for me?" I felt that I was wrestling with the Lord. I finished the Stations, knelt down and said to Jesus, "I will do anything that you want." And then I said, what seemed to be the hardest, craziest thing, "I will even become a Jesuit if you want me to!" All at once, I felt a great sense of relief and began to weep. It was something that I had never done in prayer before, but I felt a deep sense of peace and of God's love.

God didn't take me up on my offer. I completed my A.B. at Holy Cross and began looking around for graduate schools in philosophy. I was accepted with a fellowship to Northwestern University. I got the fellowship changed to an assistantship since teaching would get me a military deferment. It was during the Vietnam War and since I couldn't decide if it were a just war or not, I decided to seek a deferment. In May, General Hersey, the head of the draft boards, changed the rules so that part-time teaching was no longer deferable. I declined the assistantship and sent out a letter to every Catholic high school in Chicago seeking a position as a full-time religion teacher. I chose a position nearest to Northwestern in Evanston.

For a couple of years, I taught and did part-time graduate work in philosophy. I became involved with a prayer group first on the far north side of Chicago and then on the near north side. In my spare time, I volunteered with an older elementary to younger elementary tutoring program in an Hispanic neighborhood and was active in my parish. Three things happened. First, I began to realize that although I could talk to my students about the sacraments, I could not bring them in a meaningful way to them. Secondly, I took on a role of leadership in the prayer community and realized that I was giving spiritual advice to people and was not sure that I knew what I was doing. Thirdly, I began to live less in my head. As an undergraduate math major who became a philosophy major, I was good at abstraction and less good at the particular. My students, my ministry in the prayer group, and a friend's emotional crisis, all helped me to grow as a human being. I left Northwestern and began a part-time master's in theology at DePaul University.

I enjoyed people and I enjoyed God. Prayer, with the prayer group, at liturgy or alone, was a delight. I had a deep sense of community in the prayer group, in the school, and in the parish. Slowly, I began to think of the priesthood and the Jesuits. But I put off writing to one of my former Jesuit professors at Holy Cross. I wanted to ask him how he felt about being a Jesuit and a priest. Then one evening after a prayer group leadership team meeting, I got a call from Jim at whose apartment the meeting had been. His brother, who was studying for the Methodist ministry and was visiting Jim, told him that every time he had looked at me that evening, some words had come to him, but he didn't know what to do with them. He was not part of the charismatic renewal and such a thing had never happened to him before. The words were, "You know what you should do. Why don't you do it?" Jim was calling to let me know what his brother had said, and figured I might know what to do with these words.

That night I wrote to my Jesuit friend. He wrote back, "I wondered why you were farting around in Chicago for so long." He then went on to talk about his vocation, and about how the priesthood was the greatest blessing that God had given him. I decided to apply to the Society. My decision meant breaking up with my girlfriend. We had been dating for nearly two years, but it was clear that religiously we were going in two different directions. I still remember driving in her Volkswagon on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago and crying as we decided to go our separate ways.

I was accepted into the Society, but as the school year was ending, I realized that I was growing increasingly sad. During a day-long retreat with the prayer group, I asked people to pray with me. As they prayed, I came to realize that I was undergoing a grief-reaction. I was leaving the friends that I had made, a world that I knew, and a job that I had been successful at. I would be entering a new world - the Jesuits of the New England Province. Did I really trust that God would be there? I asked forgiveness for my lack of faith, and a Jesuit who was part of the group gave me absolution. I was at peace, and though I had many good-byes to say, I began to look forward to my entrance into the novitiate.

Since then I have come to experience the fact that wherever I am and whatever I do as a Jesuit God is there already, preparing the way for me, helping me to grow, and calling me forward so that I might know him and his people more intimately. Little by little, I have come to laugh with God at my foibles and to delight in the God who reveals Himself in so many ways. At we used to say in theology, "God is a good time." You can stake your life on it, I have.

With you always

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