By Father Raymond Roden
A vocation is such a personal and intimate thing; I never cared to talk about mine much. So maybe now, just a little, in this Year of Vocations.
Growing up Catholic in Brooklyn gave me roots, memory, a future. Just last year a memorial card for the priest who baptized me at St. Brendan’s on Jan. 6, 1952 was placed in my hands and now resides in my breviary. Priests in general were bigger than life in those growing up years and there was an attraction, early and fleeting and from a distance, along with a certainty about not being good enough or smart enough to go there.
A young priest in our parish, the beloved big brother of every rowdy kid’s dreams, attempted to teach us surfing at the beach at Rockaway. Since most of my time under his instruction was spent flying through the air and getting slammed onto the sand, my surfing career came and went quickly as a summer wave.
He invited me to attend Cathedral Prep. I told him there was no way I was going to school on Saturday with my day off on Thursday as was the custom in those days, out of step with the rest of the adolescent world. I went to Nazareth H.S. in East Flatbush instead, with no regrets and very grateful, never fully conscious of the fact that the place was almost surrounded by automobile junk yards and that the FBI was often on the roof observing the comings and goings across the street.
The now-closed Passionist retreat house on Shelter Island welcomed us in sophomore year for my first retreat ever. The experience was life-changing. At Nazareth, I discovered the draw of consecrated life in community. Back at St. Brendan’s, our awesome priest mentor left the parish, then the priesthood. I was heartbroken, got over it, and life rolled along.
My family knew heroic generosity and unusual suffering. There were manageable expectations and my father, an NYPD cop, simply wanted me to get a bachelor’s degree and to stay out of the police department. Joining never entered my mind. He let me find my own way and I could talk to him about anything.
My mother wasn’t thrilled early on with my hints at an all or nothing Gospel life, then arrived at acceptance and the virtue of zeal over time, proud of her son, the priest. Sunday Mass and school were non-negotiable. I read books voraciously.
Prayer Is Necessary
Prayer was very regular as a kid. Every night before sleep, one or the other of my parents would sit on the edge of my bed and prayers were recited. Both my grandmothers prayed always, the rosary mostly. Strangely, other than the forced rosaries said sitting under my desk at St. Brendan’s during nuclear duck-and-cover drills, I never freely went to the rosary until after I was ordained. Now, like my two grandmas, I can’t imagine being without it.
At St. Francis College, I spent many hours between classes observing trials in the NYS Supreme Court building nearby, or sitting in the back of a saloon called Lorber’s on the corner of Remsen and Court Streets with a stack of articles by Thomas Merton and a pile of pastoral letters by the Latin American bishops of the time. These I had carefully collected and photocopied from Catholic magazines since they were mostly not yet available in books. A pastrami sandwich and a good beer were occasionally worthy companions to Merton and the bishops.
Four years teaching at the only bilingual Catholic school in the city with gifted colleagues and a visionary boss was a time of discernment that led to the diocesan seminary at Huntington where they taught me theology very well and I met some new friends. Three holy priests outside the seminary taught me the art and discipline of priesthood, a way of caring pastorally, and the possibility of praying deeply. All three have since gone home to God and I miss them terribly.
Daily I grow in wonder and gratitude for the people who formed me, my parents and grandparents, priests and consecrated women and men, and of course, the saints. Art Garfunkel’s words from his recently published journal, “What Is It All But Luminous: Notes From an Underground Man” come to mind, “We give one-sixth their worth to those alive; afterward – the other five.”
Ordination and life at Saints Peter and Paul parish in Williamsburg’s “Southside” in ’81 was like stepping into another time and place and the neighborhood today is entirely different again. The story of our neighborhoods really is a story of relentless change. So much has happened since then, grace opening on grace all the way.
Today, I find myself in the midst of my Corona piñata parish, but sometimes I’m up front and sometimes I’m way in the back. Astonished at the numbers of young people around our parish and even at our Sunday Masses, I have no problem at all inviting a few of them to consider the seminary or the first tentative steps toward consecrated life.
When I do, some run for their lives. Others accept my invitation to come and talk when they can. But I never “elbow” the Holy Spirit out of the way by pressuring anyone to pursue a vocation he or she just doesn’t have. Most are not ready to commit to anything, and can even find it hard to be consistent in showing up for our gentle conversations. A digitally distracted generation? Maybe. Maybe all of us, young and not so young, are just way too busy for our own good or anyone else’s. If that’s our reality, when will we have the courage to say so in the best interests of growing in holiness, of growing vocations?
These days, my roots, memory, and future are nourished by Tomas Halik, a Czech priest and writer of no little insight. He says the trees are full of Zacchaeuses (See Luke 19:1-10), people on the fringe, interested but hesitant, believing or not, afraid or deceived. Like Father Halik, I like Zacchaeuses. Someday, I hope to spend more time looking up into the trees, learning names, listening to stories, whispering whoever I meet down to earth, praying them in the direction of heaven.
For now, surprisingly, my vocation continues to unfold. As it does, it’s so clear to me that my peace and my joy are here, now, a personal and intimate thing for sure.
Father Roden is the pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows parish, Corona.