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I was working as a janitor at the time, a job at my high school which helped me pay for college. The hose in my hand blasted water at the floor mats hanging on the fence behind the school as they received their summer cleaning. During this mundane task the thought struck me--I'm called to be a priest.
Later that week I arranged a visit with a priest friend of mine who advised me to finish college, keep praying, and to start checking out various seminaries. I began to tell everyone that I was exploring the priesthood. What a thrill it was to believe that my purpose in life was just discovered.
A strange thing happened, however. An uncle of mine, Msgr. James P. Conroy, whom the family called "Father Jim," did not encourage me with the intensity that I expected. We were close. When he would come to our house on Thursday nights to visit and partake of a meal, often I was the only one at the table when he was finishing his dessert. We would talk about a lot of things and we shared common interests in writing, drawing, piano playing and history.
So when I told my plans to Father Jim, who besides being a mentor was once the diocesan vocations director, I thought that he would open doors, facilitate visits, and do whatever else it took to get his nephew into a seminary. Instead, he encouraged me to pray, which was good, but that was it.
Long story short--I never entered the seminary. I finished college and decided for various reasons that law school was where I needed to go next. During my last year before graduating with a J.D., I visited Father Jim. He was in a nursing home recuperating from an ailment. We sat in a dining area and talked. I asked him, "Father Jim, why didn't you help more with getting me into a seminary?"
He replied that he was not confident about the quality of seminaries at that time. He was concerned that seminarians were not getting the formation they required to minister well as priests. Then he said something that I will always cherish.
"Dan," he started, "do you remember what it felt like when you believed that God was calling you to follow him? Well, God is always calling. It may not be in the direction you expect. Never forget what it feels like when you think you are being called. Always be attentive. The priesthood, if it is truly your calling, is a wonderful vocation. But you do not have to be a priest to do God's will."
As I am writing this column, I am sitting in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. I am catching my breath after my second, very busy day working at my new job at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. God called me, I am certain, and moved me to apply for a newly created position with the U.S. bishops. I will focus on national and state policy debates related to marriage and family.
Elaine and I always figured that our next "big" move would be back to our home state of Indiana, and not right away. In fact, I had applied last fall for the vacant position of executive director for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which opened upon the death of Edward Saunders.
In March, an email addressed to all of the state Catholic Conferences around the country showed up in my computer. The staff for the U.S. bishops was advertising the notice for policy advisor for marriage and family. This was the second time the notice was circulated. The first time it came, in the fall of last year, I was gathering my references and updating my resume for a different position. I paid no attention.
The job notice's second appearance came just days after I had learned that my bid for the MCC position was unsuccessful. As I read it, I kept thinking, well, that qualification matches my training and that responsibility matches my experience. I asked Elaine and our daughter Miriam that evening what they felt about the possibility of moving to D.C. They gave their support.
I received the same gracious response from my colleagues at the MCC and as well as from the four ordinaries in Massachusetts. In a whirlwind, I tailored my already prepared resume, notified my already gathered references, and sent in the application. Within days I was flown down for an interview. A day later, I was offered the job over the phone. This time, I truly was called.
My family is missed sorely (Elaine will come down at the end of the summer when Miriam goes back to school in the fall), and so are my coworkers and friends up north. Deep bonds, forged in the numerous policy battles in the Bay State, tug hard. The people that I have met and loved in the commonwealth will remain forever close in my heart.
This column will continue. Its focus will not be quite as local of course. It will still share stories and lessons about faith and issues of the day but will not be written in any official capacity. The thoughts will be my own. May the reader keep me and my family in your prayers and I will do the same for you.
Daniel Avila formerly served the Catholic bishops in Massachusetts and now lives and works in the Washington, D.C. area.