A full chapel of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College students joined the Holy Cross Community at Notre Dame for a vocation night this past Wednesday night at Corby Hall. Matt Kuczora, C.S.C., the dean of Moreau Seminary, preached a moving homily about the desperate need for priests today “to celebrate the joys of life and walk with us in the sorrow of pain and suffering.” If you have ever felt even an inkling of a call to the priesthood, this is a homily you must read:
This summer I buried one of my best friends.
Brandon Barrett and I went to high school together. We were both on the wrestling team and hung out a lot. After graduation, he felt like he wanted to help people and change the world, to do something worth while … and so he applied and was accepted into the US Naval Academy. I got to visit Brandon at the Academy for a Notre Dame—Navy football game our sophomore year … back when we used to beat Navy. The game was great, but I was happier to see my friend excited and passionate about the path he felt called to.
From the Academy, Brandon could’ve gone anywhere. I encouraged him to be a fighter pilot or a submarine captain. That wasn’t Brandon though. By the time he graduated, he was convinced that he wanted to be on-the-ground … with the enlisted men. He was willing to give up the advantages of the Academy that entitled him to serve on a massive warship or fly 10,000 feet above danger. I told him he was crazy.
We had a few long talks, but each time he told me he felt like he had to be right-in the middle-of-it-all … to take care of the men in his command. He couldn’t see it any other way … and so after graduation he asked to be transferred away from the bright white uniform of the Navy … into Marine Corps fatigues.
Two years ago, Brandon left for Afghanistan. He served well and stayed safe. He even picked up a little of the local Pashtun language. We had a great time together while he was home after that first tour, but we knew that he had to go back. It was at the end of this second tour, that I got the news. Right in the middle of finals week last May, Brandon was filling sandbags in the dirt with the enlisted troops, sweating under the hot Afghan sun … when a sniper shot him.
Brandon’s commanding officer told his mom that Brandon was a prize target. He was popular with the troops and with the local tribal leaders. He was making improvements in the village and bringing the progress that was making life better for the people around him. Brandon left home to make the world a better place and he died doing just that.
When I got the news, I was sad and angry, but most of all I felt useless. Useless in that I couldn’t do anything for my friend and useless in thinking about what little I had ever done next to all he had accomplished.
Then Brandon's mom called.
Brandon had been Confirmed Catholic at the Academy, but his family had had a rocky relationship with the Church. His mom didn’t want a funeral Mass or a priest at the funeral, but she wondered if I would help them mourn and celebrate her son … and to ask God to welcome Brandon home and to comfort all of us who missed him.
In the days of planning and leading my friend’s funeral, I understood my vocation in a way that I had never understood it before. For a long time, there had been this intangible feeling that God was calling me to a life of service. This summer, when Brandon died, I was finishing my fourth year of formation, not to mention several more of discernment that started in college, right over there in St. Edward’s Hall next door. After such a long time, in my brain, I knew about service and being a spiritual leader. And in my heart I could feel that priesthood in Holy Cross felt right, but it wasn’t until this moment, in this awful situation, that I finally experienced that call in action.
I got in the car and made the two-hour trip back home. I talked with our hometown pastor and got some tips on what to do. I had led some prayer services before, but never anything like this. The high school offered to hold the funeral in the gym and that day it was packed. I lead the prayers and Scripture readings and held the hands of Brandon’s mom and our friends as they gave the eulogies … and helped his tough Navy buddies say goodbye through their tears. The town shut down as the funeral procession made its way to the cemetery. And while the honor guard played taps and fired a final salute, I lead the graveside service for my friend Brandon, blessed his casket and helped his family lay his body in the ground.
This wasn’t just a way for me to say goodbye. In that role, I was walking with Brandon’s mom and his brother and his sisters and I was leading our entire town in its appreciation and mourning of a favorite son.
I tell this story tonight to give some concrete reality to what, in my experience, is something that can be very abstract and hard to explain. For whatever reason, it’s easier for us to understand Brandon’s desire to join the Navy and even to be with the men on the ground, than it is to talk about a call to religious life. If I thought Brandon was crazy for transferring to the Marines, let me tell you, people definitely think that religious are crazy. I know that you probably already know this, but telling people you’re thinking about living a life of poverty, and obedience and celibacy can be really hard to explain … or even put into words for yourself.
Our life as religious and as priests is certainly a life of sacrifice, but also one of great joys. In all the sadness of the funeral, I was overjoyed to be able to comfort my friends and to talk to them about their questions of death and faith and the promises of baptism. Those of us in religious life are called to those experiences every day. It is a vocation full of joy and one that gives my life meaning and one that helps to build the Kingdom of God and makes the world a better place.
I hope that Brandon’s story and my role in it, helps you to see how important priests are today. Our culture and our Church desperately need priests and religious to celebrate the joys of life … and also to walk with us in the sorrow of pain and suffering. In my ministry … and experience around Brandon’s death, I saw that need and experienced the joyful part in-it … that I feel God calling me to live.
We’re all called to serve others out of our love for God and all of you are here tonight because you’ve seen God at work in your life, and so I know that faith is something very important to you. Maybe you’re also here because you think you can see yourself in a life of service or maybe someone has told you they see that in you. In any case, you know God’s love and our Holy Cross Constitutions tell us why we choose a life of poverty and celibacy and obedience, that “our vows are an act of love for the God who first loved us” and so by surrendering our wealth and our relationships and our power to God, we make the world a better place by making God present in our world and reminding our world that there is something beyond our suffering and our material possessions.
Either tonight or during the week, I hope you give God some space to discern … and listen to where He is calling you. God calls us all to make the world a better place and to build the Kingdom … and priests and religious do that in a very special way. Maybe God is calling YOU … to serve others in a simple life of community and as a guide for His people that so desperately need it.