In a family of Cradle Catholics, the reality of the priesthood has come home.
by Sheila Liaugminas
My husband and I grew up in Catholic families with a rich heritage of devotions and a culture of vocations. Two of my great-aunts, Sister Sacred Heart and Sister Immaculate Heart, were cloistered nuns in the Home of the Good Shepherd, a massive stone edifice that resembled the convent in The Sound of Music, with a dramatically spiritual atmosphere. Visiting there helped forge my childhood faith. Beautiful sacred art and architecture, hymns, the sacraments, rosaries, processions, the rich tapestry of the liturgical season it was the air we breathed.
Somehow, it got choked off almost entirely when we grew up, which is a pause for thought right there. In young adulthood, many family members and most friends fell away from the Church and it’s a rich irony that I declared I would never do that, though de facto my practice did just that. It’s a story I’ve told on EWTN’s The Journey Home in witnessing to the spiritual conversion I began to experience when I really did grow up, after having children. They were young boys when I did what Chesterton so artfully and comically describes at the beginning of Orthodoxy I discovered this fascinating, brilliant, stunningly rich and exciting treasure house of transcendent truths, only to learn it was the Church I had actually left but never really known.
Our home and family life opened up to a great deal of Catholic teaching and tradition and practice. The priests and nuns of EWTN became familiar to us and we got more involved in the parish. My sons served at Mass beside some fine priests. But it hadn’t occurred to us that either of them may actually become one. Little did we know.
The moment is still and will remain a clear memory. We were driving through our small town doing the usual things when my seventh-grade son, Andrew, said from the back seat, “I think I want to be a priest”. It was frankly startling, given his longstanding desire to be an archaeologist. He had recently interviewed a New Testament archaeology professor at a nearby college, which I thought had cemented that aspiration, having heard stories of digs in the Holy Land and seen the retrieved pottery on shelves filled with academic books used in classes.
The statement came out of nowhere. “Really!” I responded, positively astonished. I asked him what made him think that. He said when he realized that archaeologists spend nine months in a classroom and three months digging, he thought about that, and changed his mind. And heart. “And I thought what work can I do with my hands that’s more important than what a priest does?” he said. He was looking down at his hands as he spoke, and I turned just in time to capture that moment in time.
Everything that went before it, as our life had evolved, had somehow led to that turning point. Everything that would come after would, as directed by providence, change him and our family. Forever, according to Psalm 110: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek”.
In those days, our parish started a Perpetual Adoration chapel and we made a weekly holy hour. Our family summer travels included some shrines, pilgrim sites and Rome. We were present with Pope John Paul II on Pentecost in 1997, the Year of the Holy Spirit, in St. Peter’s Square, which he called “the great Upper Room”. The following year, Andrew would enter Quigley High School Preparatory Seminary in Chicago.
He engaged in activities like Students of the Cenacle and cathedral servers, started an “International Rosary” event and wrote a student handbook of prayer. He was where he belonged. My son turned his daily commute into a time split between school work and down time with spiritual readings. I found that amazing. He found it refreshing and sustaining.
But things got a lot more difficult by his senior year, which began just before September 11, 2001. Around that same time, clerical abuse allegations were increasing. Serious existential questions were emerging alongside serious theological and doctrinal ones. It was a tough time to be a seminarian, making the decision whether to enter college seminary even tougher.
Providentially, Andrew found the saving grace to make that leap in the summer just before, at Lourdes. He journeyed to the shrine with a youth group on a service trip to serve pilgrims who flock to Lourdes in search of healing. While helping dip pilgrims in the pool of Lourdes’ water, witnessing their utter abandonment to God’s mercy, and leading many in prayer at the shrine, Andrew felt his vocation confirmed.
This was a key moment early on, as he recalls in a reflection for Mundelein Seminary’s publication:
I gained a new appreciation for the profundity of man’s longing for God, and experienced God working through me to draw people into Himself. In helping these pilgrims, witnessing their faith, and being privileged to facilitate their encounter with God, I felt deep in my heart that God was calling me to be a priest. (“Preparing for Priestly Ministry”, The Bridge, Summer 2010 issue)
People would be heartened to know how well formed our priests really are through sometimes 12-plus years of training. Andrew received university degrees in four majors: philosophy, theology, Catholic studies and biblical languages. And he received outstanding spiritual and ministerial formation at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, whose motto is: “Men in Christ. Men of the Church. Men for Others”.
In his four years of major seminary at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, he benefitted from exceptional theological and liturgical training, all of which he contends is really for the benefit of those he will serve in his lifetime as a priest.
At our ordination the bishop reminds us we are called to “exercise the sacred duty of teaching in the name of Christ the Teacher”. But before we can become good teachers, we must first be good students. This prepares us for a lifetime of calling upon what we have studied and sharing it with those we are called to serve….
This is why we study in seminary: to hand on to others namely, our future parishioners the fruit of what we have studied and meditated upon over our years of formation. Ever since then, this has become a motto for me, and has reminded me time and again through seminary to orient all I do to the goal of handing on to others the best of our Church’s gifts and wisdom. (Ibid.)
It is rich and deep and extensive and profound. And it does not end with ordination.
As he wrote that reflection, Deacon Andrew was nearing completion of major seminary and eagerly anticipated the day he had methodically and faithfully prepared for over the past 12 years. How did he imagine it?
The greatest gift I will hand on to others is the Eucharist.… Cardinal George will receive bread and wine from the people, after which we will individually come before him and kneel. He then will hand the bread and wine over to us and say: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross”.…
Once ordained, I will be facilitating my parishioners’ encounters with God in the sacraments. I will be serving the sick and the poor. I will be passing on the fruit of my studies and prayer in homilies and other teaching moments. I will be talking to second graders eager to receive the Lord. And at the summit of it all, I will receive the gifts from God’s people, offer them to the Father, and in Holy Communion share with them the Body of Christ. (Ibid.)
On May 22, 2010, Father Andrew Liaugminas was ordained by Cardinal Francis George, with 13 other men. It was an indescribable blessing.
Just days later, I was on Relevant Radio in my regular weekly contribution as news correspondent. Only this time, the news was that my son was ordained a priest, and though I started by saying “There are no words…” I quickly found plenty of them and gushed on about the ordination and the priesthood and faith, family and life. So much so that I was called to do an interview on some of those points for a Chicago Catholic news web site. At the end which is really the beginning this was what came out:
Q: You mentioned it a few times, and you’ve talked about it on the radio before. You noticed a change in him. I know you said it was hard to explain, but was there any physical change like a different stature about him?
A: Yes. Stature seems a little like it is perceptible like somebody is holding their head up higher or their shoulders back. It’s not that. It’s both imperceptible and perceptible. He walked through the door, and I looked at him and thought “he’s changed”. He also has, again it’s not how he’s acting or how he talks or anything, but there’s something about him now that has such a deep comfort level of being who he was always meant to be. I knew that happens ontologically to a priest when they’re ordained, but I wasn’t quite prepared to be startled when my son walked in the door. I looked at him and realized in that moment he has been changed. He has been transformed. Andrew Liaugminas the human being has not changed. He totally has the same character, the same personality, everything, but he has changed….
On the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, Pope John Paul II wrote Gift and Mystery, a small treasure he reluctantly released “as part of the service involved in the Petrine ministry”. In the beginning of chapter one, the Holy Father says:
The story of my priestly vocation? It is known above all to God. At its deepest level, every vocation to the priesthood is a great mystery; it is a gift which infinitely transcends the individual. Every priest experiences this clearly throughout the course of his life. Faced with the greatness of the gift, we sense our own inadequacy.
As the mother of a priest does, even one steeped in media communications.
At the same time we realize that human words are insufficient to do justice to the mystery which the priesthood involves.
And so I feel better about being reluctant to tell this story.
I also feel keenly uncomfortable when people say and they say it frequently that as his parents, my husband and I did so many things right to foster Father Andrew’s vocation that we somehow deserve credit for our son hearing the call to the priesthood, or for instilling in him the noble desire to consider such a call, or for being such great witnesses to faith that those seeds would be planted that would grow into this vocation.
We deserve no such credit. As Pope John Paul said in Gift and Mystery:
The priestly vocation is a mystery. It is the mystery of a “wondrous exchange” admirabile commercium between God and man. A man offers his humanity to Christ, so that Christ may use him as an instrument of salvation, making him as it were into another Christ. Unless we grasp the mystery of this “exchange”, we will not understand how it can be that a young man, hearing the words “Follow me!”, can give up everything for Christ, in the certainty that if he follows this path he will find complete personal fulfillment.
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