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Dancing with God

by Fr. Steve Niskanen, CMF

What is a vocation? Was I chosen from all eternity by God to embrace a vocation as a Claretian Missionary priest? Or was I invited by this same loving God to progressively come to know and love Jesus Christ within, first my natural family, and then, an adopted religious family—the Claretians—taking a number of twists and turns that were determined, at least in part, by my personal decisions? Maybe the answer to both questions can be “yes,” if we think of a life’s vocation as a kind of “dance” with God. It’s neither all about me nor all about God. It’s our mysterious interaction and movement through history.

I was first invited to consider the “priestly ball” through the radiant example of love and humility shown to me by a missionary priest from Colombia, Fr. Dominguez. I remember him taking the time to speak to our 8th grade class at Immaculate Conception School in Grand Prairie, Texas where he challenged us students to carefully “cultivate” our vocations, whatever they may be. Fr. Dominguez was originally from Spain and well loved by the parishioners. I didn’t know Spanish at the time, but I knew I wanted to be like him! I still have a letter he sent me in 1974 from Colombia in response to one I had sent him surfacing my interest in studying for the priesthood. He encouraged me to go “sometimes to the mountains, sometimes to the sea” in order to listen to God.

This was homework easily done, as my family had moved to the beautiful Pacific Northwest! Living in Seattle, I attended Jesuit high school and university and experienced a powerful, life-changing movement of the Holy Spirit in my life through the Catholic Charismatic Renewal at age 17. Although I was quite shy at the time, God’s holiness and goodness came alive to me in a way that healed my soul and lives in my memory. I knew that God could do whatever He wanted, and that God wanted ME for something. I accepted the invitation from my friend Jay, who is now a priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle, to help form a charismatic prayer group for youth, which met in my parents’ living room for a couple of years. When I first entered Seattle University, I was considering a Math-related career, but I found myself getting lost, and mostly disinterested, in my advanced Calculus classes. More importantly, the former inspiration to think about priesthood was acquiring a new glow as I thought to myself “you COULD do it in the power of the Spirit. You could do what you’ve been doing, and what you really want to do, on a larger scale, as your life’s ministry: share the love of Christ with all!”

It seems providential to me, then, that the Claretians had the audacity to place a vocation ad in my Jesuit university’s student newspaper. It was a summons to the “missionary ball” with the enticing caption “We could serve more with your help.” I didn’t immediately respond but tucked the ad away and later retrieved it when, after graduating from college and working as a nursing assistant to pay off my debts, I began to look seriously at religious life and investigate possibilities. In prayer, and in consultation with my spiritual director, I narrowed the field down to two: the Redemptorists and the Claretians, kindred groups dedicated to preaching and serving the poor. I chose the Claretians, mainly because of a deep identification with the person and life of our Founder, St. Anthony Claret, ignited through reading his Autobiography. When he described a Son of the Immaculate Heart of Mary as “a man on fire with God’s love who spreads its flames wherever he goes. He desires mightily and strives by all means possible to set everyone on fire with God’s love,” I felt I had found the brotherhood that could prepare, launch, and accompany me in living my life’s vocation on a dance floor that spread out beyond my city and state. I resonated with the vision of Claret who said, “My spirit is for the whole world.”

Did I live happily ever after upon joining the Claretian formation program in California in 1982? Yes, but a happiness not immune from great struggles, doubts, and questions thrown up to the Great Divine Dancing Partner. As I was approaching the end of my theological studies for religious priesthood, I was also branching out in my personality and opening to my desire for intimacy, especially with women friends. Dancing with other students at a local jazz club, I became infatuated with a pretty international theology student. Of course, I had had these feelings before, but now, with a final commitment to celibate religious life on the immediate horizon, I had to ask myself, “Do I know myself and what I desire sufficiently well to offer myself to God in this way?” I shared my concerns with my formators, who provided me professional counseling. I took my dilemma to the Lord in prayer, but I really agonized over the decision. One day my formator, Fr. Larry, came by my room as I was working on my “pros and cons” tally. He said something to the effect of “it seems you really want to leave.” Time to learn some new steps, Steve!

Altogether, I was separated from the Claretian community for 2 years. When I first left and found a job as an activities coordinator at a nursing home in San Francisco, I didn’t count out returning to the community soon. The question for me wasn’t the Claretians, it was relationships, and whether I had the gift for a celibate sexuality. My provincial, Fr. Frank, lovingly stayed in touch with me and I visited my friends at the formation house periodically. I purchased an old Volvo and joined a club for tall people, the “Golden Gate Tip Toppers” that afforded dancing partners who could see eye-to-eye with a 6’6” guy like me! I became more comfortable in my own skin, even as I wrestled with the mysteries of faith. Sometimes it felt like I would never return to religious life or be a leader in the Catholic Church, as I penned in my journal “Dear God, where are you?” One of the graces of this time, which continues to orient me today, was an existential ease with human perplexity and brokenness, in myself and others. I believe that this is what Pope Francis is referring to in Amoris Laetitia(The Joy of Love) #308 when he says: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness…”

What was it that drew me back to the community in 1989, leading to my final religious profession of vows in August 1990 and priestly ordination in November of that same year? As I was discerning my future, I had in my possession another wonderful letter whose message and challenge I could not shake off. It was sent by Br. Paul, a member of my Province who took the time to extend his friendship and proclaim his faith in words of true brotherly care for me. It reads:

Dear Steve,

I pray for you in your discerning process…For me, the religious life is a happy life and I hope that through its structure and spirit I can learn to give myself away more and more. In starting to give myself away, I have found myself. I think the question you should ask is not “Where will I be the happiest?” but “Where can I give my love the best?” (emphasis mine) Happiness will naturally follow such a quest. Although I hope you stay and become a priest, I would respect your decision to leave and I hope we can remain friends. There’s a good life ahead of you and I hope the path you take will be strewn with God’s blessings.

My almost 30 years of life and ministry as a Claretian Missionary priest has borne out that this is the way I am most “me” and available to God’s movement in my life. In this wonderful vocation, I find that I can “give my love the best” to God’s people. I have marched with immigrants facing the separation of their families. I have been led to LGBT Catholics and their families seeking their way to “give their love the best.” I have been blessed to be a spiritual father and guide to our Claretian novices and seminarians. Yes, there are times I lose my footing-- weakness and self-doubt creep up from time to time—and sometimes the way forward seems a bit murky, but I cannot deny that God is greater than any or even the sum of all my defects. As did our Founder, St. Anthony Claret, I take the hand of my Dancing Partner whose beguiling voice overwhelms the wallflower in me:

Do not fear, I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Is 41: 10 (NAB)

The vocation directors Fr. Rubi & Fr. Byron are ready to accompany you in your discernment and help you find a spiritual director if you don't have one. Contact them today!

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