Today’s vocation story comes from Matthew Leiser, SJ, a member of the Society of Jesus in his third year of formation with the order. Matthew was introduced to the order through the Jesuits at St. Francis Xavier parish in Cincinnati, OH.
Since a fifth grader I first felt a gentle invitation by the Spirit to consider religious life. I remember begrudgingly attending a family retreat that my dad dragged myself and my three siblings to. It was there while playing freeze tag with the other kids that I felt a tug on my heart. I simply can’t explain it anymore then a strong feeling of peace that stopped me dead in my tracks and made me think about Jesus and in sequence the priesthood.
Quite startled at the prospect of being a follower of Christ as a fifth grader I could not come to fathom the practicality of such a call. This would remain true throughout my teens and into my mid-twenties, but the invitation made itself manifest through a variety of circumstances.
More concretely I recall the crisis of college trying to understand what my purpose in life was. I had been studying business and established a practical path towards achieving a successful career with the idea of having a family. That is what my older brother was on track for, what my friends talked about regarding their futures, and so who was I to stir the pot and do something so extraordinary like religious life? It was still in college that I could not understand my vocation or that call to priesthood which was somewhere deep down, tugging on me, gently, patiently, waiting for me. There were a few times I prayed in college and basically bargained with Jesus. “Just let me try my hand in business and dating and if it doesn’t work then I will honestly check out the diocesan priesthood.”
All my soul searching in college eventually led me to bargain with my hard headed plan of business and propelled me into the Peace Corps in Guatemala. There I spent two years as a business development volunteer working in extremely impoverished conditions. I fell in love in Guatemala with my host family and neighbors and with the people I was called to serve. Ironically while serving for the US government I was placed with the Catholic Church as my counter-part agency and in turn found my life pretty interwoven in the Church’s activities. Despite all this I always regarded priesthood as too radical and impractical for my life.
Returning to the US in 2005 I was a changed man but could not articulate or express exactly what was moving in my heart. Instead I returned to live with friends from college and began a career in international business at Chiquita Brands in Cincinnati. I had also found myself a very nice girl and on the outside things seemed like they were shaping up quite nicely. It made it even harder for me to explain this growing sense of disillusionment and sadness that was creeping up inside me. No matter what I did I felt like I was always reminded of Guatemala, serving the poor, and working at the Church in my little village of St. Thomas. My roommates and girlfriend were very good people but I never felt like they truly understood nor could continue listening to me rant about my experiences in the Peace Corps.
It was this lack of an outlet that led me to St. Francis Xavier Parish in downtown Cincinnati. St X provided the outlet I was looking for in terms of my desire to be active in the Church and for service work. With a very young and ambitious Jesuit pastor I was enamored with the idea he presented that I should help him start a young adult group for the Parish. I noticed the feelings of excitement and joy when our group would go to Washington Park in Over the Rhine to spend time at the homeless shelter and the fun we had together at our social events and monthly meetings. These feelings reminded me of my little bargain with Jesus in college that if he only let me try my plan first I would check into religious life.
I was left with some difficult decisions such as explaining this desire to my girlfriend, family and friends, my financial situation with student loans and my apartment in Mt Adams. My perspective looked bleak and impossible but it was learning to take small steps and to trust in Jesus that eventually I was free enough to talk to the pastor of St. X and begin the long application process to enter the Society of Jesus.
I am currently in my first year of philosophy studies with the Jesuits at Loyola University in Chicago and my third year overall of formation. It has been a crazy adventure but one accompanied with the graces of God and the Holy Spirit, energizing me and gently guiding me every step of the way. Those feelings of disillusionment and sadness have been replaced with a peacefulness that tells me I am where I need to be. It is full of challenges and times of brutal honestly towards my own limitations but in learning to trust Christ’s plan over my own it has been full of immense blessing and growth. Each new day here requires abandoning my own preconceived notions that I may again say yes to the call and each yes is another step to encountering the One who called me that day as a fifth grader.
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