Entering the priesthood or religious life can be a special challenge for a middle-aged person, both in meeting the demands of the vocation and finding a seminary or religious community willing to accept older applicants. But some Catholics, often because of a conversion or change of circumstances in their lives, feel the call in their 30s or 40s and have gone on to have successful lives as priests and religious.
Our Sunday Visitor recently spoke with a brother, a sister and a priest who began their vocation later than the norm, and they reflected on the blessing of their new lives.
Father Brendan Kelly
Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
Father Kelly is pastor of St. Wenceslaus Church in Bee, Neb. — the first resident pastor in 40 years — and head of the philosophy department of St. Gregory the Great Seminary in nearby Seward, Neb. He was ordained in 2005 at age 42.
He was born the 13th of 14 children in a strongly Catholic family in Chicago, but his father relocated the family to Ireland in 1975 after the Roe v. Wade decision. He returned to the United States in high school. He said, “It was clear that Our Lord was calling me to the priesthood for a long time, but I was like Jonah. I went the other way.”
He “attempted to serve the Lord” in a variety of other fields, including as an engineer, in the medical field and as a teacher. Father Kelly continued, “That was great, but Our Lord wanted all of me.”
Growing up in a large and happy family, his biggest challenge was giving up on the idea of having children of his own.
Father Kelly earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Notre Dame and began teaching at a Jesuit university in San Francisco. He noticed that many students would address him as “Father” when he was not — many of the priests at the school did not wear clerical dress — and that when students would come to him with their problems, “what they really needed was to go to confession. The kids were asking for something from me that I could not give.”
He entered the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, then the Dominicans, and ultimately decided on the diocesan priesthood in Lincoln, Neb. He said, “I’ve never regretted that decision. I’ve received many wonderful blessings.”
Lincoln is known for doing well for priestly vocations as compared to other dioceses, but there is still a dearth, he said. Most Lincoln priests minister to two or more parishes: “There’s always room for more laborers in the vineyard.”
He advised older persons interested in the priesthood or religious life: “It’s never too late, but start now. Life is too short to keep saying ‘no’ to Our Lord. Tell him ‘yes,’ and let him, through his mother, show you how to fulfill his call.”
Sister Viola Ramirez
Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour
Sister Viola, 73, is superior of the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour. She lives in San Diego and crosses the border each day to work in the infamous La Mesa Prison in Tijuana. Sister Viola entered the community at age 68 after her husband of 50 years died.
Sister Viola is from Denver and is mother of four grown children. When she was widowed, she wanted to devote the remainder of her life to missionary work and had a particular interest in helping migrants. She learned about the Eudists, a community founded by Mother Antonia Brenner (1926-2013).
Mother Antonia was a divorced mother of seven grown children who left a wealthy Beverly Hills lifestyle in the 1970s to devote herself to ministering to those in dire poverty in La Mesa Prison. Prison life in La Mesa is rough by American standards, and inmates must rely on outside support to survive. Poor prisoners have difficulty in obtaining food, clothing and other essentials, even a bed on which to sleep. The Eudist sisters minister to the spiritual and material needs of the poorest prisoners, reminding them, as Sister Viola said, “That Our Lord loves and cares for them.”
Sister Viola’s children were not happy when she announced her decision to join the community, but came to accept that decision. When she arrived in Tijuana, “I knew this was the work I was meant to do.”
The 19 Eudist sisters in the community rise at 4:30 a.m. for prayer and their morning routine. Sister Viola must be at the prison at 7:30 a.m. and spends much of her day there. It’s a physically demanding schedule for a person her age, she admits, but “I’m used to working hard. I’ve worked hard my entire life.”
The Eudists are specifically interested in women age 45 and older for their community, and they make year-to-year commitments. The woman best suited to the life, Sister Viola believes, is “someone willing to give up the lifestyle she has and give it to the poor and the sick. She has to be willing to say ‘There is no more me; I am at the service of Our Lord and my brothers and sisters.’”
Brother Ezekiel (James Brennan) has professed final vows in the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago. He joined the community seven years ago at age 46 and has found it to be “a wonderful life, one of prayer and coming closer to the Lord.”
|Brother Ezekiel was an actor
before joining religious life. Courtesy photo
Brother Ezekiel grew up in the Chicago suburb of Riverside, where he attended Catholic schools and had an interest in music. He moved to New York and pursued a career in acting. He recalled, “I was starting to have success in my career, but I fell into a dissolute life.”
In his early 30s, he returned to Chicago and joined a Presbyterian church choir. “I stood out with my long hair, but I was right at home with the Brahms and Beethoven music we sang,” he said. He returned to Catholicism and pursued a vocation to the priesthood. He found the priesthood “respectable, and I wanted respect.”
He quickly realized the priesthood was not for him, but after reading Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain,” he decided he wanted to enter religious life. Because of his age, past lifestyle and depression, which he has to control with medication, many religious communities would not accept him. He visited communities across the nation, but was rejected everywhere he applied.
After repeated rejection, he worked nine years in a nursing home, giving up on the idea of religious life. He noted, “I’d put a year of my life into applying to a community, and when I was rejected, it hurt. It killed me.”
A nursing home resident told him about a new community of Benedictines that had established a monastery only 20 minutes from where he lived in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The Monastery of the Holy Cross, he discovered, is devoted to prayer and sustains itself by operating a bed-and-breakfast for visitors who were interested in participating in their life of prayer, as well as selling caskets and running a gift shop. They were founded 25 years ago and currently have 10 members.
Brother Ezekiel spoke to Brother Brendan, the community’s founder, and found an instant connection. He was open about his past life, as well as his eagerness to enter religious life. Brother Ezekiel entered with three younger men in 2007.
Today, he lives the Benedictine motto ora et labora (“pray and work”). He rises to pray at 3:30 a.m. and devotes several hours a day to prayer. He also tends to the duties of running a bed-and-breakfast: cooking, cleaning, chopping wood for the stove, caring for the grounds and greeting guests.
It is hard for a middle-aged man to submit to the will of a superior. He noted, “Your dreams are not your own. You may want to do one thing with your life, but you must give over your will to what the community wants.”
But Brother Ezekiel is happy with his home in the community. He said, “I was ready for a life of study and prayer. I wasn’t happy with my life outside. It’s been wonderful, giving myself to something much greater than myself.”
Jim Graves writes from California.