Our Paths to the Priesthood

Called for These Times

January 28, 2011. How does a longstanding Legionary, ordained in 1983, process the current circumstances of the Legion and his own place within it?  In this testimony, Fr Owen Kearns, LC, returns to the very beginnings of a call that came from God, finding in it the “indestructible foundation” upon which he plans to build his own future and that of the Legion.


Jesus Called Me


“The Pope renews his encouragement to all the Legionaries of Christ, to their families, and to all the laypeople involved in the Regnum Christi movement, during this difficult time for the congregation and for each of them. He urges them not to lose sight of the fact that their vocation … is … the indestructible foundation upon which each of them can build their own future and that of the Legion.”


“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” In the early ´60s in small-town Catholic Ireland, the country was being invaded through us teenagers. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan were flooding our consciousness and creating a new culture. There was a struggle going on for the allegiance of our hearts and minds. Nobody seemed to notice or to care.

Every month, there was a meeting of the grandly named “St. Patrick’s Debating Society” (it was just a discussion group). It was open to anybody; about 40 or so mostly working-class people and upper secondary school students would show up. A priest was always on hand, to lead prayers at the beginning and the end, but he didn’t intervene in the discussion. Anybody could volunteer to write a paper that they would read to kick off the discussion.

One of the schoolgirls was a pale blonde who we all thought would go on to be a fashion model. She wrote a paper that basically said: “The facts of life (That’s what we called sex-ed back then) ― we’re not being taught them by our parents or by our teachers or by the priests. So where are we getting them from?”

Actually, we were getting our ideas about sex and freedom from pop culture, the spearhead of secular culture. The Beatles’ message — “She loves you, and you know that can’t be bad” — was so seductive. But Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death was a warning sign that behind the promise of fun lurked a hidden, darker side.

The schoolgirl concluded: “We’re getting them wrong. We want the truth.”

The adults, sensing criticism, demurred: “Oh, pooh, pooh! No, that couldn’t be so.” We teens insisted: “It is so.” And we insisted so fiercely that the adults finally asked for a show of hands. “How many have been taught the facts of life by their parents?” Out of about 25 teenagers, two hands went up. “How many by a teacher?” None. “By a priest?” None.

Oh. So. Something had to be done.

It was decided to arrange a talk by a medical doctor and a priest ― one evening for the boys, two evenings for the girls ― at the Legion of Mary hall. There was no publicity, no promotion. No need. The word went round the town’s three all-boys secondary schools like wildfire: “We’re going to hear the truth about sex.”

On the appointed evening, we rode in on our bicycles. The sun was setting gloriously. At The Ramparts, a seedy area backing Main Street, we walked across the concrete footbridge over a stream (glorified drainage, actually) into the Legion of Mary hall. Never before and never since were there so many people in that room. Inside, it was not just “standing room only”; it was jam-packed. You couldn’t even move sideways.

The good doctor had an easel and a large pad with the anatomical drawings on it. He explained how the human reproductive system worked. That wasn’t what we were there for. We hadn’t come just for the how. We were there for the meaning, the mystery, the beauty, the challenge. All eyes were now on the priest. You could hear your own heart beating. Then he spoke, in resonant church-organ tones. “Well, boys, I am sure you are all familiar with what the Church teaches about the Sixth and Ninth Commandments; so, we’ll end with a prayer. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Mechanically, we muttered “Amen.” That was it. It was over. We shuffled out, in shamed silence.

Back outside, night had fallen. The rain was coming down. Not Ireland’s usual driving blustery rain, just a listless drizzle. Even so, we rode home slowly. None of us was in a hurry to tell our parents that somebody they looked up to had just demeaned us. We didn’t even have the words for it, anyway.

How could the priest have thought that we were only interested in how sex functioned? What led him to disdain our quest for a fair love, for an ideal to live by? Why wouldn’t he talk to us? Why did he refuse to engage our culture?

Among ourselves, we never discussed the event. Not right then, immediately afterwards, on our way home. Not the next day in school. Not ever. It was too shameful, too demeaning, too degrading.

There was no question of organizing another event: Who would we ask? If we had known some other priest personally, maybe some of us could have turned to him, but none of us did. Anyway, we all supposed that the priest that night was the chosen representative of the other priests in town, whether diocesan or religious. As far as we teenagers were concerned, they were all the same.

Until that moment, out attitude towards priests was inherited from our parents: respect. That’s why we expected … something. Truth, wisdom, guidance, encouragement ― even warnings about temptation, a lecture about sin, threats of hellfire … anything. But now, we knew: They have nothing to say to our culture. And how it felt to us was: They don’t care about us.

I might have gone on to become, as most of my classmates did, a former Catholic. One day, however, one of the Irish Christian Brothers at our secondary school invited us to visit Our Lord after school in the little chapel that the brothers used. A few of us went the first day. After a few days, I was the only one. Something — I don’t know what or how — kept drawing me back.

I wasn’t saying prayers. Certainly not the Rosary; at home we had started the family Rosary a number of times; it always fell through. I had an instinctive aversion to the “infallible” devotions that were popular among older Catholics: Say this novena; it’s never been known to fail. I didn’t have a Bible and wouldn’t have known how to use it to meditate or contemplate anyway. I wasn’t reading spiritual books.

Besides, I wasn’t there for anything. I didn’t have any particular need or at least I wasn’t aware that I had needs that I should pray for. I had no expectations.

I was just there to visit Christ, just there for his sake, not mine. And to that, he responded.
The first thing I learned was something so simple it can easily be overlooked: Christ liked it. He was not indifferent to being visited. His unspoken message was not: You are boring me; much less: You are annoying me. Rather, it was: Come back again.

From the silent Lord in the tabernacle in that small chapel, things began to be communicated. At the time, I wasn’t even conscious of it. I never came out of the chapel aware of an insight that I didn’t have going in. It was just that, as I interacted with my friends or thought the long thoughts of youth about the future and what it might hold for me, certain attitudes and convictions and values began to emerge in me. It didn’t even occur to me that they were being forged in those silent times spent with the Lord.

Since the Lord used no words and no discourse, I had no protection, no defense against what he was communicating. With what words can you argue with a wordless communication? Unknown to me, a conversation was happening, and I couldn’t even sift it, much less block it.

It was a communication not so much of words or even ideas as of values. The values my friends were focused on: making money, owning things, getting ahead — these began to seem shallow, empty, worthless to me.What will they be worth at the end of life? What use will they be after you’re dead? Somehow the Lord had managed to get me to evaluate what passes in light of what remains, the visible in light of the invisible, the tangible in light of the spiritual, the temporal in light of the eternal.

It was a communication not so much of words or even ideas as of feelings. A feeling of sadness for my peers being so abandoned without a sure guide on our quest for meaning and value, for the truth of our lives and for a fair love.

It was a communication not so much of words or even ideas as of a view, a way of seeing reality, his way of looking at the world, society, culture, other people. What Jesus sees when he looks at the world… It wasn’t just an insight into another possible way among many of looking at the world; it was the unveiling of the world’s inner meaning, a view into what was and is truly real. The world I saw was a wheat field ripe for the harvest.

It was not only a communication of the inner meaning of the world but also, by that very fact, the disclosure of my role in it. What I would be. What he wanted of me. What he intended for me.
Once I saw that the world is a wheat field ripe for the harvest, I knew: I will be a laborer in that harvest.

It was a communication not so much of words or even ideas as of a sense of responsibility for the eternal salvation of others. Who is going to help save them? If you don’t go, Owen, who will take your place?

As these values, feelings and insights unfolded and developed in me, I began to get uneasy. Me different from my friends, my concerns and values and ideals and expectations different from theirs, different in a way that seemed to be pointing towards priesthood.

That, I found alarming.

I thought that, if you were going to be a priest, and to do so, you would have to leave great things (wife, family, career, choosing your own way in life, your own clothes, interests, space and so on), then it had better be great or it couldn’t be worth it. But the priests I saw didn’t project that. There were plenty of priests in our town, both diocesan and religious; the nearest parish was run by religious. I didn’t know any priest personally, and had little notion of what they did outside of Mass and confession. It might have been different if I had known them better.

Still, like many Catholics, my impressions of priests were formed mainly from their preaching, and I don’t remember ever being challenged by what I heard in a sermon. It seemed that the local priests were satisfied with the way things were run in Ireland.  They never suggested that society or the culture needed to be engaged, much less transformed. We were supposed to save our souls (that is, basically, stay out of Hell) by keeping the commandments and going to confession when we broke them. How society was being run and who was shaping the culture and for what purpose was not an issue.

It certainly would have been easier if I had known then the many priests, diocesan and religious, who opened their heart and home to me on my years of travels as a Legionary vocation director. They taught me so much about the value of priestly life and witness. At the time, though, to a teenager, it looked like the local priests didn’t expect too much from their own priesthood. For me, that wasn’t good enough. They were a good reason not to become a priest. Who would want to be like that?

In our classroom of about 30, there were about six of what we called priest material. They were planning ongoing away to a seminary when they finished secondary school. And they were typical: dull, dutiful, dour, disapproving, studious, no fun, no friends, no social life. Priesthood would be perfect for them: They already fit our teenage perception of the local priests; all they would need would be the studies.

They were another good reason not to become a priest. See the kind of guys who are interested in it…

So began a long struggle to convince the Lord that I couldn’t become a priest. Others maybe, but not me.

At first, I was sure I had valid reasons. I was too different from the priest material. So, I was confident that thinking it through would prove me right, and that the inner promptings toward priesthood would turn out to be a false alarm and fade away.

So, I would tell the Lord, I can’t be a priest because I like “This.” I would pursue my interest, and he would be waiting at the end: See? You’re not made for “This,” are you? He was right. Not only had “This” not fulfilled me; it had left me feeling empty inside. So I would respond, No, but I still can’t be a priest because I like “That.” I would pursue “That” and it would lead to the same dead end. All it did was make the emptiness much bigger, like when you shake an empty tin can: It sounds emptier if it has two peanuts in it. See, you’re not made for “That” either, are you? No, but I still can’t be a priest because…

After a while, I ran out of valid reasons, so I turned to excuses. If there were a way to convince myself that the whole thing was a figment of my imagination or a product of my cultural, social or family conditioning, I would have found it. I certainly tried hard enough. I was left with no good reasons not to be a priest, while those inner promptings that I should become something I still disliked kept growing more insistent.

It was Christmas Eve, 1965. I was 17. I was walking home with Fintan Farrelly, a classmate from senior year in high school. We had been Christmas shopping. We were just off the town’s main square, passing the Court House. Not on retreat, not in a church. All the same, the inner conversation, or rather argument, had become incessant.

Come on, Owen: Be a priest.
Why not?
Go away. Leave me alone.
Come on; you’re just chicken.
I know. I’m chicken. Just leave me alone.

But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. The interior pressure had gradually built up until it was unbearable. I had to decide, one way or the other.

I knew it wasn’t just a question of being open to considering priesthood, or giving it a try. It was much more radical than that. It meant abandoning all things — everything and everybody else — for the Lord’s sake. It meant letting him dictate what I would do with my life. It meant letting him have the final say and the first say and the whole say and the only say about my future and its circumstance.

Somehow, I realized that Christ wouldn’t ask me to leave great things for something mediocre. If I gave up what I loved and what I was looking forward to, he wouldn’t cheat, wouldn’t defraud, wouldn’t disappoint, wouldn’t let me down. It would be well worth leaving what I had to leave.
It was not that I could accept the risk of abandoning things I treasured because I had figured out that what I would get was better than what I left. No, I could run that risk without even knowing what it was I would get, because I knew I could trust the one who was asking me to leave the treasures.

So I told him, All right. I’ll give it a try.

The weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. I was no longer afraid. I was free! And I was happy. So happy that Fintan noticed it:

“Hey, Owen, what’s got into you?”

“Well, Fintan, I’ve just decided to be a priest.”

“Oh, that’s … terrible.”

I thought to myself: It won’t be terrible. It will be great. I can’t even imagine how it will be great, but it will be. But I didn’t argue with Fintan or try to convince him. How could he understand? I didn’t understand it myself.  I knew exactly what he meant: You want to be like one of them?  I also knew he was wrong: I won’t be like them.

I certainly was not willing to become like any of the local priests — diocesan or religious. Probably some or even many of them were good, holy and admirable priests. But we didn’t know that. All we knew was that they showed no interest in us; they made no move to engage us in our culture. Our reaction was typical of teenagers: They don’t like us:  That’s all right; we don’t like them.

Instinctively, I sensed that if I went to a seminary that had formed them, I would end up like them.  And that, I was not willing to do.

I didn’t have any clear idea of what kind of priest I wanted to be, just of the kind of priest I wanted not to be.

Fr. OwenWhat then? The logical alternative, in Ireland

So, I’m to be a missionary, then. That meant joining some missionary order.in the 1960s, was to be a missionary. To become a priest far away.

But which one? And there were so many! How was I to choose between them? What should I look for? I had no clue.

So, I made a deal with the Lord. Look, this wasn’t my idea. And there are too many orders for me to investigate: I’ll be an old man before I finish. So, I’ll take it that the one you send into my life that I like the best, is the one you want me to join.

I would never have thought of it in those terms at the time, but it was basically a covenant, a kind of homemade one, a personal, private one, just between him and me. But it was as valid as any formal public covenant, as binding as a marriage or a monk’s vows. Once it was made, it was irrevocable. There was no going back on it, no altering it, no abandoning it. The only option was to keep it, to be faithful, to carry out my side of the agreement when he carried out his.

It was totally clear to me that the Lord was calling me not just to love him more than I loved anyone else, but to love him exclusively: Love me and nobody else.

If someone had asked me, “Are you consecrated?” I would have laughed. I didn’t think of myself as that. And yet, I sensed that, somehow, I had been set apart. I felt bound — to what? Not to a commandment or to a promise, much less to a vow. It was, rather, to an unspoken understanding with the Lord: Keep yourself for me. It was a confused yet definite sense that I was reserved for him.

It was a confused sense, because I still enjoyed social life, enjoyed dancing and dating, and I intended to keep on doing that until I would have to go away to be a priest. (If I had a spiritual director, I might have been less confused.) Even after I decided to join the Legionaries, I didn’t tell them I was set, because I didn’t want any of my friends seeing priests coming round the house: It would be bad for my social life.

Even so, it was a definite sense, because I knew I had to remain unattached.

There was this girl. Our mothers, with that intuition that mothers have, engaged in some old-style matchmaking and arranged an introduction. I liked her, and I sensed that, if I got to know her better, it would lead, not simply to having fun together, but to being drawn to each other, each for the other’s sake. And that, I understood from the Lord, was no longer an option for me. So, I pretended to be more interested in her younger sister, and so remained reserved. From then on, I kept my distance from her. I belonged to the Lord. Far from feeling deprived, or envying my friends their freedom to have girlfriends, I cherished my otherness. I was content.

How missionary orders “came into my life,” how that concretely happened, was through the vocation talks missionary priests would give at our secondary school. Fairly often we would have a guest speaker for religion class. The teachers liked it and we liked it and the missionaries liked it. At the end of the talk, the visiting missionary would hand out interest slips.

Long before I decided to be a priest, I enjoyed evaluating them, comparing them, judging them, sizing them up. I didn’t have words or concepts such as spirit or charism, so I weighed up what I called their attitude, theirapproach. There were only two that had stood out, that had made me think: Well, if you had to be a priest, it wouldn’t be too bad to be like him.

One was an American missionary in South America. I liked the idea of going to a sunny climate, and he had an impressive personality and told colorful stories of exciting adventures on his missions. His attitude was one of massive self-confidence (I didn’t realize at the time that it was simply because he was an American; I found out later on that Americans in general are pretty much like that). Classroom guests always spoke from behind the podium. He didn’t: He walked up and down between the columns of desks. You got the sense that he really had it all together and there wasn’t any situation that he couldn’t handle. He loved what he was doing and it was obviously very fulfilling even on a human level. Well, if you had to be a priest, it wouldn’t be too bad to be like him…

The others were two Legionaries of Christ: One young Irishman who spoke to our junior class, and a Mexican priest who came in at the end after speaking to the seniors. The Irish one gave his talk from behind the podium; he held onto it with both hands and it was shaking. The two Legionaries were polar opposites: the Irishman was intellectual and formal, the Mexican priest was happy-go-lucky. They were enthusiastic and had an infectious sense of humor. They communicated an intense sense of being passionately caught up in something far greater than themselves, and they needed lots of others to join them to accomplish the endeavor. Well, if you had to be a priest, it wouldn’t be too bad to be like them…

… the one you send into my life that I like the best… Comparing the two communities, I realized that if I joined the American missionary’s order, I wouldn’t get what had attracted me: his personality. But if I joined the Legionaries, I would get what they had in common: that sense of being involved in a great mission.

I had asked them for more information, but they hadn’t sent me any. So I forgot about them — actually, not really forgot, but they faded in the recesses of my memory. All during the time I was first doubting then fighting my vocation, there was no word from them.

But within days of making my decision to be a priest, giving way and yielding to Christ’s call, the Legionaries wrote me a chatty little handwritten note asking how I was doing, how was my family, how were my Christmas exams…

I thought: These people have a nerve. They’ve ignored me all this time and now they send a measly note (not even a letter) and act as if we we’ve been life-long friends. So, I replied:

“Thank you very much for your note. The tone of it seems to imply that we have had previous correspondence. If this is the case, I am unaware of it.”

It was a sarcastic dig, meant to make them miffed. In that, it was an utter failure. They told me later that, when the Irish Legionary who had spoken in my class received the letter, he ran to the Mexican priest, waving the letter in the air and exulting: “A fish! A fish!” That’s because I had added:

“However, I am still interested in the priesthood in general and the Legion of Christ in particular.”

They thought I was nibbling on the bait. Actually, I had swallowed it whole.

With the note, they had enclosed an 8-page full-color brochure. It was all about the missions in Latin America. But the last page was an evening view of New York City skyscrapers with the lights on, silhouetted against the twilight sky: BIG CITY. It was taken from across the East River, so: over there. On this side, there was the silhouette of a priest. Not on the other side, tamed, neutralized and absorbed by it. Not turning away from it, overwhelmed and intimidated by it. Not with his back to it, indifferent or resigned to it, with nothing to say to it. No: He was facing it, as if deliberately sizing it up.

Underneath, it said:

“Legionaries of Christ, determined to penetrate all walks of modern life with the transforming message of the Gospel.”

I knew immediately: These priests are different. And not just a little different: radically different. It’s a difference not of degree but of kind — a different kind of approach. I had received or seen literature from various religious communities: They were all variations on a theme. Here, there was a different theme. It’s not that they were going about the same thing as other religious orders but just doing it a little differently; they were going about a different thing.

I realized that these people not only were determined (their word) to penetrate the secular culture and transform society, but that they knew how to do it. No wonder the two who spoke in my class had communicated the enthusiasm, the excitement, the passion of being involved in a mission that utterly transcended them. There was no other religious or missionary community even thinking in those terms.

That vision just dropped straight down into the marrow of my soul, with no opposition, no reluctance, no hesitation, and I knew: I will be a part of that action.

Eventually, of course, I had to tell the Legionaries I wanted to join. Inevitably, they visited the house. In the sitting room, my stepmother peppered them with questions: What? How much? Where? How often? Why? How soon? When? How many? And on and on.

I was bored and got up and left them to it. I felt no need to know all the details beforehand, much less to review them and see if I agreed with them. I trusted the thing, the core, and I trusted the people, because I trusted the Lord and his calling me to them. I trusted the Legion and I trusted the Legionaries with a total, absolute trust, with no conditions or limitations. It never occurred to me to have one trust for Christ and a different, more cautious, less naïve and less total trust for the Legion and the Legionaries. The way I looked at it was: I’m giving my life to these people. Whatever they’re going to do with me is going to be fine with me.


Jesus called me. I cannot doubt that. He was more powerful and I had to yield.
He called me to trust him, to let him dictate my future and its circumstance.
He called me to reserve myself for him. No doubt there.
He called me to priesthood. No doubt there.
He called me to the Legion of Christ. No doubt there.

The fact of the call is to me one of the most powerful proofs of the existence of God. Perhaps not powerful in the sense of logical, but compelling in the sense of personal. Dead men don’t call. If Christ is calling me, it means, at a minimum, that he is alive and well.

Since the call is from the Risen Christ, it is therefore a call from his eternity. We know that eternity has no beginning and no end, and so it’s often described as stretching back into an endless past and forward into an endless future. If the material universe were eternal, that’s the kind of eternity it would have. God’s eternity is the opposite of that: It’s like past and future are so collapsed and compressed and intensified into an endless now that there is no past and no future, only now.

Since the call is eternal, it comes from Christ’s eternal now. That means it is not merely something that happened in the past. Granted, my coming to awareness of the call was an event or a process in the past. I can remember it, I can renew it, but I cannot repeat it. The call itself, however, is eternal, coming forth from Christ’s eternal now. Therefore it is always now. Therefore it is renewed at every moment in time. Since he is calling me now, he loves me, he loves me now.

The same thing is true of my response. There was an initial response in the past. But it didn’t end there. Christ is always calling me now. And I am always responding to him now.

I want my response to be worthy of Christ’s friendship, to be worthy of him. I don’t want to defraud or cheat or disappoint or let him down. That means fighting the impulse to be cheap, to hold back, to be dishonest, to try to get away with giving something less than everything, to evade the stark choices of self denial and renunciation and sacrifice. It means always giving him what I said I would: the final say and the first say and the whole say and the only say about what I will do with my life, how I will build my future.

The call is eternal. That means that the Lord called me to the Legion knowing full well what was to transpire with the founder. He didn’t call me to the Legion in ignorance of that, independently of that, in indifference to that, or despite that. He called me to the Legion precisely for that, to be involved in the process of healing and purification triggered by the revelation of the evil the founder had done.

Christ could have drawn me to the Legion in many other ways. I give thanks to my Lord that he chose to draw me through a resonance in the core of my spirit with the core of the Legion’s spirit. I loved and trusted the people I met from the Legion, but it wasn’t just those particular individuals I was drawn to. I knew I would trust and love whoever was in the Legion, because we would be the people the Lord had drawn to this great enterprise, and so their heart and mind and spirit would have been formed, as mine had been, to undertake together such a glorious thing.

It’s on the basis of my call, on the basis of how Christ formed my spirit to be able to recognize and respond to what he had formed in the Legion, that I can undertake the task, in common with all those he so called and so formed, of purifying the Legion of everything that is not in accord with what drew me to her in the first place.

My vocation is — as Pope Benedict said — an unshakeable foundation on which to build my own future and the future of the Legion. And I cannot conceive of a more exciting, thrilling and ennobling endeavor.