"I asked with sincerity and receptivity, “How, Lord? How, and why?” My answer came to me with striking clarity through the words of Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he may be found..."Religious Name: Fr. Matthew of Mary
Date of entrance: December 25th, 2008
Age at entrance: 19 years old
Date of Ordination to the Priesthood: December 19th, 2015
City and country of origin: Fort Myers, FL, U.S.
Current Community: Valencia (Spain)
He Wanted All.
My story is a little different than those you might hear on talk show radio or those people write books about and travel the world sharing their life. The events of my life might not seem as extraordinary as many miraculous conversions with enough dramatic details to fill a book. Just the same, even the older brother who stayed home with his father was in need of conversion. I too received that call to conversion in the heart of the Father to be one with His Son as a gift to His Mother and our Mother. My story, while not necessarily astonishing, is certainly nothing less than miraculous.
I was born and raised in the United States. My brother and I grew up together with our parents in a fairly well-to-do home. We attended public school for twelve years but were never that close. I was happy to find myself alone with my parents throughout a great part of my childhood. I had many friends and did fairly well in my studies. I was not the problem-child. I did not get into trouble and if I found myself doing so my conscience weighed heavy upon me. I was more sensitive than most kids and a bit of a momma’s boy.
As far as my spiritual life is concerned, there is a bit of a ‘gap’ from my baptism as an infant to my initial conversion in high school. Though I have always been Catholic, my family was not that ‘devout’. I recall going to Sunday school after Mass like every Catholic child in America, but like many Catholic children in America I wanted to go home to play with my friends the entire time. In fact the only thing that really stuck from catechism class was the cartoon representation of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the subsequent lesson about the end of the world and our judgment; needless to say it was an impetus to get me in the confessional years down the road when sin made a difference to me. For a period of two or three years I even skipped catechesis and we only attended Mass on what we considered the ‘big’ days: Christmas and Easter. Eventually I had to go back so I could receive classes for Confirmation.
I received Holy Confirmation at the age of fourteen and my life continued on after the sacrament as if nothing changed. I did not go to Mass at all then. This was not from hardness of heart. I always believed in God and felt guilty even at the suggestion that He might not exist. I simply did not know that Sunday Mass was an obligatory precept of the Church. I suppose it is assumed by parents and teachers who have been Catholics so long, but for the sake of their children they ought to lay it out in black and white! Regardless, I suppose I was too caught up in the race to be “my own person”, to find a personality that would be “me.” I met a lot of people who lived lives that were shocking to me. I give thanks now for having been preserved from so many bad friendships and enslaving vices. I do not mean to say that I am a St. Therese of Lisieux - unfortunately - because I too had to battle my way out of sin. I only mean to say that I was the temperate one among my friends. In fact, when my friends began fooling around with drugs they were afraid to tell me because they knew that I would not approve. Perhaps it was just my more serene nature, but the whole scene never appealed to me!
Life then was a little depressing. I tried to live what my friends were living: the music, the fashions, the conversations; you know. However, I was never content with that life, too much appearance and too little sincerity. My heart was restless until it found its rest in the Lord.
Less than a year into high school, the Lord finally reached out and planted a seed in my heart. I do not remember the day or even the time of the year; only the place and the person who was the Lord’s instrument. She was a friend of mine from years back who was unapologetically Christian. I was floating through the day like any other, making my appearances and maintaining my image, that is, until I walked into my final class and sat down. I found myself face to face with some sheet music from Church on my desk. I said, “What’s that?” I thought to myself, “How long has it been since I last went to Church?” Her openness and honesty about her own faith was enough to serve as a medium of grace and that Sunday I found myself back at Sunday Mass after a year and a half of non-attendance. From that weekend I had an insatiable curiosity to know and learn the truths of the Catholic faith, as if I had been robbed of its treasures during the course of my childhood. I felt a little left out at first because I did not know the responses at Mass, but it was not long before I was reciting the Creed, from memory, with the rest of the congregation.
For the first time in my life, I wanted to be at Church. I wanted to read the Bible. I wanted to pray the Rosary simply because I was Catholic and - blast it - that is what Catholics do! Mass became the most important event of the week. I went to Church of my own accord, even without my family. With weekly Mass soon came confession. Ah, confession, blessed confession! Imagine the shock on my mother’s face the first time I asked her to drive me to confession!
At this point I was into my second year of high school. Apart from my studies, which took up none of my free time, and my social life, which took up a lot more, I was devoted to practicing the faith. I would read or watch Catholic media at night after the fuss of the day died down. After the first year or so, I began (almost) weekly confession out of desire to receive the Eucharist every time I went to Mass. At first I did not realize the gravity of receiving communion in the state of grave sin; everyone at Mass receives and nobody confesses! However, I was not content to receive Him unworthily in sin, and so I battled sin with all my strength. Thankfully, I also discovered the prayer of the Rosary because all my strength was never enough to beat sin. The grace I received from the Rosary was tremendous; I only fell into sin the days after I had not prayed the Rosary. What is more, it was my only real time of prayer. I see now that from the beginning it was Our Lady leading me step by step along the path towards Christ.
In this atmosphere of prayer and search for the truth, the first inklings of my desire to be a priest were kindled. I fell in love with the teachings of the Catholic faith. Already the passions of my heart were melting away and ceding to the desire to read, speak and think only about God. One weekend I heard a priest, his name was Fr. John, relate a little about his own call to the priesthood in a homily. At that moment something happened that had never happened to me before. I felt very much at peace and I thought to myself, “I can do that too.” With little graces like this and my growing love of the truth, my heart was ripe for the priestly vocation. Blessed be God!
All of this background explains more or less the foundations placed by the Lord to bring me to the encounter with my vocation. When the time came to choose a college, the options for me were simple: Catholic or (preferably) very Catholic. Through divine providence, I happened to find a very young, very vibrant, and very orthodox Catholic campus not an hour’s drive from my home. The school itself boasted a whopping one hundred students and was still awaiting official accreditation. All of that “official” business to me was neither here nor there. The Lord showed me with clarity and constancy that it was the school for me.
The last summer before I moved on campus, I spent a considerable amount of time with my first and only girlfriend. What an interesting phase that was! The relationship, while not sinful, was more carnal than it was spiritual. I think deep down I knew I was meant to dedicate my life completely to the service of the Church, but I still had great curiosity about what a relationship would be like and my flesh fought to its dying breath to retain at least a possibility of being married and having children. But when the reality of a personal relationship hit me square in the forehead, the physical and emotional affection was too much. It turned out to be a huge burden on my soul. Going to college and meeting so many Catholic girls just made it worse. The relationship sputtered to a halt after a month away at the university. The Lord used the whole experience to give me greater clarity in my vocation to the priesthood, with which I had great peace for many months.
At school, I did everything I possibly could to be involved in spiritual events on and off campus. I attended Mass daily, which was the common denominator among my closest friends. Praise Jesus for good friendships! I spent a lot of time in good conversation, as much about matters spiritual as secular, as well as a lot of time in innocent fun. Even among guys and girls the relationships were personal and trusting without becoming intimate. Clearly these friendships were a gift from Our Blessed Mother to preserve us from superficial friendships while still maturing in our spiritual lives. Of my friends, three would go on to become Servant Sisters of the Home of the Mother, I would become a Servant Brother, and several others would pursue religious and priestly vocations in the United States and elsewhere. One of my friends knew the Home from before her time in the university and steadily grew closer to the community. It coincided that she was taking big steps in her vocation while my soul began to feel unrest about my own. I saw reflected outwardly in her what I felt within: weariness with the everyday superficialities of college life and friendships and the desire to move into a relationship of totality in the fullness of a vocation. (What never crossed my mind was that I might be a brother in the same religious community as her).
From the beginning of my time in college, I slowly came to know the Servant Priests of the Home of the Mother. They served the university students and faculty as full-time ministers of the sacraments and as spiritual directors. I went to a holy hour given by one of the priests during orientation weekend. His meditation was food for conversation weeks into the semester. As I was very devoted to the sacrament of Penance, I decided to go to him for confession. The direction he gave me in the confessional was more profound than I had ever received inside or outside the sacrament and he quickly became my favorite confessor. Around Christmas-time, I decided to begin spiritual direction with him to talk about my possible vocation to the priesthood. He inquired as to whether it was the diocesan or religious priesthood that I felt called to. I had not given much thought to it, but I was very attracted to the Franciscan friars (to me they were the coolest dudes this side of the solar system, and still are). He saw that I was not sure and invited me on a pilgrimage to Italy that summer to help me discern my vocation. I was thrilled at the prospect of traveling to Rome of all places and by the following semester I was signed up to go.
At this stage the story becomes a little more complicated. A lot happened in my little soul in those few months before the summer pilgrimage. I had experienced great peace with the vocation for several months that year, but the devil was not going to let me off so easy. That second semester of classes, I became very close to a girl that I had not spent much time with before. In fact, I came to know her a little too well. This time around, there was no infatuation; I had fallen in love. The whole situation left my heart torn. I enjoyed such peace with the priesthood before I came to know her well, but now that peace was gone and she was constantly on my mind, which was a great danger to my vocation. I knew that I owed it to the Lord to discern His will for me, and I knew that she would be studying abroad the following semester, so I refrained from making any decisive steps toward a closer relationship with her, but how hard that was to do!
Under these conditions I found myself on an airplane to Madrid with the staunch intention to discern whether I was to be a priest or to be married (to this girl in particular). Something funny happened on the plane: I ended up sitting next to a girl who was baptized Catholic and I found myself convincing her to pray the Rosary!
As I flew into Madrid I had the sensation of homecoming. As I said, the thought of becoming a Servant Brother of the Home of the Mother never once entered my mind, but seeing myself there surrounded by the entire Home of the Mother: priests, brothers, sisters, laypeople and youth, I had the sensation that this is it, this is where I will be for the rest of my life. It was in that moment in particular that the Lord spoke definitively as to what he wanted of me; it was also in that moment that I first hardened my heart to the gift of the Father.
What I really had in mind concerning the discernment of my vocation is analogous to taking a shower with an umbrella over your head. I was sincere in my desire to know my vocation, but not sincere in my resolution to follow it. If I could just go and pass some time saying that I am discerning my vocation, then I can look back and say that I really discerned. By that time, I will be happily married, right? The Lord saw right through my intentions and pierced through the hardness of my heart through the words of our founder, Fr. Rafael. I was convinced that the Home of the Mother was a work of God and of Our Lady, but it simply did not have a place in all that I had planned for my life. What is more, the strength of my attachment to this girl was too great; my heart was already divided. I began to distort the graces I received and tried to convince myself that I really was not certain of my vocation to the priesthood.
Despite my greatest efforts, the Lord left two powerful impressions on my heart that I could not deny afterward. First, I knew as an ontological certainty that I was meant for the priesthood, and I let others know to keep me accountable. Second, I entered the Home of the Mother of the Youth. On the day set to make commitments as HMY members my feet just started walking toward the altar. It was Our Lady’s way of keeping me close to the Home. Since then I have not gone one day without praying for the Servant Brothers and Servant Sisters of the Home. Strengthened, or rather burdened, by these two graces, a bitter path of detachment and purification awaited me. Too long had I served the Lord with a divided heart; He wanted all. And to accomplish His efficacious will, He permitted me to suffer tremendous anxieties and desolations in my soul, even to the point of physical fatigue and depression.
My saving grace turned out to be spiritual direction. I continued spiritual direction with the same Servant Priest who had invited me to visit in Spain. Thanks be to God he managed to wrench out of me through several conversations my confession that I was in love. The simple act of admitting it before my spiritual director was like removing a tumor from my soul; I still needed time to heal, but time I had because she happened to be studying abroad in Europe that semester, while I was in Florida.
The other grace I found in his direction was his insistence that I make the holy hour each and every day. It had been months since he had first given me the direction to do so (along with daily Mass and Rosary, and frequent confession), but I was chronically unfaithful to my time of prayer. I found silent prayer difficult, likely because I was more accustomed to the style of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I cannot say enough about the good it worked in my life in helping me to overcome fears and above all in introducing me to the reality of a supernatural spiritual life. However, the center of prayer at that point was myself, not Christ. I put much emphasis on feeling and did not know how to navigate in times of desolation. In the adoration chapel I simply could not cope with the silence. My soul was so caught up in my own thoughts that I could not rest before the Lord.
Another thing that hindered my prayer was pride. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament demands humility because it is an encounter with Truth itself. The truth was that He wanted something from me that I did not want to give (at the time). However, the difference between our wills was the difference between creature and Creator. Facing the Truth hurt, but nothing He could ask of me could possibly be more painful than what I felt when I separated myself from Him. I needed to be re-created.
I reached my boiling point on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I would often speak of becoming a Franciscan partly because I really did want to be a Franciscan and partly to run from the Home of the Mother, which I loved so long as I was not a part of it. I realized that he (St. Francis) was praying for me to be happy. Not only he, but the Blessed Virgin Mary, all the angels and saints, and even the Lord himself desired with all their being that I find happiness. I broke down into tears. In that moment I wept more for the dying ‘old man’ in my soul than for anything else, but it was the first step towards opening myself to the power of grace. It was after this that I ended my correspondence with the girl in my life and resolved to be faithful to the daily holy hour. At first it was dryness and distaste every time I visited the Lord in the tabernacle, but despite the difficulties in prayer I stayed and eventually found great peace in prayer. It was just what my soul needed to find its rest.
Now, the effect of this ‘break down-break in-breakthrough’ (as it has been described to me) is that I let down the defenses, so to say, of the barrier I had erected to separate my world from His. What happened next was like a first stick of dynamite destined to demolish what was left of that human security, namely: one of my good friends had become a Servant Sister. She had to overcome trying circumstances to consecrate herself to the Lord, but she took the step with tremendous generosity. The joy that I saw radiating from her face confused my poor, worldly comprehension. Given that we lived in such similar surroundings and committed ourselves to so many activities and so much apostolate together, how is it that she is so happy and I so dejected?
Later that night I poured out my soul before the Lord in our little dormitory chapel. I asked with sincerity and receptivity, “How, Lord? How, and why?” My answer came to me with striking clarity through the words of Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55: 6-9).
That was enough for me. I had the plane ticket to Spain for the winter break even before all the doubts and fears had dissipated; I only needed some spiritual direction and a weekend in silence to overcome it all. I flew to Spain with the intention of entering the community of Servant Brothers as a candidate, which I did on Christmas Day 2008. It was as if I too was born into the world anew along with Him, this time as His own. That winter before I returned to my studies, this time as a Servant Brother, I received beautiful advice from my new brothers. Above all, I have tried to fulfill the advice to “live as if I had perpetual vows.” And so I have strived to live, although with great imperfection. As far as I am concerned, the Apostles did not need vows to follow Christ in poverty, chastity and obedience, and neither do I. I only need the help of His love and His grace; that is enough for me.
We, poor creatures that we are, make a horrible mistake when we don’t place our trust in what the Lord reveals to us, as if He wished to do us harm. Or worse, when we finally accept what He gives us, we behave as if we were doing Him some sort of favor. At least this is how I behaved towards the Lord for too long in my life. The truth is that all that He gives and all that He takes away comes from His love, and if He chooses to take away our tiny human plans, it is to give us life and eternity in abundance at His side.
Fr. Matthew's Interview on Changing Tracks
To watch more programs, click here