Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jimmy Vanek: The University of Dayton Summer Appalachia Program is in its forty-ninth year!

It takes a long time to become a priest. And the time of formation, at least in our Diocese, there's an an internship here. So just like a doctorate does an internship and goes out into the field and kind of practices the work, we have an internship where we go out to a parish and we're assigned to parish ministry.

So for my internship year, which was in 2004, which was 11 years ago, 2004, I went to St. John Vianney in Mentor. I spent the year there. One of the things that I got to do was teach in the grade schools, and I was assigned to teach fourth graders. And I loved fourth graders because these kids were kind of like, you know, smart enough where you could joke around with them, but they weren't old enough where they didn't have an attitude yet. You know what I mean? So they were, like, really good kids to work with. And one of the kids that I taught in that grade was Jimmy Vanek.

Jimmy was in the fourth grade at that time. And Jimmy now is a sophomore at Dayton. So he's in college now. And I had gotten to know his family during that time, the Vaneks. And Molly and Jim, the parents, are just really good friends. You may notice I have a little bit of a tan right now. They actually took me on vacation. I was on vacation with them all week.

For the last couple of months, they have been talking about Jimmy. Jimmy is a sophomore at Dayton, and they have been asking me what I think about Jimmy because he might have the call to the priesthood, and especially what's coming up in his life right now is he feels kind of called to do some missionary work.

So UD, the University of Dayton, has a summer program where you can go to Appalachian, and you spend the summer serving the poor in the Appalachian mountains. It's a wonderful program and a tremendous opportunity; however, you're gone for the whole summer.

Now, it's hard for them because Jimmy is in Dayton, so they miss him kind of all year long. So they look forward to the summer vacation when he will be home.
So the parents, Jim and Molly, were talking to me a couple months ago. They said to me, you know, "Father, give us some advice. How can we talk him out of this? We want him to be with us. Selfishly, we want him to stay home with us." I asked them for a little bit, I said, you know, "What do you think about it? Do you think he should do this? And they both said, "Well, selfishly, we don't want him to, but if God's calling him to, you know, then we know we have to let him go." And so I just said, "Well, you have to really pray about it and have a serious talk with Jimmy and see if this is a genuine call and if it's what he's being called to do."

So a couple months have past by and we're on vacation, and both of them have kind of come to peace with the reality that Jimmy's being called to be gone for the summer. The funny thing is he had been praying about it, too. He sent an e-mail to them on vacation. I want to read you the e-mail. I asked Jimmy if I could read it. But this is the e-mail that he wrote to his parents. This is coming from a sophomore in college to his mom and dad. It's pretty awesome.

"Dear Mom and Dad: I wanted to get this all down in words, so I thought I would type them out and send it over.

"After spending weeks discerning and praying, I have decided to apply for the University of Dayton's Summer Appalachian Program. I keep feeling a call to this program, and I'm so excited to go. I wanted to send you two an e-mail to let you know this has nothing to do with me not wanting to be home. There is no place I would rather be than home." And he put their address.
"Leaving even after a three-day stay at home on break is the hardest thing that I have to do. I know sometimes that I can be difficult and messy, but I always want to be at home. And although this is the case, I need the opportunity to the step out of my comfort zone and live.

"A song quote that I really enjoy is, 'I hope one day I'll say I did it all. I owned every second that this world could give. I saw so many places. The things that I did, yeah, with every broken bone I swear I lived.'

"You two have instilled in me that message that I have the power to do a lot of good in this world. I can never thank you enough for the opportunities that you have presented for me, and I thank God every single night that I was blessed enough to come into this world as Jimmy Vanek. I truly believe that this is a program that God has called me to do. I know that you two don't necessarily agree with my decision, but I promise that when you come down and see how abundant Kentucky is with love, both in my eyes and in the people I am working with, I know that you will understand why I had to go.

"God calls each of to us love in different ways, and love comes in many shapes and sizes, and there are so many places that need love in this world, and I hope that you two will understand. I love you two so much.


Now, how is a parent going to respond to that letter, right? I mean, so when God truly does call us -- and I think about Jimmy, just such an awesome kid. And he's got this call, you know, that won't go away, and he's trying to talk himself out of it and his parents have tried to talk him out of it, but he knows he's being called to it. And when we writes a letter like this, his parents -- you know, when I asked Jim and Molly, I said, "Well, what do you think after reading that letter?" They said, "We know he's got to go." And they were at peace.

We hear in the Gospel today, Jesus was calling the first disciples. You know, he was going along the shore, and he first called Simon and Andrew and they're casting their nets, and he says, "Come and follow me." And they follow him. And he walks a little bit further down the shore and he saw James. So this is Jimmy. James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, they too were in a boat mending their nets, and then he called them. So they left their father in the boat, along with the hired men, and followed him.

I think about how hard this must have been for the father, for Zebedee. So Zebedee is in the boat with his sons, who he probably wanted to take over the business. He's in the boat with them, and all of a sudden Jesus walks by and he says, "Come and follow me," and they leave. They leave him in the boat. And I used to always think, poor Zebedee, you know, like this is horrible. But I think, I have to believe at least, that there must have been a moment for them. Maybe it was just a way Zebedee looked at his sons and saw in their eyes that call. There must have been a moment when Zebedee understood that he had to let them go. There must have been that defining moment.

And the truth is God is still calling today. You know, he continues to call each and every one of us to a very special purpose in life. He calls us to a vocation. And sometimes it's hard to let the people that we love follow their dreams. It's hard to let the people that we know follow a path that seems kind of crazy to us.

And you know, I'll never forget when I first told my parents I was feeling this call to priesthood. And it was really hard kind of bringing the news up to them because I didn't know how they were going to react. My father was really having a tough time. He was really upset about it. And he said to me you know, "Michael, don't you want to be happy? Don't you want to be married and have a family and have kids?" And I said to him, "Yeah, all I've ever wanted to be was married and to have kids, but I feel like God is calling me." And I remember it was so tough for my father, until he started to see me grow and he started to see how happy I was. And now he sees me as a priest, and, you know, I know that he's truly at peace with it now. And he couldn't be happier and prouder, you know, than a son that's a priest. But it's hard in that initial moment to let go.

And so maybe you feel some call from God. You know, maybe you feel a call from God to the priesthood, or maybe you feel a call from God to do missionary work, or who knows what the call may be from God. But I assure you, if you open yourself up to that call and you really communicate it like this to other people, like Jimmy did to his parents, there will be that moment of understanding, there will be that moment of genuine love and desire that we all want for growth. We all want for someone to follow that call of God. And so I really just think it's so inspiring to take somebody like this, Jimmy, who I knew in fourth grade and now is truly answering the call of God, and to watch his parents wrestle with that, you know, to want to keep their son selfishly to themselves, but also, even more so, to be able to give their son to God and to be able to let him follow his call, I think, is such a beautiful thing.

And so we all have to ask ourselves that question: If God were to call us or to call one of our children, would we let them go? Would we let ourselves go? Would we ultimately trust Jesus enough to come and follow him wherever he leads?

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