Written by Fr. Chuck Fitzpatrick '69
Fr. Fitzpatrick will celebrate the Deceased Alumni Mass at Marist on November 5, at 10am.
My story is probably quite different from my brother seminarians. I grew up in a Catholic culture in a predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago. Everybody I knew was Catholic. I attended Catholic grammar schools taught by Dominican nuns, and the two parishes I grew up in had at least three or more priests residing in their rectories. Like all little boys growing up in this environment, and with the nuns frequently asking us to consider it, I occasionally thought about what it might be like to be a priest. But those turned out to be just passing thoughts.
At my first parish—St. Christina’s—my older brother was an altar boy and he “snuck me in” to serve a couple of 6:00 a.m. weekday Masses with him when I was in 4th grade. I never officially became an altar boy there. After 5th grade we moved and I was too shy to try out for the altar boys (or Little League) at our new parish. In college, though I attended a Catholic college, I often went the way of the crowd and did not always make it to Mass on Sundays.
No. My call to the priesthood did not come until I had already been out in the world of work for 30 plus years. Most of my work experience is somehow related to law. I come from a family of lawyers, though I never became one myself. I have worked as a paralegal in some very big Chicago law firms. But my main career was an Adult Probation Officer for Cook County, Illinois. I spent all of my years there working at the main Criminal Court Building in Chicago. As you might expect, it was very rewarding work, but also very emotionally and physically taxing. I was also helping to take care of my aging parents on weekends. After so many years, I was just worn out.
I took an early retirement from Probation and went to work for a family member, again as a paralegal, in his small law firm. Exhausted and disappointed (I had planned on putting in at least 20 years as a probation officer) I turned to God on a deeper level. I had by this time been attending Mass regularly on Sundays for many years. I discovered Relevant Radio by chance one day in my car and things took off from there. After many years of attending only communal penance services, I went to Confession in the confessional. After that I can only describe it this way: a “waterfall of grace” seemed to pour down on me. I started spending many hours in Eucharistic Adoration. I became a regular at the Pauline (Catholic) Bookstore on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago on my lunch hours. When I wasn’t browsing I was buying books. I read everything in sight I could get my hands on about Catholicism and things holy. I began attending Mass a few times during the week in addition to Sunday. I started praying the Rosary nearly every day. These things just filled me up and brought me a tremendous sense of peace.
The thought that I should be a priest came to me one night, and I thought it was crazy because I was in my early 50s and too old to become a priest. So I refused to think about it for two years. Whenever the idea came into my head, I would disregard it. But after the two years it came back.
Slowly, it occurred more and more often. Four years later it was my most predominant thought almost every day. Finally, one day in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, I told the Lord, “If you want me to be a priest, I’ll be a priest.”
But first I had to give it some extra, concentrated thought. I made a four day retreat to the Trappist Monastery in Kentucky where Thomas Merton had lived as a monk. It was the first week in May (the Blessed Mother’s month) 2010. I had not yet talked with a priest about whether this “call” I was feeling and hearing in my heart was for real or not. I spoke to the Chaplain at the monastery about it and he told me that yes he thought it was for real and that I should start calling vocation directors as soon as I got home.
I went back to my room in the monastery and prayed the Rosary. I felt very relieved, and happy. But still confused. I thought, Okay Lord if you want me to be a priest that’s what I’ll do. I want what you want. But why did you wait so long to tell me? Why are you doing this to me?
Just as I was finishing the Rosary, I noticed an old green Bible on my desk next to the bed. It was one of the monastery’s Bibles. I did not bring mine with me. I had heard about people opening up the Bible and putting their fingers down on a passage at random and what they read changed their lives. Things like that only happen to other people, not me, I thought. I got up and was going to go down to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. But then said no, I’ll try it. Just to see what happens.
I sat down at the desk and opened up this old green Bible with frayed edges on its covers. My eyes were closed. I put my finger down and opened my eyes. Right next to my index finger was a subtitle which read in bold black print:
NO MAN CAN HIT ON THE RIGHT TIME TO ACT
There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. . . . . . . What advantage has the worker from his toil? I have considered the task which God has appointed for men to be busied about. He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into their hearts, without men’s ever discovering, from beginning to end, the work which God has done. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11).
I sat there frozen in the chair for several minutes, stunned, but yet feeling extremely blessed and reassured about my decision. My question had been answered. About four months later I was in the seminary. What I learned from all of this is that God has a plan for everyone. And He works according to His own timetable, not ours.