God usually has to ask me a few times before I actually hear his voice.
After graduation from Fordham University in 2011, I didn't feel called to continue to attend church. With typical 22-year-old bravado, I thought I had all the answers. My best friends and roommates, Mike and Jim, attended St. Ignatius Loyola parish on the Upper East side and repeatedly asked me to join them. We attended a Jesuit high school and college together -- St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia and Fordham University in the Bronx -- but I thought I'd had my fill. Eventually, the prospect of wine-and-cheese socials after Mass tipped the balance toward showing up.
Almost immediately, I felt God work through the St. Ignatius community to break down the artificial defenses I had against the church of being only for older, rigid and boring people. The community was mixed in ages, open to new ideas, and surprisingly fun! The sermons fed my soul and the early evening mass schedule meant I didn't have to sacrifice my social life.OpinionLeelum: Why I am a non-believer InteractiveYour messages to the popeMore CoverageCommentary, analysis about Pope Francis
It was better than I expected.
Because my parents encouraged me to volunteer, I explored the Ignatian Young Adults, a ministry for younger parishioners. But after months of feeling at home at St. Ignatius, I still doubted whether I was welcome.
"Are you sure that sinners are welcome?" I asked a woman who had recruited me. "I'm not a perfect Catholic."
"You're exactly what we're looking for," she said.
The group's deeper sense of community soon intoxicated me. I gushed to strangers about the parish, about our house where love can dwell.
Still, I was surprised when the Rev. Bill Bergen asked whether I'd thought about becoming a Jesuit priest.
"No," I laughed. "But thanks for thinking of me."
The next day I was asked me the same question. With 24 hours to think about it, I was slightly warmer to the question.
"Who knows?" I said. "Who ever thought we'd have a Jesuit Pope?"
Some months later, while at dinner with a friend from St. Ignatius, we bumped into the Rev. Jim Martin, a priest at the parish. Moments into our meal, he, too, asked whether I'd considered entering the priesthood. Like judge and prophet Samuel, I finally knew what to say.
"Yes," I responded. "I'm thinking about it." At this point, Pope Francis' very public works -- washing the feet of prisoners, kissing the deformed man, his general jovial spirit -- had reminded me of the life changing works I knew priests could do.
Sometime later, on a retreat designed to step back from routine and discern where God was moving in my life, the Rev. Anthony Soohoo, another priest at my parish, shared St. Ignatius' presupposition from The Spiritual Exercises, which help people draw closer to God. It quickly became the prayer through which I understood almost every interaction -- from petty office quibbles to difficult friendship drama.
My increased reliance on prayer, coupled with my continued consolation at St. Ignatius parish led me to explore what a vocation might look like. I contacted the vocation director, the Rev. Chuck Frederico, who set me up with a spiritual director, answered all questions, and invited me to attend retreats. In December, I spent five days in silence at the Ignatian Retreat House in Atlanta, Georgia. While in reflection, I saw the activities that made me feel closest to God were precisely those activities which I'd be able to devote all my time to as a priest. I told the Rev. Frederico that I was ready to apply.
After almost two years of discernment, I'm thrilled to have entered the Jesuit novitiate toward the priesthood in upstate Syracuse. I spend my days in prayer, as a chaplain at a hospital, and with my brothers in the community. I'm lucky that God trusted so many of his people to show me the joy of this atypical path.
Jake Braithwaite, who was raised in Villanova, Pennsylvania, is a Jesuit novice at the St. Andrews Hall community in Syracuse.