About me (Father Jacob Maurer)
One of the things people love to hear is the story of another. It is an easy way to learn something of the character of a person. It is also a way to learn various truths. At times, a story even needs to be invented to provide the context to better explore certain truths. And of course, sometimes a story is just a story – told for the joy of hearing the adventure.
J.R.R. Tolkien said that ultimately, a story is told to remind us of the good things that are missing in life. Stories, he goes on, are not only told to satisfy a need to escape the harshness of life, but ultimately to give us hope that we can both encounter and be part of the good in the world – eventually being led to that ultimate good that is God. [a wonderful talk he gave is called “On Fairy-stories”, which is a thoughtful reflection on this very idea]
A vocation story is something that explicitly holds this appeal. Real human experience is touched by the movement of our human & Divine Lord. What is important in a vocation story, however, is not the subject or person of the story, but that movement of God in the story.
Everyone has a vocation story – it is your life story, after all! As men aspiring to be priests, seminarians are required to dwell on their vocation story. Even before being accepted into a diocese or an order – much less seminary – they are asked to reflect and write on how they have come to the decision to enter the seminary.
I would propose that this is an exercise that anyone and everyone can benefit from. Taking an hour (that’s a starting point – you’ll need more!), place yourself in front of the Lord and reflect on where you came from, who you are and where you seem to be headed.
What has your life been like? What are the things, people and events in your past that have made you who you are? Who are you – and how do you see yourself becoming more of who you are supposed to be? How do you see God’s hand in all of this – and is there a pattern or direction that He is moving you towards? Where do you think, both in this life and ultimately, God is calling you?
These types of questions are the kinds that fill a lifetime – and a life used discerning the answers is a life well-spent.
Below is my vocation story. I offer it not as a testament to me – a conceit that would miss the point of discernment – but as a limited view of God’s action in my life. I hope that after reading it, you look to His hand in your life. God has worked wonders for me, and He does the same for all.
How I came to be in the seminary (my vocation story)
My parents were married in October of 1981. My mother (an organist) and my father (an engineer) met in a parish where my mom played the organ and my father sang in the choir. They met in the Church, the married in the Church & they went on to raise us in the Church. A selling point, I think, for any family.
I was born just over a year later, in the winter of 1982. In fact, my father was laid off shortly after my mom found out she was pregnant (a week after – and our small family faced a rather uncertain future. To keep us afloat, my father joined the military. He had a bachelor’s degree, which meant he immediately became an officer (after training, of course). He would also be able to study for his Master’s degree while in the Navy. This could keep us on our feet until a more desirable job could be found.
Only it wasn’t found – and although he disliked the environment, my father had to stay in longer than he expected. However, in a deal made with God (and my mom), he decided that unless a very particular position (that he liked and really wanted) opened up, he would be heading out of the military as soon as possible. He was two weeks shy of the maximum age for the job & his eyesight wasn’t quite up to par, so there was a very good chance he would be passed over for the position. But he placed the challenge in front of God: if He wanted us to stay in the military, this is how it would be. God heard him.
The position opened up and – in a decision that would shape all of us – he decided to stay in the military as a career.
There are many careers that challenge the structure and stability of a family. Any military career falls into this category. We moved to a new duty station every three years, packing all of our things, saying goodbye to familiar places and friends and starting over in a new and unfamiliar place.
This could have had a number of bad effects on our family – and at times, it did. But it had a great number of good effects. We came together as a family, for one. We were all that we had as we bounced from place to place. Oh yes, we had (and still have) friendships – many that persevere even to the present – but after three years, those had to be maintained over long distances, or brought to a close. Often this constant newness was refreshing, but without that firm family base, we could have easily fallen apart. I certainly can testify to many neighboring military families that struggled with this very problem.
The changing face of the Maurer clan
In spring of 1984, my first brother was born. No longer an only child, I learned (oh-so-very slowly) how to be a brother and a friend to him. As anyone with siblings knows, this is a life-long process.
Nearly six years later, my folks decided to adopt. It was in this way that a sister was added to our family. As any adopting family or adoptee can tell you, this has its own proper challenges. My sister was five when she came to us, and so we had to learn to adapt to who she was and help her adapt to us. Turbulent at times, rewarding at others.
Through a fluke in the adoption agency, we found out that our name was still on the list of those waiting to adopt. Just over a month before we were to move to the Philippines – our first overseas duty station as a family – my father received the call.
“Mr. Maurer, we have a child for you…” This was unexpected and – quite frankly – unwelcome. My father said as much. But the boy, they said, was already known to be both mentally and physically handicapped. If you don’t adopt, they said, it is very possible that no one will.
But we were going to the Philippines! Who knew what care facilities would be available? And with 30 days before we left, how could the mountain of paperwork ever be done (my sister’s adoption took about a year)? And it costs money to adopt. But after much discussion and prayer (my mother liked the idea of a baby in the house again), my parents placed a challenge before the adoption agency and God. If you can clear all of the red tape and paperwork before we leave, we’ll adopt him.
That settled it, they thought: an impossible request as the perfect excuse.
Apparently, however, God has His own way with red tape, because my folks received the call within the time frame. Thus was added another son to our family.
Looking back on my sister’s and my youngest brother’s entrance into the family, it is clear that they changed us, for the better. We had to learn to adapt not just to new surroundings – like any mobile family – but to changes within. My sister’s entrance forced to adapt to that and my brother’s entrance furthered that. Their coming into our lives helped us learn to be better people (and of course, we like to think that this was reciprocated!)
My youngest brother, by the way, was given an awful sentence by the doctors. He would never, they said, walk, talk or wholly function. God also responded to their challenge. My brother learned to walk – with the assistance of braces and bruises, at first. He learned to talk – not once, but three times (having forgotten twice) and function. As a young teenager, he still has serious needs, but he is a whole person, thanks be to God. His challenges and development helped to further our own faith in God’s action and providence for him and us.
The move to the Philippines was cut short (nine months, instead of a year) when the U.S. decided to withdraw. We moved from there to Singapore, where we lived for a few months before returning to the United States. Living in another country is an eye-opening experience. Mount Pinatubo had exploded shortly before we arrived in the Philippines, and had spread ash everywhere. Those were hard times for the country and people suffered. Even as middle-class Americans, we lived like kings in comparison to many. And the culture was an entirely different thing altogether.
Singapore was a near-opposite. Very clean, structured and formal. A solid economy and a very strong sense of honor and behavior. I don’t remember much of the country, but this culture overall left a strong impression on me.
We moved back to the U.S., where we lived in Virginia for three years. As kids, we were just hitting the teenage years, and began to (finally!) band together. Mutually disliked bullies and common friends brought us together like never before. Although more years would be necessary to cement it, we started being friends in Virginia.
Putting it all together
Our final duty station was in Hawaii. We lived there for three years and it was there that I began to put together some of the pieces of a calling. Hawaii, as you may have heard, is a wonderful place to live and – coupled with the joy of teenage self-discovery and growing freedom – it was the perfect place to flourish for me and my siblings.
Something significant that you may have figured out – but is worth saying explicitly – concerning how my mother’s job and my father’s job mixed. My mom, although a staunch Catholic (we all are, recall), almost always worked for Protestant churches. The simple fact is that they generally pay what an organist is worth. Now my folks had most definitely raised us to be Catholic, and consequently we observed the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. But we also supported my mother by being present at the church she played at every Sunday for as long as she was there, playing.
Thus, we went to the Saturday Vigil Mass and attended between two and four Protestant services each week. Not wanted to be attending the same service over & over, we would join the Protestant choirs, youth groups and gatherings. Thus did our Catholic family become more involved in Protestant churches than in Catholic churches. Recall that we moved every three years – we became acquainted with a great deal of Protestant churchs, and thus, beliefs.
Protestants, contrary to often-popular opinion, are not 100% anti-Catholic. Some are, more and more are not, especially nowadays. But they were curious, and so we would discuss our faith. The fact of the matter is that most of our friends came from these churches. Our long-term family friends have almost always been pastors or choir directors – and their families – that my mom worked with and my dad sang with. Many (most) of them are still friends today – years and years later. We aren’t friends in spite of our differences in faith, but because we share a common zeal for what we believe. The differences offered & offer all of us a chance to grow in our knowledge of our faith.
From our youth groups we would come home with questions. At the dinner table or after dinner we would talk religion, politics and sexual ethics. What do we believe and why? The catechism, the Bible and history books were fair game and we truly learned our faith. Then we would return to the youth group, loaded to bear with answers and promptly come back with more questions.
This growth in our faith was supplemented by my parent’s decision to home school while we were in Hawaii. My sister needed some extra help that the school couldn’t provide and my youngest brother was simply not receiving the attention that his needs demanded. When my other brother and I saw how flexible home schooling was (start at 6AM, finish by noon), we petitioned to be home schooled. Given the low academic standards of public high school and the surprising amount of anti-white racism in our area, they agreed. The program was Catholic and we continued to learn about our faith.
Within this context, in Hawaii, my brother and I were offered the unique opportunity to accompany the Protestant youth group on a four-day youth conference on the Big Island: Hawaii. The church considered us just short of members and because we were so active, offered us the trip along with the rest of its youth group.
I only remember bits and pieces of the conference. The overall experience, however, left me with a new sense of urgency. I had spent four days with youth of all sorts of ages who were firmly convinced of what they believed and had decided to devote their lives to that faith. Had I done the same? I needed to consciously choose my faith and start living it explicitly. So, I came home and announced this to my parents and that as a result, I wanted to join the Protestant church.
Surprised? I am sure they were.
Perhaps it didn’t come as a great shock to them, knowing that all my friends were in the Protestant church. But they insisted that I discuss this with the pastor of the Protestant church and our local parish priest. Since I wanted to be Protestant, I went there first.
The conversation we had wasn’t terribly long. In the course of our discussion it became obvious to me that what I knew to be true and what this church held to were not the same things. The sacraments – especially the Eucharist and confession, homosexuality, a universal church instituted by Christ and objective truth were points of divergence. So I left knowing that despite being my point of conversion, this wasn’t where I ultimately belonged.
I suppose that I knew that I was going to be Catholic, and for this reason put off talking to our parish priest. But my parents wanted a balanced decision and insisted once again that I talk with him. Some time later – months later – I dropped by the office.
Father Robert Phelps – a discalced Franciscan priest (who wore sandals – which I thought and continue to think is the neatest thing in the world) was an easily approached man. Although not entirely at ease in his presence, I was not terribly uncomfortable either.
We talked about Catholicism for a while. Since I had already made my decision, albeit subconsciously, that wasn’t a large part of our conversation. Things really got going when I noticed some football paraphernalia. Was it possible, I wondered, that a priest was a normal man, as well?
I must have asked the question, because the next thing I remember is talking about him and his priesthood. Turns out that he was, in many ways, a normal man! He wrote poetry, in the confessional, of all places, when no one came to confession. One hilarious poem, which he read to me, was titled “I’m falling asleep in the confessional”. We talked for what I remember as hours. What did he do as a priest? Why was he a priest? What was it like? I walked away wondering if, perhaps, I could also be a priest – living out my newfound faith in the way that he did.
I told my parents about my decision to be Catholic and my musings to be a priest. Being 13, and having recently swung between Protestantism and Catholicism, I’m sure that they took that with a healthy dose of salt. But it didn’t go away.
Of course, I continued being a normal kid. I was in Boy Scouts (what an excellent program), I was the editor for our home schooling group’s newspaper. I delivered newspapers, mowed lawns and babysat in order earn money.
When we moved to Washington (the state where we now live), three years later, the idea persevered. So I approached our parish priest and he took me in as a spiritual directee. After a year meeting with him monthly, working on the parish council, being involved in the youth group, being confirmed and even meeting some seminarians (generally a cool group), we agreed that the next step was to approach the archdiocese of Seattle and look into being a seminarian. So I did and after no small amount of interviews and soul-searching, I entered the seminary.
That was nearly seven years ago. In August of 2008, I was ordained a deacon at the parish of my confirmation, Holy Trinity Catholic Church (Bremerton, WA). By the grace of God and the authority of the archbishop, I was ordained to the priesthood on the feast day of my confirmation saint – Saint Anthony of Padua (June 13th, 2009) – at Saint James Cathedral.
This has been and continues to be the work of God in my life. I look forward to serving Him in the Church as a priest. But above and beyond even that, I stand firm in the assurance that He will be with me as my guide, shepherd and friend.