This week we remember those who answer the call to protect and serve.
By: Rev. Christopher Christensen
I didn’t choose to become a priest; except, I did.
I grew up in a Navy family and moved six times by the time I was 11, but I never gave much thought to joining the military myself. My dad wanted me to go to the United States Naval Academy, but I wasn’t interested. The USNA summer seminar was, fun for a week, I thought, but not for four years of college. My goal in life was to attend Notre Dame. Beyond that, who knew? Financial considerations (i.e. parents) finally convinced me to apply for a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship – on the last day of the deadline. I remember calling the recruiter’s office to let them know my application was coming and I assured myself that I didn’t have to accept the scholarship, even if I got it.
Well, I got the scholarship, but was put on the waiting list for the NROTC Unit at Notre Dame, due to applying so late. In the meantime, I was accepted to Notre Dame and decided to enroll. Although I hadn’t told my parents, I was still wavering on whether or not I really wanted the NROTC scholarship. Then one fine day in May, I was just leaving school after track practice, and my mom called me excitedly and said, “Notre Dame just called and said a slot opened up in the NROTC Unit. They asked, Does your son want it? I told them ‘Yes!’ Isn’t that great?” “…Um. Yeah, mom!” I replied.
Well, there you have it. I didn’t choose this. Except, I did. I don’t quite know why I didn’t put up a fight against my mom. Maybe I really felt bad about the money? Maybe I knew deep down that I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself? Maybe God had plans that I didn’t know about?
As I went through college, I grew in my faith. I wanted that – I needed that – and I found a good community of people. As I drew closer to God in college, I also started to recognize the call to the priesthood, but I didn’t seriously consider it until junior or senior year. And even then, I never thought I needed to be absolutely sure about it, because I knew I had four years (at least) of military service coming up. So, I put it off.
After graduation, the Navy sent me to Japan, to the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) and it was a great two years. I had lived in Japan as a child when my dad was in the Navy, and I loved it! This time around, though, I was on my own. None of my classmates from Notre Dame were sent to Japan. I was in the Navy, and as a new, young officer, I had to get my bearings. And, let’s be honest, I was living in Japan. It wasn’t culture-shock that got me; it was just getting used to a totally different way of doing things. God has a way of stripping away all your supports when he wants to open your eyes to His plan for you.
What was left was like a pulse in the back of my head: priesthood…priesthood… priesthood. As I spoke with priests there about my discernment, I was encouraged to attend a vocations discernment retreat hosted by the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, which was being held in Seoul, Korea – just a hop, skip, and a jump from Tokyo. And that was where I had to face reality. I thought, God, I don’t know if you want me to be a priest, but the Church needs priests, and the military needs priests, so I’m gonna give it a shot. I wouldn’t have chosen the military chaplaincy except that that’s where I was. I didn’t choose this, except I did.
At that point, I was six months into my 4-year ROTC service commitment. There was no way I could go and be a priest right away. Right? Well, there were some hoops to jump through: I had to get my Surface Warfare Officer pin, apply to the Diocese of Arlington, apply to the Navy Chaplain Corps, ask the Navy to defer my ROTC commitment and allow me to serve it out as a chaplain and finish my tour in Japan. And yet, as soon as I made that initial decision to pursue the priesthood, everything seemed to fall into place. I had an unshakeable confidence that I would be allowed to go.
Except, I had an unshakeable temptation that I would be an awful priest. I told God all the reasons why. And then, providentially, Fr. Brian Bashista, the then Director of Vocations, sent me the vocations poster for that year. The Scripture quote? John 15:16: “Remember, it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.” I didn’t choose this. Except, I did. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.