Robert L. Keane, SJ, New England Province
Commander, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy
One of my favorite verses from all of Holy Scripture is from the writings of Saint Paul: “Glory be to God whose power at work in us can do infinitely more than we can ever ask or imagine!” (Ephesians 3:20-21) As I reflect upon my vocation as a Jesuit priest, I would have to say that this has been the story of my life. I have been blessed with so many riches which are difficult to quantify in earthly terms. First of all would be a loving and supportive family, parents and siblings, who faithfully follow my peregrinations all around the world. They don’t call me “Gulliver” without reason! Second would be the privilege of being a member of the Society of Jesus. Though pre-registered to attend Boston College as a History major, my course of studies was surprisingly changed one weekend as the result of a Jesuit retreat in my senior year of high school. And third by way of chronology would be the gift of the priesthood which has nourished and humbled me since June 4, 1978. It is beyond my comprehension why I should be so fortunate.
So many surprises and opportunities have come my way: a year of graduate studies at the University of Paris, France; three very rewarding years of teaching at Cheverus High School in Portland, ME; four years as an Associate Pastor of Saint Rita Church (1978-1982); doctoral studies in pastoral counseling at Southern Methodist University; four years of mentoring diocesan priests and seminarians at Holy Trinity Seminary (19822-1986); and three years of teaching at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA. And, the biggest surprise of all, for the past sixteen years I have been serving as a Navy chaplain to Sailors and Marines literally all over the world. Never would I have anticipated any of these scenarios. God must surely have a funny sense of humor.
However, despite all the places I have visited and the positions I have filled, the most grace-filled dimension of these years has been the relationships, professional and personal, that have come my way through the doors of the priesthood. Dallas is really my second home, and so many friends at Saint Rita and Jesuit College Prep remain prominent in my daily life and prayer. The fraternity which I have shared with the priests of the Diocese of Dallas has been very gratifying. And, the marvelous young men and women of our Armed Services to whom I have the privilege of ministering are truly awesome and inspiring. Every day they challenge me to stay young and in fairly good physical shape (for an old guy). And my brother Jesuits in the New England Province are unfailingly supportive of my ministry despite the fact that I have not lived among them for several decades.
I could talk endlessly about the joys of teaching French, counseling students, shepherding Naval Academy Midshipmen, riding out typhoons at sea, completing forced marches with the Marines, wintering in Iceland or climbing oil platforms in the Arabian Gulf. However, none of these tales can compare to the privileged moments I as a priest have shared with God’s people: witnessing their weddings, baptizing their babies, burying their beloved family members, reconciling them with their Heavenly Father, sharing the pain of their sickness and death, and watching people grow in God’s wisdom and grace. Why I have been so privileged is indeed a mystery to me. Yet, like all mysteries, we have only to accept them humbly and gratefully as yet another sign of God’s unending love for us. I pray every day to stay out of God’s way, yet be close enough to sense His presence in the lives of my brothers and sisters.
I have been asked often if I would encourage a young person today to respond to a call from God to serve in the priesthood or religious life. After all, the Church and the world have changed tremendously since I first entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1965. Unhesitatingly I say “yes”. There are difficulties and challenges to be sure, just as there are in any walk of life. But the goodness of God and the power of His grace are incomparable. To be a channel of this grace and to witness His love have indeed been blessings which have surpassed all my imagination. Even if I could turn back the clock and try my hand at something else, I doubt that I would. For, the Lord really knows best. Frankly, there is nothing else that I would rather do or be than a Jesuit priest, honored to serve His people. I could not wish anyone any greater happiness this side of heaven.
Thank you for inviting me to share my vocation story with you. Please pray for our Church that God will surprise many more young people with His unimaginable goodness, generosity and wisdom. And pray especially for your priests serving in the Armed Forces of the United States under the auspices of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. We can always use a little extra force multiplier. God bless you all!