by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.
Father Andrew: Born into a midwestern, devout Catholic family of 11 children with an Irish Catholic mother and an English father, grace before meals, regular rosary, “fish sticks-Fridays,” regular Sunday Masses as well as the observation of Holy Day of Obligations formed the Catholic ethos of our family life. Mom and dad made sure of that. At age 7 or 8, having almost died twice from an improperly treated ear infection, I remember the first subtle hints of a vocational calling in a conversation with my mother in my hospital room. When I asked how one could cheat death twice, my mother responded, “God must have some special mission for you to do that no one else can.”
That inner vocational conversation continued throughout 12 years in a Catholic academic environment. My parents never stopped giving voice to the revered, predominant value of a Catholic education. In the late sixties and early seventies, my elementary school had already begun to experience the changes of the Second Vatican Council. Where I previously experienced all Sisters in formal habits for the first three years of school, classrooms in various grades became interspersed with male and female lay teachers as well as some Sisters, now without a formal habit.
With all that, two Sisters who taught me - in the sixth and eighth grades - had the strongest influences on me. Their simultaneous joy and seriousness with which they took their vocations encouraged us students to consider our lives as a calling. They first inspired me to consciously consider a vocation.
Acceptance into the local military high school under the direction of Benedictine monks only encouraged and further deepened those first stirrings of a vocation. Through their influence, I became an oblate of St. Benedict as a high school student. In my formative years there, I was introduced to the key spiritual classics: The Imitation of Christ, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, and The Devout Life, to name a few, as well as of course, The Rule of St. Benedict. While I had always loved God growing up, at that Benedictine high school I experienced falling in love with Christ as an awakening conversion experience through their spiritual direction and the example of their lives. Finally, with a name like Wisdom, my mother used to joke that I had to be either a doctor or a priest. Since I was prone to faint at the sight of blood at that time, priesthood was the choice by default😊.
Dr. Knight: What did your family think about your entering the Dominican order?
Father Andrew: My parents were thrilled as they both had attended Dominican high schools, which I only found out about after I applied to the Order. Originally ordained a diocesan priest, I requested a leave of absence after only a year, thinking I had made a big mistake with my life. Nine years later, I discerned a call to religious life realizing priesthood was the right vocation, but diocesan life the wrong place for me to live it out. With my Bishop’s permission, I joined the Dominicans.
My very wise father, in particular, thought I would make a good writer and public speaker. The Order of Preachers proved the perfect place to form me as both. When my mother cried that her little boy was leaving, (at the tender age of 37!) the Dominican vocation director put his arms around her and said, “Mrs. Wisdom, you will not lose a son, but gain 200!” My mother, who obviously loved a big family, beamed. My father went pale😊, mumbling about the food bill if we all came to visit at once.
From then on, my parents and siblings loved visits when a number of Dominican brothers would tag along. Nine Dominicans concelebrated my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, making them both especially proud.
Dr. Knight: You went to college and became an educator. How did you make that decision?
Father Andrew: I went to a Methodist college, I now see, to test my vocation. Thinking I could hide among the Methodists and God might not find me, I discovered God likes the Methodists, too! I eventually majored in Ecumenism when I attended four years of the diocesan seminary. As I mentioned previously, I spent a year as a diocesan priest in parish ministry before taking a leave of absence.
During my nine years away as a priest in good standing but inactive, I held increasing senior management positions in the nonprofit sector until joining the Order. They then invited me to pursue a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching. Fully expecting to replace a Dominican homiletics professor at a Midwestern seminary, my provincial and his council threw me a curve and asked me to serve as Promoter of Vocations.
After enjoying that fruitful work for 11 years and the wonderful, faithful people I met along the way, our Provincial asked me to switch gears and join our Office for Mission Advancement as Vicar, aka the province fundraiser. I’ve held that position for 8 years, collaborating with our Provincial and an experienced lay colleague to fund a wide variety of Province priorities. They include our recently-completed Denver priory and novitiate, the Dominican Shrine of St. Jude in Chicago, the St. Dominic Mission Society, and financial support for formation in our Society for Vocational Support. As any parent will tell you, education today comes with a price and many generous folks help us with this difficult, costly investment.
While never formally teaching, in the midst of my travels in both of those positions I have conducted retreats for clergy and laity, parish missions, given numerous presentations and workshops, as well as published a modest number of articles and books.
Dr. Knight: What Dominican Charisms did you discern in your order?
Father Andrew: Preaching, teaching, writing and leading people in prayer remain central parts of my continued Dominican discernment even as I’ve been formally assigned to the aforementioned internal ministries. These define every Dominican no matter where they serve and in what manner. After all, we are the Order of Preachers and each of these represents a way of preaching.
Dr. Knight: What was the mission of your order? Did you realize that mission?
Father Andrew: Preaching for the salvation of souls defines the Dominicans (Order of Preachers) mission. So, yes, in these unexpected, unprecedented ways I have realized that mission. As a Promoter of Vocations, I regularly traveled around to college campuses and parishes across the country preaching, seeking to encourage potential vocations and introduce them to Dominican religious life; what we call “the way of the preacher.” As Vicar of Mission Advancement, I see development work as pastoral ministry. Rather than a brief, transactional moment, meeting with generous benefactors and their families represent relational moments, ripe with pastoral and preaching opportunities. My model of ministerial presence, in fact, is a “pastor at large,” tending a flock of generous givers and their children, assisting in sacramental and counseling needs, as well as evangelizing whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself.
Dr. Knight: After you finished teaching did you decide to pursue another ministry? What was your next discernment?
Father Andrew: After a decade plus in vocations work and the teaching and preaching it entailed, I expected an assignment in a more traditional field of Dominican ministry - parish work, campus ministry, teaching, or as member of a traveling preaching team. Instead, the Provincial asked that I remain at our provincial headquarters to help grow and professionalize our province Office of Mission Advancement.
The “art” of asking people for support represents the third greatest fear cited in public surveys. I initially shared that sentiment! Mindful of my vow of obedience, I said yes, trusting the provincial and his council perhaps saw abilities in me I did not see in myself. Providentially, this proved true. I have learned to trust God’s spirit working through the leadership of my province more than my own self-definitions of what I can and cannot do.
Dr. Knight: Do you think of your work in writing a journal part of your spiritual mission?
Father Andrew: My father always encouraged writing, saying “The written word leaves a legacy.” Intimidated by the idea, I had never published anything until I came into the order. The Dominicans gave me the confidence and the encouragement to explore this gift I did not even realize I had. My first book, my dissertation: Preaching to a Multi-generational Assembly, posited an argument for including the five to six named generations in Sunday homily preparations. My next publication, Tuning Into God’s Call, a collaboration with my dear friend Sr. Christine Kiley, ASCJ, focuses on discerning life choices for young people. Its methodology makes this text unique.
Rather than a book about discernment, Tuning Into God’s Call helps the reader actually discern, using daily reflections to ultimately “spiritually walk you” through the five stages of discernment. I have been blessed with the support to write other articles and pastoral books on vocations, spirituality and to collaborate with my Dominicans brothers for daily reflections for all three cycles of Lent. The latter would describe my most recent book, Growing In Friendship with God: Discovering the Joy of Lent.I have come to treasure the discipline of writing as a friar preacher. A truly contemplative experience and yet another form of preaching, writing responds to our spiritual mandate as Dominicans “to be useful to the souls of others.” For a Dominican, writing as part of our spiritual mission provides the “infrastructure” needed to preach the word of God for the salvation of souls.
Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?
Father Andrew: Yes, blessedly so! My life has unfolded as a mosaic of rich, varied and multi-colored strands, not through my own efforts, but through my Religious’ Order’s encouragement and direction. As individuals we can have self-limiting definitions of what we can and cannot accomplish. For example, we say to ourselves: “I am not this or that. I could never do this or that.” By continually putting its members in circumstances which takes him out of his comfort zone remains one of the premier gifts of religious life and its vow of obedience.
For example, obedience challenges religious to do what is asked of you, to live where assigned, and to minister to those whom you are sent. Embracing the spirit and letter of the vow protects their spiritual freedom to say yes, “in season or out.” Mature obedience compels the obedient to listen and respond trustingly to God’s Spirit speaking through his or her religious superior, no matter how uncomfortable a task may initially seem.
Where I naturally would have limited myself in my secular life to those things in which I suspected I could excel, in religious life I have done and continue to do things I never would have previously tried for fear of failing. Self-definition can limit us.
Religious life, putting the ego at the service of the mission, removes the temptation to define oneself, often the obstacle limiting self-expression for fear of inadequacy. Rather, having willingly subjugated the ego, religious address their attention to doing for the community or those we serve and not to one’s own interest or image. Commitment to something and Someone higher than oneself allows the mosaic of one’s life and talents to unfold in a more creative array of colors and designs.
Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading your interview?
Father Andrew: Committing yourself to a transcendental purpose opens the depths of your creative and spiritual potential. All growth comes not from always keeping your options open while leaving commitments at bay, but precisely the opposite. Restricting ourselves through making a promise or vow to a cause or person unleashes all of our creative and spiritual energies in a focused direction. So find and give yourself to something or Someone. Commit your whole self to it without reservation or holding back. For me, that is the cause of Christ!
Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?
Father Andrew: Here are three that come immediately to mind: Recovering the radicality of the gospel, renewing a Catholic sense of solidarity, and reminding people of the true definition of Christian freedom.
In his book “From Christendom to Apostolic Outreach,” Msgr. James Shea quotes the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who once said, “We are at the end of Christendom…the economic, social and political life as inspired by Christian principles…therefore live your life in the full consciousness of this hour of testing. And rally close to the heart of Christ.” The radicality of the gospel is to live not only close, but to become the heart of Christ.
The highest commandments tell us we must love God and one another as Christ loved us, radical for our day and age. People often say after hearing a challenge in one of my homilies or pastoral conversations, “Fr. Wisdom, but I AM a good person.” They are often taken aback when I say, “Wonderful, so are most atheists. You and I are not called to be good but to be Christians.” We must then base our lives on the command to love God and neighbor. Called to sacrificial love in imitation of the cross, the Christian loves with real, unmistakable, visible costs to ourselves. Radical Christ-like love involves no discounted cross, but the all-in gift of self.
Our understanding of solidarity stems from the Church’s tradition of social teaching affirming the infinite dignity of each human person, concomitant with that most familiar gospel injunction: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.” Thus, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, not figuratively but literally before the eyes of God. We then judge the progress of our own spiritual character and maturity through the lens of that challenging measurement.
Our secular, hyper-political, polarized times embrace a righteous individualism at the expense of the common good, often displacing the meaning of Christian freedom. Christian freedom does not free us to do what we want, when we want, to whomever we want, or whenever you want as long as it is legal. Christian freedom chooses God’s will in every moment and circumstance. Since God IS love, Christian freedom always requires we embrace and act upon the most loving choice in a set of circumstances, even at cost to self.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a follower of Christ?
Father Andrew: When in love, our greatest joy comes from sharing about our Beloved. My greatest joys come from all I can share about the Triune God whom I love with all my heart - through preaching, teaching, writing, and public praying. That I can do that together with my Dominican brothers and sisters, lay and ordained in the ever-evolving, multi-layered concentric circles of community brings particular delight. St. Dominic called our collective witness: The Holy Preaching.
In addition, Dominican life delightfully compels my brothers and me to serve as public, visible instruments of God’s love; in our case, even by our distinct white habit. I never cease to be amazed when stopped in my habit. People wonder, they ask questions, they seek advice, they cry, and they tell me so much of their love of God. Nothing like a medieval habit to humble and delight a kid from a large Catholic family in the western suburbs of Chicago.
I am currently on temporary assignment as Parochial Vicar at St. Dominic Parish in Denver. Not since my first “venture” into the priesthood have I served in such a role. Here I have come to know not only the hard work and dedication of so many of my fellow priests, religious, and lay people, but I have experienced my own priesthood in ways I could not imagine. From my joyful place at the Baptismal font surrounded by families as we welcome new Christians, to the pulpit on Sunday sharing the Word with people yearning to hear, to the somber, solemn ritual of the Anointing of the Sick, the gift of my priesthood shines through. I am deeply moved at where God chooses to use me even with all my faults.
Dr. Knight: Are there any other issues you, as an accomplished writer, want to bring to your readers?
Father Andrew: Poet Mary Oliver posed the question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” None of us is promised the next five minutes on the earth. We can plan for it but not assume it. So, I would encourage your readers to be bold in taking hold of this historic moment called their lives; to be bold in discerning, discovering and being swept off their feet by the greatest love the world has ever known: the love of Jesus Christ. Love ennobles because it makes demands that we not play small with our lives but put them and our whole person at the service of a noble calling. We all have one: it is just waiting to be discovered and lived out! So “rally close to the heart of Christ” and discover YOUR noble calling!