by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you received your vocation, with whom did you first discuss it with and what was their advice?
Father Daniel: My dad was the first person I spoke to about the inklings that God was calling me to be a priest. I think I was five or six years old at the time. A short while before, Dad felt compelled to commission a chalice and paten, so when I came to him he was quite moved by the “coincidence.” He gave those religious articles to the parish priest whom I later chose as my confirmation sponsor, Fr Tim Boekelman.
Over the next decade of my life before entering the seminary, I spoke with dozens of people – catechists, teachers, youth group leaders, a retired priest I admired, my parents – who gave good advice on prayer, dating, discernment, and other topics.
I also recall two people who gave well-intentioned counsel that turned me off, but long-term actually help sharpen the focus of my calling. One of those was a youth minister who had picked up on my vocational interest, and he tried to encourage me toward the priesthood by emphasizing job security and free time to play lots of golf. I recall my visceral disgust at this suggestion. If I became a priest, it wasn’t because I wanted a secure lifestyle with lots of time for selfish pursuits; I wanted to be missionary, all-in, and a saint!
The other person who shaped my vocational response in an unintentional manner was the vocation director of my diocese. When I spoke to him by phone, upon learning I was just 17, his interest noticeably waned, and in essence he counseled, “Well, go to college and experience life a bit, and if you are still thinking about the priesthood after that, contact me.” This rebuff further clarified my calling to be a missionary, and it reinforced a sense of urgency to get started on that path sooner rather than later.
A retired diocesan priest – Fr Louis Greving – played a pivotal part during the years immediately prior to entering the seminary. Once while listening to him preach about the Passion of our Lord, he spontaneously dropped to his knees from a standing position, carried away by the emotion of the moment. I remember thinking, “This man really believes what he preaches!” When I spoke with him about how I felt attracted to the priesthood and missionary work, but couldn’t see myself established in one place, he was the first to suggest to me that perhaps I was called to a missionary religious order. I had run into Franciscans, Holy Cross brothers, Divine Word missionaries, and other religious orders in other dioceses, but there were no male orders in my home diocese. Fr Louis gave me a copy of the Vision magazine, which carried ads from multiple religious orders. I perused that magazine and picked some orders that seemed to meet my basic criteria for clarity of purpose, orthodoxy, youthfulness, Christ-centeredness, and Marian devotion.
Thanks in part to Fr Greving, I met the Legionaries of Christ.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was the most challenging course that you took, and why was it so challenging?
Father Daniel: I entered the novitiate of the Legionaries of Christ on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15, 1993. I was 17 years old, and with my parents’ blessing I graduated a year early from high school to pursue my calling. After two years of novitiate in Cheshire, CT and Armonk, NY I studied two years of classical humanities, then two years in Rome, Italy to attain my bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Regina Apostolorum Athenaeum.
For the next three years, I lived in Denver, CO for my internship, gaining experience that would test my vocation and prove helpful for my priesthood later.
In 2002, I returned to Rome to attain a licentiate in philosophy, then a bachelor and licentiate degrees in theology. During six of those eight years, I also worked in our general headquarters in Rome collaborating in our apostolates worldwide. A few months after my ordination to the priesthood in 2007, I was appointed to ministry back in the United States.
You asked what course was most challenging for me during those 14½ years in the seminary. God granted me above average intelligence, so I’ve never struggled with studies, but I did flunk Canon Law the first time around, mostly because my professor wanted to make a point with me.
He made me retake the exam so that I could go deeper than just reading through the canons and commentaries on it. I’m actually grateful that he did so! It was the first and last exam I failed in my life, but it wasn’t actually the most challenging course I took. Two other classes take that prize. From philosophy, Professor Arwin Schwibach offered a seminar on German idealist philosophers; the first day he lectured in Italian (not his native language) for three and a half hours straight without notes about Kant, Hegel, Fichte, and Heidegger.
I was so lost! The intellectual challenge was provocative, and it definitely expanded my horizons. Later, during licentiate studies in moral theology, Professor Thomas Williams led a seminar on “Difficult Moral Cases” in which he required a well-researched paper each week on a distinct case, along with a two-hour class discussion. I loved the challenge and learned a tremendous amount in that course.
Gordon: Why did you decide to join the Legionaries of Christ?
Father Daniel: I firmly believe that each person’s calling is specific and personal. There’s no “generic” calling to the priesthood. That wouldn’t mesh with Old and New Testament stories, nor with the lives of the saints throughout history. We don’t simply select from the menu of dioceses or religious orders, and one bishop can’t “steal” vocations from another diocese or religious order. God has a specific call for each person. We have choices to make, of course, though it is primarily the choice of embracing or rejecting the path that God reveals.
The really tough part of vocational discernment is figuring out what God is trying to show us. We usually make the mistake of turning this into a merely intellectual exercise. It’s much more than that. Like any life vocation, a calling to the priesthood entails gifts, talents, heart, emotion, will, intellect, preferences, and the needs both of self and of those around us. Just like a married person doesn’t choose their spouse with an algorithm or based on a purely rational equation, a future priest also often gets a sense that “this is the right one” and moves forward based on that. And since any authentic calling to the priesthood can only come from the “great high priest… Jesus” (Hebrews 4:14), I consider time spent in prayer – and especially in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament – as essential for real discernment. I know that was crucial for me.
Life experiences and awareness of what was transpiring in the Church led me to establish some base threshold traits if I were ever going to enter a seminary. It had to manifest a love for Christ in the Eucharist, devotion to the Virgin Mary, and be faithful to the Holy Father. When I eventually did visit the seminary of the Legionaries of Christ in the summer of 1993, I found those elements in spades, but so much more that I hadn’t even realized I was searching for: Manliness, youthful exuberance, drive for the mission, love for the Church, attentive charity, and joyful orthodoxy. These men were on a mission to form the next generation of Christian apostles. They were soldiers for Christ! Legionaries of Christ. That all resonated deeply with me. I felt at home immediately, and after just one week I decided to pursue this calling.
Gordon: What was your first assignment and what did you learn there?
Father Daniel: After attaining my bachelor’s degree in philosophy, I was assigned as vocation director in Denver, CO. We had no community there, and we were just two brothers sent to found everything. My superiors gave me a car, a laptop, a rented house near St. Thomas More parish, $100, and a list of 50 or so people who had attended retreats or camps in preceding years. We fundraised, networked, explored, and did our best to get things started. It was a big responsibility with little guidance, and Wild West sized horizons of possibility!
I learned innumerable lessons during those three years of internship, but two in particular come to mind. The first was that the greatest temptation is not to sin, or infidelity to one’s vocation (though that is ever present also), but to fill my time with good things, but not what would bear the greatest fruit long term. The second lesson was the vital importance of community life and charity for perseverance. When you are living 24/7 with another person, no matter how virtuous you both are, you will eventually get on each other’s nerves. I learned to hold my tongue, be more attentive to the needs of my brother, and look for little things I could do to make his life easier. I also grew to crave and appreciate community life, everything from prayer together, to meals in common, and even fraternal correction! These lessons have served me well throughout life, helping me to persevere to this day.
Gordon: What are your responsibilities at chaplain of The Lumen Institute, Regnum Christi men, and Young Catholic Professionals?
Father Daniel: As chaplain for each of these organizations, my mission is to help each member encounter Jesus Christ, experience his love, and let that transform his existence so that he or she in turn becomes an apostle to others. I do that through preaching, making Christ present in the Eucharist, through the sacrament of Reconciliation, offering spiritual direction, or even casual interactions on the golf course or hiking up a mountain. I try to reflect Christ’s love to each person I meet.
Gordon: What are your responsibilities as chair of the board of directors of Catholic World Mission?
Father Daniel: Catholic World Mission is a hidden gem of the Church. It connects donors in first world countries to our partners (brothers and sisters, bishops, diocesan priests, engaged lay evangelists) in developing parts of the Church around the world. Since its founding in 1998, it has expanded projects to 35+ countries, everything from education for underprivileged children, motorcycles for missionaries, water wells in Africa, goats for villagers in India, or disaster relief in Haiti or Sri Lanka. We help bring dreams come alive for agents of evangelization.
Our executive director, Deacon Rick Medina, has done a fantastic job of leading Catholic World Mission the past 10 years. As chairman of the board of directors since 2017, my role has been to shepherd the board and organization to fulfill its mission. This has included engaging new board members, increasing awareness of the good work it does, being a sounding board for our executive director to achieve greater clarity on priorities, and facilitating our regular board meetings. We’ve revamped our bylaws, established internal policies, conducted planning each year, and optimized operations. There’s always a tremendous amount going on with Catholic World Mission, and it is great to be part of the wonderful work it is doing for the universal Church!
Deacon Rick and I recorded 10 radio shows together for Radio Maria that highlight some exciting elements of what Catholic World Mission has accomplished and you can find them on our website at www.catholicworldmission.org.
Gordon: What can we do to increase religious vocations?
Father Daniel: Well, Gordon, first things first. If we would have vocations, we need to beg the Lord of the harvest to send workers. We will get nowhere without prayer. And it needs to be sincere, persistent prayer so that the Lord can tell we are serious about it. I remember a parish in Connecticut near our novitiate that hadn’t had a single vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life in its 104 years of history, but the year that they began weekly adoration for vocations, they had two vocations in one year, and another the next. We need to pray for vocations!
Secondly, we need religious to be happy and holy. You can’t fake fulfillment. When young people see the testimony of joy in the men and women who are truly living in God’s love, they are attracted. “A drop of honey attracts more flies than a barrel of vinegar,” goes the old adage, and this holds true for religious vocations also.
There’s much more that can be done, but without getting lost in lots of theory, I think we should include in third place something simple: Invite. Don’t be afraid to ask young people. You don’t have to be a priest or sister to ask a young person if they have considered that vocation. We should ask our young people to pray about this, to support those who want to take a step, and to celebrate each act of generosity and perseverance.
Gordon: What are some of the most pressing challenges to the Catholic Church and what can we do to address them?
Father Daniel: There will never be a shortage of challenges in the Church or world! That’s good, because we can never get bored or complacent.
Among the many internal challenges facing the Church, there are two that have affected me deeply. The first is the scandal of priests violating their promise of celibacy. In 2018, when the scandal with Cardinal McCarrick surfaced, I recall the frustration I felt.
I was sick of it, angered by the cover-up, and that we still hadn’t learned our lessons or purged this type of filth from our ranks. But what could I do? I wasn’t the Pope or a bishop or anyone with any ability to affect the root causes. In those very weeks, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer.
My kidneys were failing, no longer removing toxins from my blood, so my lungs were filling with fluid and other organs beginning to fail. I remembered then the words of one of my favorite saints, St. Therese of Lisieux, who dared to ask the Lord to become a heart for the Church. Maybe I couldn’t aspire so high, but I asked the Lord to take my suffering with cancer and let me be a kidney for the Church.
I think that is why I suffered so much over the ensuing months. Yet I also learned the power of redemptive suffering and the intimacy with the Lord that comes from it.
The second challenge has come into greater focus for me over the past two years as I have been studying for a doctorate in Creighton University’s Interdisciplinary Leadership Program. Exposure to leadership theories and the latest research has highlighted deficiencies of our conception of and exercise of leadership within the Catholic Church. For my dissertation, I plan to research the correlation between the leadership styles of Catholic bishops in the US between 2000-2020 and the health of their dioceses. It should reveal some fascinating avenues for improvement!
There are plenty of other challenges, and I wouldn’t argue that these are necessarily the most important, but they are two that have moved me, and perhaps in some way I can be a catalyst to move them. Gordon, each of us does what we can. We listen to the Lord and what he asks of us. If we all do that, the Lord will work through us to do much good!
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview.