From Law Practice to Priesthood

by Fr. Charlie Cortinovis - Priest of the Archdiocese of Washington

Every priest’s vocation story is unique. In my experience, Jesus and Mary have been with me throughout my whole life. Yet it took some time before I was open to what they were telling me. I was born in central Pennsylvania and moved to the Pittsburgh area when I was very young. I grew up in a suburb south of the city and attended Catholic school through eighth grade. I was an altar server, a lector at Mass and I was blessed to get to know the priests who served at my parish. They were all unfailingly kind to me and were in many ways excellent role models of devoted, loving and happy parish priests. 

I attended college at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where I became active in campus ministry. As part of my involvement, I participated in a service trip to West Virginia to build housing as well as trips to Immokalee, Florida, where I spent my spring break for three years working with the migrant farmworker community there. These opportunities to serve others nurtured a desire to participate in various community service activities during my college years and beyond.

My family had moved to Rockville, Maryland in 1998, so when I graduated from college in 2000 I moved in with them and attended law school at George Washington University in Washington, DC. During my first year of law school I became progressively more involved with the Newman Center on campus, attending daily Mass and weekly Eucharistic Adoration. It was after my first year there that I went on a Marian pilgrimage to Europe. On this trip I listened to a number of priests of how Our Lady had drawn them to the priesthood or sustained them in their priesthood, and how happy they were to be priests. It was on that trip that I felt a call to the priesthood for the first time.

Yet at the same time I was also not certain that priesthood was my vocation, and followed the advice of a trusted spiritual advisor who recommended that I finish law school and work for a year to experience life as an attorney. So I continued my legal studies for the next two years and deepened my prayer life, attending Mass daily, praying the rosary, frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation and making spiritual reading a priority. I found that these practices were slowly detaching me from the things of the world and my attention focused more and more on the things of God. I also developed a greater love for and devotion to Our Lady. Once a month I attended meetings with other young adult men who were discerning a priestly vocation. These simple meetings were organized by the Director of Vocations in the Archdiocese of Washington and consisted of prayer time, a talk by an invited speaker and dinner. My experiences helped me to realize that Jesus was calling many other men to the priesthood and it gave me courage to be open to the Lord’s call for me. 

Yet during my time in law school I also continued to date, and I eventually began a relationship with a friend whom I had known from college. She and I had much in common—our Catholic faith and belief in the Church’s teachings, our desire for children, our love for our families and many other important qualities. She was in many ways the kind of woman I had been looking for. I prayed during our time together about what God’s will would be for my life—if he was calling me to the priesthood, or to married life with this wonderful woman. I thought I felt in prayer that the Lord gave his blessing for me to marry her and so in the summer of 2003, after graduating from law school and taking the bar exam, I asked her to marry me. Yet soon after our engagement, I began feeling a sense of unease about this decision and it never left me. She soon noticed it, and, after a few months of anguished prayer and discussion, we ended our engagement.  At the time, I was devastated. I could not understand why God would permit such a wonderful woman to come into my life at precisely the time when I was discerning a vocation to the priesthood. Yet a short time later, on a retreat, Jesus made clear to me that my unease about getting married was precisely because it was not my vocation. He was calling me to be a priest and that was why I was unhappy being engaged. After this retreat, my joy about a priestly calling returned. I explained this discernment to my ex-fiancée some time later. While it was a painful conversation, we ultimately left on good terms because she understood the Lord’s call for my life and that God had something else in mind for both of us.

By this time, I was working as an associate with a law firm in Washington, D.C., practicing environmental and food and drug law. Although I found the subject matter of my legal work enjoyable, I ultimately did not find it to be fulfilling and the desire to become a priest only became stronger. My law firm was located across the street from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in downtown Washington. As I attended daily Mass, I regularly would feel attracted to the celebration of the Eucharist and an increasing desire to be a priest and to do what priests do.

So, after much prayer and discernment, I applied to the seminary for the Archdiocese of Washington and was accepted in June of 2004. I studied philosophy for one year at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. I then spent five years at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, studying at the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities. 

I was ordained to the priesthood on June 20, 2009 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on the Memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It was the happiest day of my life. I very much felt the presence and love of Our Lady that day, and have been regularly supported by her intercession as well as that of my earthly mother Nancy. My earthly mom is one of my biggest fans and I know that her prayers and encouragement for me in seminary which continue in my priestly ministry have and will always be a source of great strength.

I would like to conclude with one final thought that has captured my heart. Recently, modern technology has allowed a variety of Eucharistic miracles to be analyzed with scientific methods in order to see what is actually present when the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord in the Eucharist actually take on characteristics of human flesh and blood. Analyses of many of these miracles have shown that the Consecrated Host turned into human heart tissue. As a priest, I therefore have the great privilege of, in a way, holding the heart of Jesus in my hands each and every time I celebrate Mass. Just as Mary carried Jesus in her womb, so do priests carry Jesus in their hands each day. It is a great privilege and gift from Jesus that he entrusts to those he has chosen to carry out his mission and I am constantly humbled by my vocation. I regularly turn to Mary for assistance and invite all who are considering a vocation or are struggling in one to turn to Mary, the Cause of Our Joy, for her help and blessing on their journey. I am so grateful to the Lord Jesus for his love and patience with me and for calling me to be a priest, and pray that many young men will hear and follow Jesus’ call to come and follow him as priests.