The Power and Closeness of Our Lady
by Fr. Jim McCormack, M.I.C. - Priest of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception
I was born in 1972 in a moderately Catholic home. Although I have early memories of attending church with my parents, prayer was not a regular part of our family life. There was no family rosary. No grace before meals. However, I do have two memories of prayer from when I was four years old. It was a difficult time for my mother. She was pregnant at the same time as her father was dying of cancer. I remember Mom crying and both of us kneeling by my bed, praying for my grandfather. When my mom asked whether I wanted the new baby to be a boy or a girl, I also remember praying for a baby sister. My grandfather died in December of 1976 and my baby sister was born four months later.
Our family’s practice of the faith dwindled over the next ten years. I continued going through my parish’s religious education program. I received my First Communion at the age of seven and my Confirmation at age fourteen. But by the time I was confirmed, our family was no longer attending Sunday Mass and I mistakenly understood my Confirmation as a “graduation” from religious education. I had attended the classes, completed my homework, and now, I thought, I was “done” with my religious education.
In high school, I worked hard at my studies, and, afterward, I attended college at Yale University where my interest in math and science propelled me toward a degree in electrical engineering. In my first three years at college, my schedule was so filled with classes, homework and projects that I didn’t have time to go to Mass. I had no objections to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and a part of me knew that I should have been attending Mass on Sundays, but my excuse was simply that I was too busy.
During my senior year of college, however, Mary began to work on me. My friend and roommate Guy occasionally invited me to join him for Mass. Since I had no reason not to, I accepted. Where did we attend? A nearby church called St. Mary’s.
What captivated me about Mass at St. Mary’s was the beautiful music. A professional choir sang ancient sacred chants and motets. At times I closed my eyes and felt like I was being lifted up into Heaven.
After college, I attended one year of graduate school at Stanford University. I had several friends in Opus Dei and they invited me to several functions including a retreat. On that retreat it was announced that a priest was available to hear confessions. Everyone else on retreat got in line but I held back, debating. It had been so long since my last confession, possibly since my First Communion. What would I say? What would the priest say? Eventually, the line was gone and the last penitent before me had left. It was my turn.
Despite my hesitancy, I entered and knelt down. I whispered to the priest that I didn’t know what to do. He warmly welcomed me and taught me how to begin. In a very calm and compassionate voice, he gently proposed a list of sins based on the Ten Commandments, and I told him which ones I had committed. When I emerged some time later, my fears had vanished. It wasn’t so bad. And I felt so much lighter.
On that retreat, I also learned to pray the Rosary. It was on the schedule but I arrived a few minutes late. The others had already started. I stood outside the large room where they were praying and could hear the slow, measured responses of the Hail Mary. One of my friends saw me, got up from where he was seated and came over to me. He whispered, “Would you like to lead?”
Lead? I didn’t even know how to pray it, let alone lead. “Uh, no thanks,” I replied. But he gave me a spare rosary and invited me to sit near him. Soon, my fingers were easily moving along the beads. Little by little, Mary was working on me, and my relationship with her was beginning to blossom.
During that year of graduate school, I received the first indication that God was calling me to the priesthood. I was at an Opus Dei talk on celibacy. Part way through the talk, my mind began to wander. I thought to myself, “This talk is great for those who are called to the priesthood or the religious life, but what about me? What am I doing here?” In that moment, I heard a little voice in the back of my mind: “Well, what about you?”
“No way!” I thought, “Celibacy is not for me. I want to get married.” Thus began my time of resisting God’s call.
After graduating with my master’s degree, I moved to Colorado and worked for Hewlett-Packard as an electrical engineer designing microprocessors. I spent as much time as I could skiing, and even managed to ski every month of the year for 70 consecutive months.
All the while, I struggled to keep thoughts of the priesthood out of my mind. But I was only partially successful. Little reminders would interrupt my otherwise content existence, such as opening a dictionary to find the word priest at the top of the page, or skiing at one of my favorite resorts and seeing on the trail map a section called “Priest Creek.” Each reminder would reignite an uneasy tension in the pit of my stomach. I knew I was resisting God but still I feared to follow His call.
I continued in this tormented limbo for a couple of years. Sometimes, I would lie awake at night, trying unsuccessfully to push away the thoughts in my mind and the accompanying tension in my stomach. Yet, I knew I could always turn to Mary. Sometimes, I would cry out to her for peace and whenever I did, peace would come. At least for a little while. After some days the tension would return, and this cycle continued for a couple of years.
During that time, now in my mid- to late-twenties, I met and dated a young Catholic woman and we became engaged to be married. But the relationship, while fueled by a strong mutual attraction, was fraught with deep disagreements over some of the most important teachings of the Church on marriage, especially the use of contraception. I loved my fiancé, but how could I disobey what I knew to be the teachings of God and His Church?
The relationship was on rocky ground but my faith-life couldn’t have been better. I had continued learning about and falling in love with the Catholic Faith. The more I studied the Church’s teachings, the more they made sense. Beautiful sense. I came to appreciate God’s plan for marriage, especially as unfolded in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I became more involved in my parish; I taught Confirmation and began an adult-education initiative. Daily, I attended Mass, made a holy hour and prayed the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. My thirst to pray and to serve God and His Church grew steadily. I wanted to bring souls to Him. I began to ponder serving the Lord after marriage as a lay theologian or even as a permanent deacon.
Meanwhile, my devotion to Our Lady also continued to grow. Using the book by St. Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, I prepared for and made my consecration to Jesus through Mary on the feast of Our Lady’s birth, September 8, 2001. I later heard it said that when we consecrate ourselves to Mary, she does great things in our lives. And, in my case, that would be an understatement.
About a month after my consecration, my fiancé decided that she couldn’t go forward with marriage and terminated our relationship. At the time, I felt a strange mix of sadness and relief. Naturally I was sad at the loss of the woman I had wanted to marry. But I also experienced a sense of relief that the difficulties and tensions in our relationship were now at an end.
More importantly, with my immediate hopes for marriage now dashed I realized that I needed to revisit the question of my vocation that I had been ignoring for about six years. I had been living life my way. Could it be that after all those years, God still wanted me to be a priest?
I needed to test my calling. I thought that with the money I had been saving for a honeymoon, I could go to Italy! If only I could convince one of my friends to go with me. But, one after another, each friend that I asked was either too busy or didn’t have the money. Finally, one said to me, “You should just go by yourself.”
I hesitated. “By myself?” I didn’t think I could do that. I recognized that my biggest fear, my greatest obstacle to the priesthood, was the fear of being alone. I had envisioned the priesthood as a solitary life. I, on the other hand, felt a deep need to share my life with another person. Could I really face being alone? There was only one way to find out.
On Tuesday of Holy Week of 2002, I flew from Colorado to Italy, with just my backpack, to begin my 10-day discernment pilgrimage in Italy. I spent five days in Rome and saw the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, at about five different events. After the sixth day, I remember sitting in a restaurant eating dinner by myself. I was miserable. I had been having many incredible experiences, seeing the most beautiful churches in the world and experiencing the heart of the Universal Church, the Eternal City. But I had no one with whom I could share it. And so I was miserable. I thought: I should just cancel the rest of my pilgrimage and go home!
I don’t know exactly what made me decide to stay, but I did. And the following day I went to Loreto. Loreto is a hilltop town near the Adriatic coast with an enormous basilica that enshrines a little one-room stone house called “the Holy House of Loreto.” It is believed to be the house in which the Blessed Mother lived in Nazareth when the angel Gabriel appeared to her at the Annunciation. In the 13th century, the house was transported from Nazareth to Loreto in order to save it from Muslim invaders in the Holy Land. Today, pilgrims to Loreto can enter and pray inside the Holy House of Our Lady.
When I entered the Holy House, I knelt down and began to pray the Rosary. Part way through, I suddenly experienced a profound sense of Our Lady’s presence, as if she were embracing me. I knew I was not alone, that I would never be alone! I could accept my vocation without fear because I now knew in the core of my being that Our Lady is always there with me and will always be with me – as she is for all of us, leading us always to her Son. I returned home at the conclusion of my pilgrimage a new man and ready to go wherever she would lead me.
I eventually discovered and applied to the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. I was almost certain that this was the congregation to which Our Lady and Our Lord were leading me, but I desired confirmation. One day, as I knelt in front of a wooden statue of Our Lady where I had come to pray almost daily for two years, I looked up and noticed, for the first time, faint gold letters on the halo above her head. It was the word Immaculata. Filled with consolation, my decision was confirmed. I chose the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. And I have been happy ever since.
I was ordained to the priesthood July 10, 2010 at my home parish in Connecticut and celebrated my first Mass the next day on my 38th birthday at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, the headquarters of the Marians in the United States. I am so grateful to Mary for her gentle guidance and encouragement in my life and vocation. I encourage you in your prayers to entrust yourself and your every care to her, knowing that she is always there for each of us, leading us to her Son.