By Fr. Andy Sensenig, OMI
Running through the streets of LA on February 14th was a special time. There were people giving bouquets of roses, balloons, and cheering with big posters of Valentines everywhere. There were people renewing their marriage vows and even getting married on the side of road. It was 26.2 miles of love!
In the midst of these very extroverted and diverse expressions of love, I was praying my rosaries and divine chaplet on my finger rosary for the greatest expression of love for an increase in the number of vocations for the priests and religious, especially for my community, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and for the 3 dioceses of Alaska.
Of course, I was praying for Fr. Thomas Weise, who died on December 6, 2015. He was an exceptional priest of the Diocese of Juneau, but as the rhythm of my legs matched the rhythm of prayers thoughts drifted back to the Monday before running this race on Sunday. You see, my brothers, my dad’s wife, Bernie, her daughters and all extended family members had a funeral for him that Monday and laid him to rest outside Philadelphia. My dad was 94 years old in hospice, a retired surgeon and most importantly a good man.
Thoughts of my dad intermingled throughout my prayers that day of the race. My best memories of my father came into focus. It was at the night of the rehearsal dinner for the ordination of Fr. Dwight Hoeberechts, OMI and me. He stood up and offered a toast and as he was coming to a conclusion, he offered an insight. My father said that in his research, he found out that all fathers of priests go straight to heaven.
There was a pregnant pause after his statement. Bishop Michael Pfeiffer, OMI, who was the ordaining bishop of Fr. Dwight and me, looked at me and looked back at my father and said: “Dr. Sensenig, if Andy is your only hope, may I suggest prayer?”
The room erupted with laughter.
That moment for me was joyous not because of the funny statement by my father nor the Bishop’s clever reply, but that it was a signal from my father that he supported my vocation of being a priest and a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate. It was not always so, when he first heard about my desire in becoming an Oblate and eventually a priest, he was against it. The reason was simple; he did not want me to die alone in some rectory, where there would be no one beside me. He felt that it was a fool’s errand. But over my years of formation with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, my dad was impressed with what the Oblates were doing in proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel and how it was making a positive difference in my life.
His change of heart was summed up with our final conversation; when I was visiting him at his home outside Philadelphia last summer. I told him that I loved him; it was a privilege to be his son and thanked him for being my father. My father looked at me and said: “We are both in the healing business, Andy. I was a surgeon of the body and you are a surgeon of the soul.” We embraced and love was there even more than through the loud proclamations of love ringing through the streets of LA during the marathon.
As that thought and memory of my father passed, I started to pray for all parents, siblings and extended family members, who greet a person’s yearning to become a religious or priest with a discouraging word to have a change of heart. I pray that they can be like my father, a person who was able to share concerns and yet be willing to journey with that person and explore his or her vocational call with support and love. I wonder how many vocations have been snuffed out because of that discouraging word from his or her parents, siblings and extended family members.
My dad’s fear about me being left alone in the end was unfounded. He would have been amazed at the amount of love and prayers that have touched me at his passing. Jesus said in Matthew 19:29: “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” That saying of our Lord Jesus rang true as the people of St. Gregory the Nazianzen in Sitka, whom I serve as a priest, were outstanding in their expression of love and support. My brothers in the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were equally outstanding. I never felt alone; instead it was a deeper and loving connection with them all.
I laughed at myself, as I crossed the finish line of LA Marathon in 5 hours, 15 minutes and 38 seconds, because my father already knows about this powerful expression of love that I was so fortunate to receive as I grieved for him, because all fathers of all priests (and religious too) go straight to heaven.
So please, keep praying for vocations and if you hear your child or niece or nephew, grandson or granddaughter say to you that he or she might have a yearning for God, please encourage that yearning. It is not life of loneliness awaiting them, but it is a life where expression of love reaches its zenith. It is a life of total love.