A priest is an agent of conversion and vocation

The view from the rectory window
By Fr. Ken Van Haverbeke

The stop sign was a glowing red. I remember it vividly. The day was extremely sunny, the February air was crisp and winter had not yet relinquished its hold on the earth, but I had just relinquished myself to God. I always knew I would, but didn’t know the when or the how.
The day was in 1986. I was in Manhattan, Kan., driving back to the rental house that I shared with three other boys while attending my final year at Kansas State University. I was returning from an appointment at Seven Dolor’s Parish.  At that time, I didn’t know a “dolor” from a “dollar!” (Dolor is Latin for sorrow.) I had met with the parish priest to find out what I needed to do to enter the seminary.
The stop sign was memorable, because for the previous six or so blocks before it, I was on “cloud nine” realizing I was finally responding to a call that I had heard for many years. 
It was at the stop sign all that changed and I suddenly thought, “What did I just do!!!”

The gravity of what I was being open to left me overwhelmed. I went home that night among my friends, not sure of what to do next. The priest said that I should simply continue to live my college life and then prepare for seminary. It would come soon enough and so just enjoy the last few months of college.
I tried, but it was different. Now I had a purpose. Now I had a goal. Now I was finally answering “The Call” that had rumbled in my heart since third grade. I felt like Saint Paul after his conversion event, being led by the hand to Ananias in Damascus to learn about Jesus. (Acts 9:8) It was a turning point for me.
It was in my first semester of the seminary that the feeling be being overwhelmed left me and I knew I was on the correct path. Throughout the seminary formation, I paced myself one semester at a time, ending each semester with the question for God and self:  “Do I continue?” The answer in my heart was always “Yes, but only if you also desire it!”
Conversion or compunctio is an event which leads to a spiritual awakening. For some this event is sudden, but for others it is gradual. For all, it is a turning point. 
Conversion has been described as a “pricking.” Our conscience is pricked: perhaps by a shameful past, or perhaps by discontent with our present life, or by a fervent desire for a different life. The conversion moment is very strong and subdues our natural tendency to remain status quo. It changes us.
God always gives us freedom to accept conversion or reject it, and so if we allow it, this conversion will now begin to influence our daily actions and lives. It becomes a conversatio (way of life).
My conversion continued, and it wasn’t until Bishop Eugene J. Gerber laid his hands upon me at ordination May 25 of 1991 that my “compunctio” was confirmed and affirmed by the church, but it didn’t end there!
Conversion is not a one time event. Throughout my priesthood I’ve had experiences and events that have humbled and continued to convert me in my acting or thinking, because even though we have been converted, we also can become forgetful. Negligence, sloth, and complacency are all thiefs of the night which can steal away our spiritual lives leaving us quite empty. (1 Peter 5:8)
As a priest, though, I not only experience my ongoing conversion, but I am also an agent of conversion and vocation for others. We are not secret agents, but sometimes God works clandestinely through us!
One notable conversion is fresh in my memory. Joseph was an energetic and ornery fifth grader. If there is one thing I’ve learned as a priest is that if a boy is ornery, keep him close by. Such a boy can go either way becoming a saint or an outlaw. So anytime I needed a server or help in the church, I would make sure Joseph was included. The only drawback is that Joseph wasn’t Catholic.
Perhaps I should not have included Joseph but my pastoral sense told me to keep him active and close at hand, even serving at the Mass. It is unusual for a non-Catholic to be allowed to serve Mass but he was most respectful and awed by the whole ritual. By serving and being around the other children in our Catholic grade school, he asked lots of questions and became very curious about the Catholic way of life.
As I was leaving Mass one cold wintery night, Joseph breathlessly ran after me, yelling at the top of his voice,
“Father! I want to become Catholic!”
The glow on his face, the sparkle of enthusiasm in his eyes were not just from the cold air and from running after me, it was conversion and vocation. He was responding to a call God placed in his heart. A call that I was able to cultivate for the Lord. I brought Joseph into the church that Easter and he received his First Holy Communion.
I have since left that parish and but often think of young Joseph who by now is a young adult. It is my hope that his conversion has continued. 
This is what it means to be a priest: planting seeds and then allowing God or perhaps another pastor to cultivate them, allowing God to continue conversion in me and being an element on other’s conversion.
I remember that stop sign well and I am so glad I did in fact stop my truck for traffic, but did not stop the conversion that was occurring in my heart, so that I could continue and be a priest, an agent of conversion and vocation.