I'm a son of Croatian immigrants who first emigrated to Italy and subsequently to America in the 70's. Within two years of their marriage, my brother and I were both born.
My mother lovingly tells me that God willed very much that I come into this world because I came as a "happy surprise" to both my parents, having been conceived only 4 months after my older brother had been born.
My parents gave me the name of "Neven," which is a Christian name of some very early obscure saint, "Neven: meaning "everlasting" in Croatian. I was raised in a typical Catholic household and am happy to say that I enjoyed a particularly joyful childhood.
My Dad, whom I admire very much, had a noticeable handicap which was the result of an accident he had at the age of five. This left him with only one usable arm. His injured arm was permanently atrophied and was rendered almost useless. But this did not deter my father nor did he allow anyone to pity him. Although limited in his job options, he always seemed to find work. My mother was employed evenings as a cleaning lady at a Manhattan office building. This arrangement allowed for at least one of my parents to always be home with my brother and me.
The first peek into God's call on my life was when I was about 2 or 3 years old. My mother had walked in on me once in prayer, and saw me standing in front of a high table that had a number of Holy cards neatly arranged and splayed out. My mother took note of this occurrence and brings up the memory of it since it had obviously left a significant impression on her.
But one of the major spiritual epiphanies of my life came when I was 15, while I was visiting the tiny hamlet of Medjugorje, a Croatian village in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was there with my family on pilgrimage.
While in attendance at Mass in St. James Church in Medjugorje, I heard the most beautiful angelic voices hover over the altar and reverberate toward the back of the Church during the Liturgy. I kept turning around trying to find the source of these heavenly voices but only saw the Choir loft empty. There was no choir at this Croatian Mass. The only people singing were old Croatian babushkas endearingly singing slightly off-key. Nobody else seemed to be hearing what I was hearing. This left me with such awe and wonder that it defied words. But more than all of this, I was most impressed with Our Lord's Eucharistic Presence which He allowed me to feel tangibly. The only analogy I can think of would be the way a person feels standing before the penetrating rays of the sun after a long swim. It felt like a warm blanket was covering my shoulders while I was filled with an all-pervading Peace. It was this all-encompassing Eucharistic Peace that struck me most of all. It not only pervaded the Church, but the people, the villagers and the surrounding region. You could not help but feel it. It was in the very air that we breathed. As we were approaching our departure time, at one point I blurted out, "Mom, Dad — I never want to leave here! I don't care if I was to sweep St. James' Church for the rest of my days, I would be content!"
After high school, I temporarily put my faith on the backburner and I spent a number of years not really knowing what to do with my life. I was employed doing various short-lived odd jobs and attending a Community College. I was searching, but I was also in a serious relationship with another none-practicing Catholic, my girlfriend. My faith went from simmer… to lukewarm… to cold. I had walked into a dark period of my life — yet not so dark that it was without intermittent flashes of light and love from God, who kept reminding me in little unmistakable ways that I could run but I couldn't hide from Him forever. And neither did God's whisper let up, but continued to persist and echo within the deepest depths of my soul.
I knew something had to give. I started to immerse myself back into my faith and the more I did, the more my girlfriend and I drew apart. So within a very short period of time we had broken up, I started going to daily Mass again, became regular in my prayers and sought spiritual direction. My life had accumulated so much noise, worldly baggage and toxicity that I needed spiritual rehabilitation. It was suggested to me that I take a silent retreat. A few years prior my brother had given me a book that had mentioned a specific religious order that was located in Vermont that was very austere and lived in prayerful silence. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to join this specific order but I definitely needed time to pray where there was little to distract me. So, after a short correspondence with them, I found myself on retreat within the confines of the strictest order of the Catholic Church, the Carthusian Order — specifically, within the thick granite walls of the Monastery of the Transfiguration, located near Arlington, Vermont.
Normally the Carthusians never allow people to take "retreats" at their monastery. And even if a would-be aspirant to the Carthusians was allowed to visit, it would only be for a short period. Well, by the graciousness of the Novice-Master at the time, I was allowed to stay for a little over a month. There I also met a holy monk named Fr. Raphael Diamond, one of the spiritual heroes of my life.
During my stay, saturated with silence and prayer — and in the midst of my praying about pursuing a religious vocation — I felt strongly prompted by the Spirit to record a Christian music album. This came to me as a strange surprise since I had not written any songs at the time. I had always fiddled with the guitar but it was never anything serious. But this prompting persisted and continued to well up in my soul as a project I had to complete before I "took the plunge" into religious life. I shared these inspirations with my spiritual director and he believed that this word was coming from God. Little did I know that this same prompting would eventually help me become debt-free in order to freely pursue my vocation towards the priesthood.
After a series of ups and downs and a particularly powerful retreat with the Intercessors of the Lamb in Omaha, I knew that if I was to eventually enter religious life, I needed to make a serious step towards it. While staying with the Intercessors, during Adoration I felt a feminine caress on my soul — I can't really put it into words, but it was akin to a wonderful perfume or incense hitting your nostrils out of nowhere. At the same time I heard the words inaudibly but interiorly, "You will be going to my school."
It was a gentle word, slight but unmistakable — as powerful as a mother's loving glance.
I didn't know what this word meant until a few months later. I eventually found out that any would-be candidate to the religious life needed to complete a number of credits in Philosophy. I was warned away from attending a local secular college that taught twisted relativistic philosophy. What I need was to attend a college that taught philosophy imbued with a Catholic world-view, recognizing Philosophy as the handmaid of Theology — not the other way around. My spiritual director as well as my circle of Catholic friends acted as signposts that unanimously pointed me in the direction of Franciscan University of Steubenville, which then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) reportedly called "A Pillar of the Church."
At Franciscan, I not only earned my required philosophy credits but also completed the "Pre-Theologate Program" which, under the authority of the Bishop of Steubenville (then-Bishop Conlon), is the equivalent of attending the first year of major seminary.
Pre-Theologate students lived on a separate part of campus and would recite the Daily Office together, attend Mass together and be formed under the watchful eyes of Our Lady — Star of Evangelization, the program's Patroness. Her school indeed — and under her watchful eyes, I was the happiest I had ever been.
After 4 years of study, formation and spiritual direction I had come out confirmed to pursue God's call towards the priesthood within a religious order. Which order? I did not know.
But through a little bit of searching and looking at different communities all over the United States, I finally found a community after my own heart. Namely, the Basilian Salvatorians located in Methuen, Massachusetts. This order of priests had the perfect blend of activity and solitude and after a few visits I knew I had to continue discerning with them.
I am happy to say that I was recently accepted as an aspirant for the Basilian Salvatorian Fathers, and am to begin my Novitiate this September 2008. But I was accepted on the grounds that before stepping into the Novitiate I first needed to alleviate the large student-loan debt I've accrued from going to Franciscan.
Ouch! A seemingly impossible task . . .
But instead of throwing in the towel, I was reminded of the original inspiration I had received at the Carthusian Monastery. It was the answer to my dilemma. So, in God's providential, all-knowing vision, I was given the solution long before the problem was yet on the horizon!
Our God is certainly an awesome God!
I recently finished recording an album's worth of original Christian songs and, with the help of my sister Marina, I created a website, www.helpmebecomeapriest.com, featuring some of my story and where I also provide a means for people to purchase my CD as a "donation" toward my vocation, so that God's call on my life may eventually be fully realized. But there is a time limit. I have only a few months to meet my goal of alleviating $72,000 in student loans.
Please find it in your heart to help make this happen. May God bless you all!