Father Jeff was ordained in 2003.
I found myself in Rome during a college trip, and we went to the Holy Father’s Wednesday general audience. I was standing on the aisle as the doors at the rear of the audience hall opened. He took his time coming down the aisle, greeting the faithful and blessing religious objects as he made his way. The woman next to me called out to him. As he walked up to her, I took his hand and stood there holding it for a moment.
I don’t know how, but in that moment I realized this encounter had something to do with what God wanted me to do. When [the pope] continued walking down the aisle, I could barely stand up. I sat down and tried to soak in the experience. I thought maybe he would say something that would give me a clue about what I should do. If he had called for missionaries to go to China, I would have volunteered there and then. But he didn’t. The realization would take more time and prayer.
My family was not Catholic. We were Protestant Christians who attended Sunday services faithfully, as well as Sunday school and youth group. I did think about becoming a minister in a Protestant church, but priesthood never crossed my mind. That day of my encounter I didn’t suddenly think I would become Catholic. I thought there must be something in Catholicism that would not be acceptable to a Christian like me. But the question stuck in my head.
I was at a Lutheran College. [When we returned to the U.S.], I went to my Lutheran theology professor and told him I was thinking about becoming Catholic. I thought he would say, "Here’s three reasons why you shouldn’t become Catholic." Instead, he said, "I think about it every day." That opened the door to getting to know the Catholic Church. Once I started to learn more, I fell in love.
My parents were surprised, to say the least. They are wonderful people. As I explored the Catholic mystery, we shared in many discussions. They told me that, when I was born, they had given me to God and prayed he would work his will in my life. They trusted that this was what God wanted for me.
I joined the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) program at the parish in my college town and talked to any Catholics I could. I loved talking to them and learning from them. I felt I was getting to know a family. Eventually, I couldn’t resist the amazing possibility of joining this family. After my conversion, I got more involved in the parish and got to know the priest there. It didn’t take long before I started thinking about priesthood.
I was thrilled by the possibility that I could dedicate myself completely to this Catholic family and be a ‘Father’ to these people I was growing to love so much. Once the idea was in my head, there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life.
It is truly amazing what can happen in a moment of encounter with God’s love. That moment [with the pope] inflamed a love in me for the Catholic faith and fired up a vocation to the priesthood. A year after that encounter, I was Catholic. Ten years later, I was a priest. In that moment, God began to lead me down a path that has brought me to a great place.