His grin tells you Brother Jon Wheeler's playful humor is kicking in as he describes the "trouble" that came his way once he started perceiving a call to a religious vocation with the Society of Saint Edmund.
"Trouble" is Wheeler's ironic way to describe milestone graces that appeared periodically through his Saint Michael's student career and shortly after, drawing him inexorably closer to God's love, he felt, and wreaking holy havoc with his best-laid worldly plans.
"The day I started telling people that I'd decided to move into the Society's discernment house in South Burlington, they'd say, 'I haven't seen you this happy your entire time in college and you always struck me as a happy person," remembers Wheeler '10, a gifted Latin scholar and musician with a philosophical bent who's now in his first year of theology studies at Boston College to prepare for priesthood.
A "happy, joyful brother," is one of the best indicators of a true call to religious life, suggested the Edmundites' Superior General Rev. Michael Cronogue. He was speaking to 100-plus faithful who gathered August 15 under the lakeside outdoor pavilion of Saint Anne's Shrine in Isle LaMotte, which the Society runs and where Wheeler made his first vows at Mass for the Feast of the Assumption. His family, influential former professors, college staff, fellow Edmundites and pilgrims to the Shrine were all present.
That essential quality of joy is something Cronogue perceives in Wheeler and two other young men in different stages of formation with the Edmundites today: Lino Oropeza, a mild-mannered onetime computer-business owner and skier/snowboarder whose childhood home parish in Venezuela was run by Edmundites; and Michael Carter '12, a classics/religious studies double-major and self-described bookworm who displays easy-going humor, whether discussing his love of local and church history as a hobby or the adjustment he and the others are making from typical youthful experiences of girlfriends and dating to lives of chastity, poverty and obedience.
A Burlington native, Carter is the newest novice in residence at the Society's Formation House near the Burlington Airport. He'll live there a year in "novitiate," as the others already have, before heading to Boston College with them for theology. They've all been under the recent immediate spiritual direction of Father Marcel Rainville '67 SSE, a gently wise and down-to-earth soul who loves golf and farm work and hails from a large French-Canadian dairy-farm family in northern Vermont's Franklin County.
"The day I started telling people, they said, 'I haven't seen you this happy your entire time in college and you always struck me as a happy person.'"
Carter says "a big moment" for him came when his family visited the formation house one recent evening to share a meal. His dad - a career law officer and non- Catholic with serious early reservations about his son's new path - hit it off famously with Father Marcel, a fellow native Vermonter who could easily relate to many common experiences, friends and familiar places. "For me it was good to let my dad see they're just a normal group of guys. And it's been great for me to see that, too, even with the age difference between me and many in the Society."
It's been more than 20 years since the ordination of Father Brian Cummings '86, director of the college's Edmundite Campus Ministry office and the youngest priest among the society's approximately 40 members. The Edmundites today are posted either at the college, Vermont parishes, a beautiful coastal retreat at Enders Island in Mystic, Connecticut, southern missions in Alabama and New Orleans in Venezuela. Membership hit a high of 140 just after World War II and has been in gradual decline since.
The first Edmundite priests and brothers in Europe took Saint Edmund of Canterbury, the 13th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, as their patron saint. In 1843 the Society first began its ministry at his final resting place in Pontigny, France. They came to Vermont from France in the late 19th century amid anticlerical persecutions and in 1904 they founded Saint Michael's. In the decades since they've been known for Civil Rights work, hospitality, education and serving where needs are greatest. Most members today are over age 60, many well over.
But Cronogue has placed vocations in the forefront under his leadership after a long relative stasis, with former Vocations Director Rev. Stanley Deresienski, '74 SSE laying the groundwork of the recent upsurge. The society's priests never miss a chance to pray for vocations at public liturgies or prayer. The past five years have stirred optimism among them that these recent recruits might approach critical mass to stir more vocations. For their part, the new men display an even keel and warm camaraderie, spiritual maturity and a mutual respect, both among themselves and with their senior brothers, which they hope might attract more young prospects. "Maybe we'll get piles of them!" Wheeler says.
Wheeler's story of the first time his parents came around for dinner to the formation house is similar to Carter's: "They were expecting these priests speaking Latin in clerical garb, but after dinner my mom said, "They're such down-toearth people!' I mean, Father Mike walks into a room and just makes friends with people, and Father Brian's like that. Fr. Mike's got 40 years on me and I can talk to him like he's one of my best friends from home."
Navigating the family dynamics of a possible vocation is rarely easy, says the 66-year-old superior general. Cronogue, a Connecticut native, had good job prospects as an engineering major at Northeastern University back in the 1970s when he felt his call after seeing a newspaper ad for Edmundites. He says he met family resistance or confusion much like Wheeler and Carter encountered - a fact he shared in empathy with the Wheeler family during the Shrine vows ceremony in a homily that spoke of vocations as deep mysteries for all involved. "God deals in specifics, not in generalities," he said, pointing to the often vexing, faith-demanding circumstances of Mary and the Incarnation in a particular place and time in history.
"It's not that one's better than the other, they're just different modes of being in the world."
Among Carter's specific qualities that should serve his vocation well is an ease connecting socially and speaking to groups: his Burlington High School classmates chose him to be featured senior speaker for high school graduation based on his reputation for being a fun and quirky stage personality in school plays and presentations. But Carter threw them a curve by speaking about community service, responsibility and gratitude. "I got good feedback," he says, noting that even being an altar boy at his home parish, "had a certain public performance aspect."
Initially, he says, the mystery and outward symbols of the faith he'd observe when his Catholic mom of French-Canadian background would bring him and his sisters to Mass - bells, incense, chanting - are what most intrigued him, and a high school trip to Austria exposed him to the more classical Catholic "grandeur and sensibility." He says since he and his girlfriend at the time also appreciated the country's romantic atmosphere, he felt pulled in different directions, though not in a distressing way. While his love for aesthetic beauty in the church has not diminished, today he stresses that such trappings of the faith must stay secondary to the Gospel message of love for neighbor, lest one be tempted to pride. He sees his vocation as a good channel to continue speaking and acting on social justice like that, and about God's love.
Wheeler said he, too, had dating relationships with female contemporaries all through high school and college and always romanticized marriage as "the ultimate goal in life." Now he's tempered his view. "Marriage is an absolutely beautiful function in life, a divine gift, not to say it is happiness and sunshine all the time, but novitiate really showed me that being celibate is a very legitimate and fulfilling way to live your life too. It's not that one's better than the other, they're just different modes of being in the world. I know there's lots of people that struggle with it - they say to me, 'you know you'll never get married!' as if they're revealing a big secret, and I say, 'Really?! I didn't know that!' But, on a retreat during novitiate, I said, "You know, I think I could really do this, I feel called to do this."
A Catholic convert during college, Wheeler was raised in small-town central Massachusetts among a Congregationalist family and was active in his church youth group while doing "anything music," including rock bands and church groups. One day, after finishing an unsatisfying year majoring in music at UMass Lowell, he went up to see UVM as a possible alternative, but it was so bitter cold that he cut short that visit and stopped at St. Mike's to see a friend instead.
"I loved it right off," says Wheeler, who transferred, tried an assortment of majors, came to love philosophy and ultimately landed in classics "reading Augustine and Aquinas in Latin, Plato in Greek as a way of getting to the root of things" during a time when he was still what he calls "an uncomfortable agnostic."
Both he and Carter stress the impact of their Saint Michael's professors on clarifying their vocations and cultivating worthy enthusiasms. Wheeler says he had a poor idea of what philosophy even meant - "I thought maybe it was something hippies did at three in the morning" - before taking Peter Tumulty's Intro to Philosophy, which he liked so much that he took Tumulty's ethics course next.
"That was trouble because I got a lot more into philosophy and Latin and Greek" he says, and Classics professor Ron Begley suggested he follow the examples some earlier exceptional Classics students and privately read Aquinas in Latin with Edmundite Father Richard VanderWeel '58, well-known on campus as a brilliant emeritus philosophy professor with an infectious hair-trigger laugh. Wheeler also had a group of likeminded philosophy enthusiasts as close friends and they'd stay up till all hours hashing through their different faith backgrounds and questions, each enriching the other.
One key quality Cronogue and the Edmundites always look for in brothers is flexibility, someone who doesn't necessarily feel that he has all the answers to everything
Begley says he noticed Wheeler's "eagerness and openness to serious questions" and "great intellectual passion." Begley, Wheeler and Edmundite Father Joseph McLaughlin '66, a religious studies professor, also have shared their common interest in sacred music through concerts or recordings. Wheeler says at the time he was singing in the college's Liturgical Choir led by Campus Minister Jerome Monachino and began to feel "my singing was becoming prayer." Good talks with Monachino led directly to his signing up for local confirmation classes and being confirmed.
For Carter, a huge faculty influence was the former dean, renowned Augustine scholar and religious studies professor John Kenney, who, like Tumulty and Begley, is an intellectually formidable practicing Catholic and most engaging personality. All are favorably disposed to the notion of vocations for the right students.
Carter's talks with professors only built on earlier experiences that had first drawn him to both Saint Michael's and the idea of priesthood. While still in high school he'd spoken with the Burlington Diocese about possible vocations, and he'd ended up at Saint Michael's through improbably fortuitous interventions.
He didn't even see himself as college material. But a high school civics teacher, Jim Donoghue, believed in him and had strong connections to St. Mike's as a swim coach and via family on the faculty, and got him an interview to reapply via admissions chief Jerry Flanagan '71. Carter buckled down, showed he meant business, and got accepted.
Some family difficulties hit him his senior year, prompting him to talk pastorally with Fr. Brian Cummings in Campus Ministry. In the course of their talks, Cummings perceived in Carter a possible vocation and the sort of temperament that might suit the Edmundites. He referred him to speak with Cronogue, who suggested getting a spiritual adviser and joining in common daily prayer with the community when possible.
Cronogue says diocesan priesthood can be the perfect fit for the right personalities and set of gifts, but also can be demanding for those who wouldn't thrive managing a parish alone in a remote rural Vermont location, for instance. In contrast, community life with the Edmundites might be better suited to a person favoring a mostly social environment with a more family feel, maybe with an academic or more missionary pastoral flavor. Through his prayer and fellowship, Carter soon felt comfortable with the Edmundites and decided to try a novitiate year after his recent graduation. So far, he has no regrets.
Wheeler says that after graduating in 2010 with a classics major and philosophy minor, he worked a short time at Burlington's public library downtown while sharing a place with an old college roommate across from St. Joseph's Church in Burlington's Old North End. But he deeply missed the prayerful fellowship and routine he'd cultivated with good friends while a student.
"Father Marcel invited me to move into the South Burlington house where some guys I knew already from classes and campus prayer groups were staying - no strings attached, just come and see what it's like," Wheeler recalls. "And I said, yeah, that'd be really great.
"I remember telling me dad of the decision, saying to him, 'I want everything in my life to revolve around my faith - my career and whoever I live with, whether a family or religious order. I want prayer to be very central to my life.'"
Cronogue says a hard-sell approach isn't the Edmundites' style, and vocations typically unfold through such low-key fellowship. "These guys, they like prayer - it seems to be an important part of their lives - so we simply say, would you like to be part of a structured prayer we have? Then we have a little group of guys who go out to supper once a month. Instead of Jesus saying 'come and see,' I send the invitation, 'come and eat,'" he says.
A number of men in the years since Fr. Cumming's ordination have entered the discernment process for a time - even in recent years and months - but either the candidate or the community has determined that there wasn't a good fit. Often, those men move on to serve God in other important and admirable ways more suited to their gifts and disposition. Cronogue stresses that one key quality he and the Edmundites always look for in brothers is flexibility, someone who doesn't necessarily feel that he has all the answers to everything or that one approach is always best.
It's a sign of the times that the screening process is more thorough than in earlier eras, says Cronogue, acknowledging the need for strict background checks and psychological testing in the wake of the church sexual abuse scandals of recent years.
"Any path is only a path and many paths are before us," Father Cronogue said. "The only important question you must ask is 'Does this path have a heart?' If it has heart for you, then dare to follow it."
Cronogue says usually he'll discourage sightunseen inquiries from men overseas, which he says are quite common, since it's really all about getting to know one another on a personal level and determining a good fit on both sides. He'll always suggest that an inquirer try living in community for a time, after first meeting other essential criteria.
The bar for those criteria is higher than in years past, he says, with no one accepted right out of high school for novitiate, as had been the case for Fr. Rainville and others. "But worked for me since I couldn't have afforded to go to college," the formation director says. "Otherwise I'd probably a farmer now like the rest of my family." Fr. Rainville says although he discerned his vocation more than 40 years earlier, he still relates easily to these men in formation. "I think there's something universal here in the answer to the call - each life is different, but I see a similar pattern to what I experienced," he says.
Typical days at the formation house for the new Edmundites involve morning prayers and study together with Fr. Rainville, along with shared morning and evening meals. But days also include ample free time for recreation, relaxation or personal prayer. The house has a strong spiritual library, much to the delight of Carter and Wheeler, who also have enjoyed making long bicycle trips several times. They can also get around in a Society fleet car - formerly Wheeler's before he sold it to the Edmundites for a dollar as part of his vow of poverty.
After the new brothers' roughly three years of theology studies - Boston College was chosen as being a familiar program to society members, close enough for visits to or from Vermont or Mystic and with a strong academic reputation - they will become deacons for a year, assigned to a ministry before final ordination and their first assignments. During studies they live in a Boston-area house with other folks from different religious orders who are also studying in the area, which provides good built-in support. All the new Edmundite brothers say that, assuming they make it to ordination, they will go happily where most needed - which Cronogue agrees is the Society's highest priority too.
The Superior General says that, just as a gut feeling, he could envision Oropeza as a strong fit in pastoral ministry, with Wheeler and Carter thriving more at some point in academic settings, like some current Edmundite faculty. That's an idea the younger brothers are not averse to. "But if Selma is where I can best show the love of Christ, then I'll go to Selma," says Wheeler.
Both men shared how much they looked forward this past summer to cooking meals two Fridays of each month for recently released Vermont prisoners transitioning back to society at Dismas House in Winooski. "Just seeing these guys who have been given another chance and are really eager to restart their life - the amount of humility they have and how grateful they are - is amazing for us to see," Wheeler says. "We're trying to minister to them and when you feel you're the one being ministered to, you realize you're learning so much."
Father Cronogue hit the crux of the matter while speaking directly to Wheeler during his August vows ceremony at the Shrine: "Any path is only a path and many paths are before us," the priest said. "The only important question you must ask is: 'Does this path have a heart?' If it has heart for you, then dare to follow it."