A Heart on Fire:
Thomas O’Donnell IV, SJ
While at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I embraced many of the freedoms college offers, but I failed to develop my spiritual life in any way beyond an occasional prayer to God for a date to go well or for an A on an exam. After graduating, I moved to Chicago to work for a financial firm. I was achieving my goals, yet I felt deeply unfulfilled by life. I found myself asking, “How can I claim to believe in Jesus Christ if I don’t really even have a relationship with him?”
I continued to work during the week and party with friends on weekends, but in my free time, I would read anything I could in hope of freeing myself from this question. Eventually, I came across Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and it opened the door to a new world in which to explore my faith.
Soon, my head was filled with tough questions about spirituality, and I realized that answers would come not just from reading books, but from a lifestyle change. I started to pray on my own, began to attend daily Mass, and started noticing the ways I was turning toward God and turning away from God in my actions.
The idea of priesthood popped into my head, and, at first, I was horrified. I had always assumed that I would eventually get married and have a family. Suddenly my desire to know Christ had snowballed into potentially destroying the future I had envisioned. On a deeper level, I felt unworthy of God’s call. I thought, “God could not be calling me to become a priest…that’s a life for people who are truly spiritual.”
Despite my reservations, I began exploring the idea of priesthood. In my discernment, I also felt called to be an ally to those without as much privilege as I had in my life. I found an immense sense of peace when I learned about the Society of Jesus, which offered a synthesis of these two vocations.
But I needed a final push. One day, I was at a library in Chicago when a bright blue book with nothing written on the binding caught my eye. I felt compelled to open it and found it was Confessions by St. Augustine. Reading it, I was blown away by the similarities between Augustine’s path to God and my own. He too made countless mistakes and needed constant nudging from God! He also felt “unworthy,” and yet was called by God to become a doctor of the Church! As I read his story, I felt I could no longer resist moving forward in my discernment of religious life.
I entered the Jesuit novitiate in August 2014. Since then, I have met so many people and have had so many experiences to further my sense of worthiness before God. Indeed, I have come to trust that God has called me to live as a Jesuit. I’ve been blessed to live alongside the homeless on the streets of Camden, New Jersey, provide spiritual guidance for adolescents in detention, collaborate with gang-involved youth to process trauma, and work as a student therapist in a mental health clinic.
I’ve had a wonderful journey as a Jesuit so far, and I trust God, who began this vocation journey in me, will continue to carry it forward.
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