How do you know if you have a calling to the consecrated life? How do you begin? Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Father Bret Stockdale on these very questions and more.
I knew Father Bret many years ago when he began discerning his call. We worked together in youth ministry at St. Luke the Evangelist in Westborough. I was privileged to witness his first Mass at St. Luke’s, rejoicing along with everyone in the church.
Father Bret’s journey took many twists and turns but he is now where he is meant to be. He sheds light on the mysterious and beautiful process of answering God’s call.
By Susan Bailey
CFP: Describe your call to the religious life.
Father Bret: I joined a discernment group in college. Bishop Leo O’Neill suggested that I speak with the Dominicans, Jesuits and Augustinians before seeking an application for the Diocese of Manchester, NH. I didn’t hear back from the Augustinians, I got a book from the Jesuits and I was invited on a retreat by the Dominicans. I discerned with the Dominicans for a year before I realized it was not a good fit.
I worked for three years in the business world until 1999 when I was offered a position in youth ministry at St. Luke’s. In 2000 I began my master’s in divinity degree at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry; in 2003 the sense of “call” was still present. I approached the vocation director in Worcester; he was not supportive of my becoming a priest in the diocese. Fathers (Henry G.) Bowen, (George L.) Lange, and (Steven M.) LaBaire as well as Jesuits at BC encouraged me to consider the Jesuits. I knew many Jesuits from taking classes with them and found them to be intelligent, creative, and passionate men for the Gospel.
After taking spiritual direction with Jesuit Father Bill Clark at Holy Cross and going on a discernment retreat at the Jesuit Novitiate in Jamaica Plain, I felt a desire to enter the Society of Jesus and test if I actually had a call. During my two-year novitiate in Syracuse, N.Y., modeled on the life of St. Ignatius (which included the 30-day silent retreat, working with poor, serving the dying, working at a retreat house, going on pilgrimage to Jamaica and working at UConn’s campus ministry), I felt affirmed in my life as a Jesuit and took my vows in 2005.
CFP: What obstacles did you face along the way?
I believed that I would always get assignments which would excite me. This idealism was challenged when I was asked by my superiors to complete a master’s in social work along with my master’s in philosophy. Social work and counseling were not fields I had a lot of interest in but after representing to my superiors my lack of enthusiasm, I was still asked to complete the degree.
However, grace abounded. I made wonderful friends in the program, many of whom I am still in contact with today. I interned at Catholic Charities in Chicago where I worked with homeless addicts as well as in the court guardianship system. I was able to study in Rome and see how other nations provide social services to those in need. My counseling experience proved valuable at Fairfield Prep where one of my students was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I relied a lot on my MSW degree to assist family members, faculty, staff and students during that difficult time.
CFP: How long was your
formation as a Jesuit?
I spent two years in the novitiate in Syracuse, three in First Studies at Loyola Chicago, three as a regent teaching at Fairfield Prep and two at Boston College completing my licentiate in sacred theology before being ordained a priest in 2013.
I have yet to take my final vows, which occurs after Turcinship; this is similar to going through the novitiate again in order to study the Jesuit documents and experience again the 30-day silent retreat.
CFP: What do you like most about being a Jesuit?
I enjoy the community life; the sense of brotherhood, common purpose and apostolic vision. I have had amazing opportunities to study in the U.S. as well as in Rome and Beijing. As a Jesuit priest you are invited into some of the most sacred places of people’s lives and that is a true honor.
CFP: How did you feel when Pope Francis was chosen as the first Jesuit pope?
I rushed back to Boston College when I heard that the white smoke began rising. The Jesuits of my house were gathered around watching TV. At first we were shocked that a Jesuit was chosen and then we were excited for the Church and the society as we saw Pope Francis’ installation and began to know more about him.
CFP: What works are you involved in?
I am assigned to Fairfield University’s Campus Ministry department and working on doctoral studies in liturgy at The Catholic University during the summers. In addition to doing sacramental ministry I have been involved in retreat work as well as working with the Students for Life, the Knights of Columbus and Christian Life Communities. Next year I will be assigned to Fairfield Prep to work with the school’s new president, Jesuit Father (Thomas M.) Simisky. (Father Simisky is also a St. John’s graduate who grew up in Worcester and attended Assumption College.)*
CFP: How did it feel when you celebrated your first Mass?
It was truly an awesome experience to gather with my parents, family, and friends. It was so exciting to see so many from so many different points in my life. There were young adults whom I knew from Scouting and the Youth Group at St. Luke’s. I was so humbled and honored by their presence.
CFP: How do you advise
others who are considering living a consecrated life?
I host a discernment group at Fairfield University. I am amazed and inspired by their openness and sense of call from God in an environment that increasingly seems to have no place for faith. I encourage them to be patient, dialogue with both religious and diocesan priests, pray, and find a good spiritual director to accompany them on their journey.
* Jesuit Father Thomas M. Simisky, was 43 when he was ordained to the priesthood, last June, according to a press release from the Jesuit Conference of the United States. He grew up in Worcester, where he attended Assumption College and received a bachelor’s degree in politics in 1992.
Following graduation, he served for four years with the Marine Corps as an artillery officer, attaining the rank of captain while stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, and deployed to the Persian Gulf.
After his military service, Simisky earned a master’s degree in economics from Boston College while also working as a graduate assistant for the Latin American Studies Program. The experience was transformative because it was the first time Simisky met the Jesuits and learned the story of a man who would greatly influence his vocation, the former soldier, St. Ignatius of Loyola. For two years while discerning his vocation, Simisky taught Spanish and coached football at Catholic Memorial High School in Boston before entering the Jesuits in 2003. After the novitiate, Simisky spent a semester in Bolivia and then two and a half years in Chile for philosophy studies at the university named for Jesuit Saint Alberto Hurtado. For his regency assignment, Simisky headed to Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine, where he taught theology. Missioned next to the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Simisky earned both a Master of Divinity degree as well as a master’s degree in theology while assisting as a deacon at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Brookline. His 11 years as a Jesuit have included such diverse experiences as working with young people and the homeless in Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Jamaica. Following ordination, he was missioned to Fairfield College Preparatory School in Connecticut.