After years of questions, man leaves girlfriend for faith

May 12, 2018

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MAY 12 -13 - In this April 23, 2018 photo, Brian Florin, a first-year pre-theology student at Mount St. Mary's seminary, poses in Emmitsburg, Md. A little over a year ago, Brian Florin was nearing the four-year mark with his girlfriend. But something else, or rather, someone, came between them: God. Which is how in a matter of months Florin went from your typical recent college grad with a customer service job and a long-term girlfriend to a student at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg studying to becoming a priest. (Bill Green/The Frederick News-Post via AP)

EMMITSBURG, Md. (AP) — A little over a year ago, Brian Florin was nearing the four-year mark with his girlfriend, Molly.

As the relationship progressed and grew more serious, they discussed at length their plans for the future: marriage, children and a life lived in the Catholic faith. Even geographic distance — Florin found a job in Cincinnati after graduation while Molly worked in Chicago — was a minor obstacle in the context of their intimate, seemingly unshakable connection.

But something else, or rather, someone, came between them: God.

Which is how in a matter of months Florin went from your typical recent college grad with a customer service job and a long-term girlfriend to a student at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg studying to becoming a priest.

From the outside looking in, Florin’s decision seemed to come out of nowhere. Molly was caught completely by surprise, having no idea that Florin’s youthful aspirations to vocation had continued through the course of their relationship.

But for Florin, the decision brought relief, a sense of peace, and above all, an answer to the question burning in his mind and on his heart for many years.

He recalled the tears that came when the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, in Indiana — where he plans to serve as a priest after finishing at the seminary — informed him he had been accepted into the Mount.

“I had been wrestling with it for so long,” he recalled. “It was almost like I had been wrestling with God. When I finally committed to coming to the seminary ... it was like I surrendered to God’s will.”

Florin had long struggled with how to reconcile his inner calling with other desires. Initially, it was the desire to fit in with his peers, not an atypical priority for the then-teenager.

After his family moved from Massachusetts to Indiana before he started eighth grade, he struggled to find friends in his new home, he said. Eventually, he did, a result of participating in sports and getting a girlfriend whose outgoing nature drew him out of what he called his shy and awkward shell.

Proclaiming his faith wasn’t going to win him a popularity contest, though. So while Florin actually liked attending Mass and reciting the rosary every Sunday night with his family — his parents and six siblings — he kept his outward declarations about God to a minimum.

That changed after he accompanied a friend in his parish on a mission trip to West Virginia. There, amid the rugged mountain landscape and rural, Appalachian towns, he found inspiration. He was inspired by the natural beauty, by the elderly and impoverished people his group was there to help and, above all, by the other teenagers who put their faith on full display despite societal norms that would suggest doing otherwise.

On the final day, during the closing prayer, he had a transformation experience, one that even now, he struggled to put into words.

“I realized that God created me for something more than just mediocrity,” he said. “I desired more.”

He came home different, turning down opportunities to hang out with friends to spend more time with his family. He and Jack Plude, the friend who invited him on the trip, started attending morning Mass together daily.

The rest of his friends — as well as his girlfriend — noticed. And they didn’t like it.

Then, Plude, a football player, started practice for the upcoming season and was no longer able to go to daily Mass. His girlfriend broke up with him. And Florin lost momentum, reluctant to travel down a path that seemed destined for isolation.

He buried his spiritual side, at least outwardly, and resumed something of his former self. He got back together with his girlfriend, socialized with friends and started his senior year playing point guard for the school basketball team.

But as he warmed the bench during basketball games — a frequent occurrence, he admitted — he chatted with the team chaplain, peppering him with questions about the priesthood. In a time of tension between his inner faith and his outward persona, Monsignor Michael Heintz was a calming presence, Florin recalled.

Heintz, who coincidentally went on to teach at Notre Dame, where he had Florin as a student and now serves as professor at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, categorized those early conversations with Florin as similar to those he had with other students at the school.

“It was usually pretty casual, nothing heavy,” Heintz said. “Brian certainly seemed like a really smart, decent kid.”

Asked if he was aware of Florin’s priestly inclinations at the time, Heintz said no.

Plude knew. Both still felt called to live a life in faith, including the prospect of being priests. They shared, too, the struggles of reconciling that inclination with conforming to their roles as high school students and athletes with girlfriends.

“At that time you’re so conscious of your social status, what your friends think, what girls think,” Plude recalled. “And we were both big sports players, which aren’t the most pious of people.”

Having Florin as a confidant was a “huge relief” for Plude, he said.

And though Florin still contemplated the seminary, he also considered living as a Catholic lay person rather than a priest. After he was accepted to the University of Notre Dame, his “dream” school, he decided to pursue that path further.

At the Catholic university in Indiana, he found a new kind of community of like-minded peers, at least a few of whom were as devoted to their faith as he was. And there was no shortage of opportunities to practice and explore those beliefs: from the chaplain and chapel within each dorm, to daily Mass, small group bible studies and a vibrant campus ministry program.

He again found a mentor and a role model, this time in his dorm chaplain — the young priest just as likely to play basketball with him as he was to lead a daily Mass. Struck by the chaplain’s simultaneous normalcy and saintliness, he again found himself wondering about vocation.

But then he realized that in addition to fellow Catholics and religious role models, the university also swarmed with girls. Lots of girls. Including Molly, whom he met his freshman year through mutual friends but didn’t really “click” with until they started talking on a trip to D.C. to participate in the March for Life rally during his sophomore year.

Before meeting Molly, he had signed up for a spring break discernment retreat to Europe. The trip was intended to help men at Holy Cross schools discern whether they wanted to pursue the priesthood.

During the many prayers and meditations and visits to religiously significant European locations, Florin discovered that what he really wanted was to date Molly. Which is exactly what he did when he came back.

Their faith played a central role in their relationship; the pair attended daily Mass together, prayed together and eventually discussed raising a Catholic family together. Florin genuinely thought he wanted that future, as did Molly.

What she didn’t know was that his dormant vocational calling reawakened before the start of his senior year. As he sat in the final event of the last session of a summer conference for high school youth groups he helped lead — the same testimony from the same Catholic priests he’d listened to eight other times during prior sessions of the conference — Florin felt something different, something “life-changing.”

A calling from God.

“It was almost overwhelming,” he said. “I had to physically remove myself from being around people and just kind of walk around on my own for a while.”

He continued: “I was scared. But at the same time, the joy that came with it was so overwhelming.”

He didn’t tell Molly. But he began consulting with a spiritual adviser, a priest, throughout his senior year. Once again, he found himself caught between conflicting desires — a life with Molly or a life with God.

Stuck in limbo, he felt frozen. The couple graduated, and began working, she as an accountant and he with a Catholic nonprofit in Cincinnati. The job itself, as a customer service representative in a call center, was less than fulfilling for Florin. But he was drawn to the organization’s mission to offer resources to Catholics seeking to deepen their faith, and to the fellow Catholics with whom he worked alongside.

Again, he found a mentor in a local priest, who he turned to as he continued to grapple with the question of vocation.

“It was that constant question of, what is God calling me to?” Florin said.

The Rev. Jonathan Meyer, who had experienced the same struggle deciding between married life and the priesthood a few decades earlier, felt an instant connection to Florin, he said. He advised Florin as he had been once instructed: Either choice could bring him happiness.

“I told him what I felt, which was that for me, I wasn’t making the decision to reject marriage or turn away from married life,” Meyer said, “Rather, I was choosing something else positive ... that put me in a relationship not with a single human person, but with God and the church.”

No longer able to contain his inner turmoil, Florin told Molly. She took the news that her long-term boyfriend, the man she’d planned to marry, “not well,” according to Florin.

But they kept in touch, still visiting each other, in this strange state between friendship and romance, with Florin still unable to commit either way: to her or to the priesthood.

Finally, after a seemingly perfect weekend celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago with Molly and two of their friends, Florin made the decision. He had to go, he had to end their relationship and follow this inner spiritual desire.

“If I couldn’t answer this question of, ‘What if God is calling me to be a priest?’” he explained, “I truly believed in my dying breath I would regret it.”

Florin hasn’t kept in touch with Molly, nor did he feel comfortable asking her to be interviewed for this story. Asked if he ever considered the trajectory his life was headed toward a year ago, he answered, “the thought does cross my mind from time to time.”

But when he thinks back to the Brian of last year, what he remembers more is the huge question mark over his relationship.

“It was so unsettling,” he said. “There were thousands of options for what I could be or do. Here, there’s something comforting about knowing your singular place or purpose.”

Many of the desires for marriage and family he once thought he wanted with Molly he has found in God. Rather than a woman, his marriage is with the church, his children the members of the parish he will eventually lead.

Certain aspects of a secular relationship with another person, namely sex, will never be fulfilled by the church or by God. Celibacy is part of the sacrifice, which is what he framed as a type of sub-calling within the overarching vocational calling of God.

He felt that call to celibacy was further confirmation that he made the right decision.

“If I think the sacrifice of giving up sex is worth it for the priesthood,” he said, “then yeah, I think God’s calling me to do this.”

Though Florin has never felt serious doubt about his vocational calling or faith in God, he acknowledged it was still possible.

“You’re not signing your life away when you come here,” Florin said. “At any point, he could call me out of here. But so far, I have only found my inclination to priesthood being more affirmed.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Coming to the seminary in the fall was an adjustment: It was difficult returning to the dorm-style environment of his college days, with rigorous academic demands and a regimented schedule that dictates not only classes, but also time for meals, prayer and other spiritual contemplation.

“I think a lot of people would see that as giving up my freedom,” Florin said. “But I have come to realize that in saying ‘no’ to my own schedule, to my own desires, it has freed me to say ‘yes’ to God. Obedience is so freeing. It really is a beautiful thing.”

Even harder was the realization that becoming a priest takes more than meeting the requirements of the seminary program. It takes constant perseverance and desire to become more holy, to live a saintly life in God’s example outside the classroom and the chapel — on the basketball court, for instance.

“I had to learn to love people while playing basketball,” Florin said. “Whether I win or lose, score or not, it does not matter as much as I am grateful for the opportunity to play. Am I loving this person in this moment?”

Watching how the various pastoral role models in his life have loved him and others, their joy in God shining through their every word and action is the exact model of priesthood Florin hopes to embody.

Asked how he would show that joy, he explained that it wasn’t by smiling all the time — though it also wasn’t by appearing persistently happy.

“It’s unshakable confidence that you’re where you’re supposed to be,” he said. “Understanding how God is working in your life and turning that internal experience outward.”


Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com

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