"God is committed to doing glorious things through our littleness"

Fr. Justin Gillespie, a newly ordained priest of the Prelature from Victoria Texas, speaks about his ordination to the priesthood and how his life has led up to this moment.

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What are your thoughts now as you prepare for ordination as a Catholic priest?

Mainly thoughts of gratitude, "embarassment", and hope. Gratitude because, however much we may be aware that "We should always give thanks to God," in the face of such a high calling as the priesthood one glimpses a little better that it is indeed an utterly undeserved gift and that absolutely everything is given to us, and so, giving thanks is really necessary. "Embarassment" probably isn’t the right word, but in such a situation as this you can’t help but feel incredibly little and weak. But that, paradoxically, turns out to be a real motive for hope: yes, we’re not much, hardly anything at all, but God is truly all-powerful and committed to doing glorious things through our littleness and weakness.

What was it like growing up on a ranch in Victoria, Texas? Describe the work your mother did on the ranch with disabled children.

I would hesitate to call it a ranch, at least by Texas standards, but it is definitely rural. My parents, with many wonderful volunteers, have a clinic that uses horses to help children who suffer various kinds of physical disability. The basic idea is to accompany the child on horse-back and the movements that the child experiences on the horse function as physical therapy. Obviously it's much more scientific and complex than how I’m describing it, but this is the basic idea, and there are similar clinics around the country. Apart from the physical benefits, it is easy to see how the children also benefit from being outdoors and with the horses instead of the usual clinical environment. My parents' work with the disabled goes back a while, and always greatly impressed me.

My own involvement with their clinic was always rather indirect like cleaning up after the horses, their stalls, and other such tasks. But seeing such neediness and suffering and the heroic example of the children's families really helped me. Especially as a teen-ager, these experiences helped me to overcome a certain self-centered superficiality.

How did you come to join Opus Dei?

I had had a little contact with Opus Dei activities before college, but when I went to the University of Dallas I met people who were in Opus Dei and began attending activities. I started to live its spirit little by little and along the way discovered a peace and a happiness that I hadn’t had before. I made real friends who helped me. I had my struggles and my doubts, and all sorts of things, just like anyone. It was not like receiving an email or a telephone call, with God clearly saying, "Hey, Justin, I’ve got a plan for you." I remember coming to a point where I was fascinated by the idea of being a Christian and I was convinced that Opus Dei was the way that God wanted me to take part in this great adventure. I doubt I thought it out in these exact terms, but this is what it boiled down to. And, in the end, I trusted in God: "You will not let me down, and I know that I’m doing this for nobody else, so…." Once you say that, I think, making a vocational decision that determines your entire life becomes less "dramatic", and more natural.

How did your time at the University of Dallas prepare you for your vocation, both to Opus Dei and as a priest?

I would sum it up by saying that it was an environment that helped me to start thinking critically and not to be content with stereotypes and pop-culture answers to the basic, important questions. Ideas and questions were taken seriously at Dallas in a way that is very exciting when you are a university student. While I was there my faith matured and became a more solid, theological faith which was animated by deeper, thought-out convictions, rather than mere feelings and handed-down habits and customs.

Friendships, with professors and fellow students were also of immense importance. Many of these friendships continue, and I am still very much indebted to them.

You and your two sisters belong to Opus Dei. Could you talk about that?

I am not sure I know what to say. Of course, it’s a source of immense happiness for me that they too have received this call and are a part of this marvelous family of Opus Dei. In a way, it’s like having sisters who are doubly sisters. I certainly feel even more connected to them than before. St. Josemaria would often say that we Christians are never alone and, I see that recently the Pope is also telling us this. We are united in a real, but unseen way to a whole host people. I have come to realize that being members of the body of Christ is not just a pretty metaphor, and this is something that is intensely lived in Opus Dei. So maybe I should be more precise: it is not "like" having sisters who are doubly so, I actually have such sisters. And God bless them for being so good to me!

In 2002, you did one of the Mass readings in St. Peter’s Square, when Pope John II canonized Opus Dei’s founder, Saint Josemaria Escriva. What was that like?

A Gift. The gift of being able to see, even just briefly, the sheer power and efficacy of a life that is completely united to the life of Jesus Christ. Sitting up close to the altar, looking out on hundreds of thousands of people, this was plain to see.

How did you find it studying for ordination in Rome, close to the Pope?

Challenging. A challenge not to stay wrapped up in your own provincial worries and concerns, but to open your eyes and heart to the problems of the Church, which, ultimately, are the problems of the world. This may sound very abstract, but I can assure you that this happens in all sorts of prosaic ways: hearing news about inspiring activities in the war-ravaged Congo that I would have never suspected; seeing people committed to re-evangelizing cities in Europe that were once Christian and no longer are; being challenged to learn new languages, and communicate with people who look at things in a very different way; having to learn to appreciate soccer because here, well, it’s more passionate than the hottest of college rivalries in the U.S. (and I must say that it turns out to be quite fun!). Basically, I have felt myself becoming more catholic, in the sense of universal.

It is should be obvious as well that the Pope ceases to be an "idea" or a figure you see on TV, but a flesh-and-blood person who needs your prayers and your support. This too is a wonderful challenge: to learn to see that you yourself are more responsible for helping him in the daunting task of being the good shepherd of the Church.

What is the topic of your doctoral thesis, and why is that of interest to you?

My topic is how hope in the resurrection of the body develops within the Old Testament. I could go on forever about the topic, but, to be brief, my basic interest is to show how the fundamental notion of salvation within the Bible does not have to do with little me getting out of this nasty world and going off to an ethereal heaven somewhere. Rather, it is about us, God’s beloved people, joining Him in His triumph over evil in all its forms, a triumph that necessarily involves triumphing over the most stubborn enemy, death and corruption. Or maybe more simply, my interest is to see that our Christian belief that we will one day rise again with glorified bodies is not a curious add-on to the Creed, but rather a vindication of all our efforts to sanctify ourselves, our society, and the world as a whole.

What will you do after your ordination?

Finish my thesis, and then serve in the activities of Opus Dei wherever it is best for me to do so. I have to admit that I am pretty excited about getting into my work as a priest.