John Simmons is a seminarian for the Diocese of Tyler in his second year of formation at Notre Dame Seminary in Louisiana. He is also a convert to the Catholicism. We caught up with him and asked him to tell us the story of his conversion. (This story appeared in the January 2017 edition of the Catholic East Texas magazine).
Please tell us about yourself and your family.
I grew up in the Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas. My dad is a Baptist deacon, like my grandfather. My grandfather’s brother is a Baptist pastor. I grew up in a family very involved in Church. As a young man, I was baptized, and I was very involved in Baptist youth groups and all the typical things. I was taught that salvation was a one-time event and I was “saved” in this way, but it never sat well with me. I saw in my own life and the lives of all of my friends that this often led to a feeling of license, of being able to do any sinful thing without any consequences. I just never could accept that the content of one’s life didn’t matter much to God.
I went to college at Texas A&M, and like a lot of young people, I didn’t go to church when I was away at school. As a Baptist, I didn’t have the idea that church on Sunday was necessary. One thing I did have, though, was a prayer life. My dad instilled that in me — to pray every day. I always kept doing that.
I was in the Corps of Cadets at A&M, and a lot of my friends were Catholic. In my junior year, I was dating a Catholic girl, but I never went to Mass with her. We eventually broke up. That was my first serious breakup, and it was really hard on me. One of my buddies, who was Catholic, saw how depressed I was and invited me to go to daily Mass at St. Mary’s parish next to campus. I didn’t know what daily Mass even was, but I agreed. I found something holy and reverent there, and I was intrigued. I started going with him about once a week.
What made you decide to become Catholic?
At the time, a Franciscan priest was hearing confessions all day at the parish every Monday, and he agreed to talk with me about the Faith. We met once each week, and he patiently answered all my questions. He brought up the possibility of me going through RCIA, just to learn about the Church. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but I agreed and started in Fall of 2005.
RCIA was an amazing experience. I loved learning all about the Church and seeing how many misconceptions I had about Catholicism. I learned all the Biblical teachings concerning the sacraments, the priesthood, and the various Catholic doctrines. Each week I looked forward to it.
Then, one of my friends, who was serving as head Yell Leader that year, came to me and said, “I’m scheduled for an hour of Eucharistic Adoration tonight, but I have a conflict. Can you fill in for me?” Well, I didn’t know what Eucharistic Adoration was, and I hadn’t yet learned everything about our belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but I agreed to help him out. I figured I would go, sit in church and read for an hour, and be done.
Well, it happened that I had the last hour of adoration that night, so when the hour was done, I was asked to hold a candle as we followed the Eucharist in procession from the adoration chapel back to the main church. It was pretty powerful for a guy who was just learning about the real presence. I remember that, as we entered the Church, there were people standing in the back, and as we passed with the Blessed Sacrament, they fell down on their knees in adoration. It was very moving for me, and I experienced a conversion. That was the moment when I first knew that Christ was present in the Blessed Sacrament; I had this overwhelming feeling that Jesus was telling me, “I’m here. This is me.” After that moment, I intended to become Catholic. I couldn’t not do it. I came into the Church at Easter, 2006.
How do you feel about your time at Texas A&M?
For me, it was really good. Just being at A&M was really a sort of preparation for Catholicism. The school has a lot of traditions that, from the outside, are really hard to understand. Once you are part of it, though, you see how it all comes together to make a culture, with a rich history. Catholicism is a lot the same way. That helped me to understand Catholic culture as I was exploring it. You need to take the time to understand what’s going on, since it’s complex and based on a lot of rich history.
Certainly, St. Mary’s Student Center at Texas A&M is a good place. If you’re a Catholic high school student searching for a college, take a look at it. It’s a good environment to grow in your faith while you’re at school.
How did your first months as a Catholic go?
Well, when you first join the Church, you’re on this spiritual high. Everything is new. I wanted to know everything. I went deep into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, learning whatever I could about the Church. I recommend that every Catholic household definitely have two books, a Bible and a Catechism. Pretty much any question you could have about the Catholic faith is answered in the Catechism.
And, we need the Bible; we need to know the scriptures. We need to read it. Every Catholic needs to know that the Bible is a Catholic book. The Bible was written and collected into a single volume more than 1,000 years before there were any Protestants. It was all done by Catholics. It’s our book, and we should know it, really well. It’s a very Catholic thing to know the Scriptures.
It’s only by knowing the Bible and the Catechism that we can answer the questions that people have about the Faith. Now, as a Catholic, I realize that most of the Catholics I knew growing up really didn’t know anything about the Church and couldn’t answer any questions about it. That always struck me as odd…why don’t more Catholics know their own Church? We need to help people understand the Faith, and encourage everyone to understand what we’re doing at Mass, in the sacraments, in every part of our Catholicism.
I guess I thought about the priesthood from the first day I came into the Church. In my conversion, I just got the idea that every Catholic man should consider the priesthood. So, I spent an hour talking to a priest about it, and I figured I was done with it. I had fulfilled my obligation. I graduated and started working in commercial real estate in Dallas and the idea faded.
I started to feel strongly that I needed to offer myself to some kind of service. At first I thought it must be military service, and so I went through the process to enlist, but despite high test scores and recommendations it never worked out. I was really frustrated at the time, but now I realize it was God mysteriously closing that door because He had something else in mind for me.
Then, in adoration (again) I was praying and looking up at the altar and the words, “Feed my sheep” came to me. It was clear and definite, and my immediate answer was, “No way. Not me.” I just shoved that experience to the back of my mind and pretended it never happened. I wasn’t ready to accept a vocation then; I think I wasn’t analyzing things correctly. I needed to first discern how important God is, and what great gifts He gives us, in order to be ready to trust Him on this. Eventually, I was ready to face this possibility.
What advice would you give for young people trying to discern their vocation?
Talk to a priest. Don’t be afraid. Fear is a big part of people not discerning God’s will for them. I think we need to keep the basic facts in mind when thinking about our vocations: God wants priests and religious and holy marriages. It’s the devil who doesn’t want those things, and so of course there’s going to be a lot of temptation to not investigate, not pray about it, and to be distracted from discerning a holy vocation. Look around, at our culture, at our media, and you can see how obvious that is. There is a constant message of selfishness and fear foisted upon us from outside the Church.
Like our Bishop says, “Even one day of discernment is a gift to the people of God.” That’s so true. Give God that gift. Ask questions; really pray about it. Consider spending time in the seminary or a religious community. I think it’s important for people to understand that seminary formation and formation in religious orders are simply another part of vocational discernment. It is certainly a more intense and serious discernment, nevertheless, it’s still discerning God’s will for one’s life. It doesn’t necessarily mean a man will end up ordained a priest or a woman a solemnly professed nun. However, if a person submits to formation in humility, and is open to God’s will, then that is definitely a gift to God and the Church regardless of the end result.
It’s been my experience thus far in the seminary that the majority of men are discerning this call up until the moment the Bishop lays his hands on their head—obviously, some with more confidence than others. That said, I think there is a bit of a stigma outside the seminary that when a man leaves seminary formation it is somehow a bad thing. On the contrary, I’m always happy when a man leaves who I believe has discerned well, because it proves to me that the formation process has been fruitful. God has a plan that many of us can’t understand fully in the moment. Furthermore, I know that that man is now a better asset to the Church and society as a whole because of his willingness to be formed in the person of Jesus Christ. It should be apparent that we need more of that these days and not less. God didn’t call us to mediocrity, so there’s something to be said for laying down one’s life for the good and preservation of another, whether in the religious or married state. The important thing is that we commit to giving our lives out of love, which St. Paul tells us is the greatest theological virtue (1 Corinthians 13:3). I only mention this because we have had a few guys leave formation early on, and I think it’s important that people have a better understanding of this process.
At times, it’s perceived that a man who leaves discernment is somehow a wasted investment. As a man who had a life prior to seminary in the business sector, I know full well the importance and necessity of financial solvency. It’s through the generosity of our benefactors that so many men can study for the priesthood. I can only speak for myself, but I am eternally grateful for this generosity, because it has allowed me to become a better Christian, son, brother, friend, and seminarian. At the same time, we cannot forget the ultimate goal for each and every one of us: the eternal salvation of every soul created by God. There is no amount of money that can ever purchase such a blessed gift.
Discernment is a product of God, the Church, and the man in formation. It’s a multi-layered process and not always a straight, one-way street to ordination. Discerning God’s will can be painful and uncomfortable at times as we leave behind the old man and put on the new one(Ephesians 4:22-24), but in no way does that pain or discomfort equate to the joy we will all hopefully experience by being in God’s presence in Heaven.
What would you say to people who are fearful of celibacy and feel they cannot consider a religious vocation because of it?
Yeah, celibacy is tough. In my own discernment, I started out like I think everyone does. I thought, “That’s too much. That’s too tough.” But, through discernment, you can learn to trust God on this. You can say, “Okay, God, if you are calling me to this, then you have a plan to allow me to handle this.”
We also know that marriage is tough, too. In any Catholic vocation, be it priesthood or religious life or marriage, you have to die to yourself. You can’t live out any of these vocations without God’s help.
Discerning celibacy is about discerning something supernatural, and so that really requires quieting the noise from the world. Seminary is a good place to do that. Just don’t shut the door before you give God a chance to work in your life. He is capable of anything, and He can give us the grace to do something extraordinary.
What’s your particular area of interest that you look forward to studying?
Sacred Scripture. I’m really interested in that. Being in Notre Dame Seminary has shown me that I’m interested in Biblical languages. We start with Latin, and I love it. Already, so much about Sacred Scripture makes more sense to me, by just being able to compare the Latin to the English translation. Simple things pop out in Latin that are sort of masked in the English language, like the primacy of Peter as the head of the Apostles. It’s really evident when you read the Gospels in Latin.
After Latin I am looking forward to Greek and I hope to study Hebrew later on. I think that would be a tremendous opportunity to help open the Scriptures up for Catholics. Everything we believe as Catholics is right there in the Bible, and I hope to have all the tools to show people this Catholic truth.
Any final thoughts?
Sure. Treasure the Holy Eucharist. Investigate the Bible and the Catechism. Go where God leads you, and don’t be afraid.
Go to confession regularly. Don’t be afraid to get down on your knees in Confession and admit your sins to God. It’s such a beautiful thing, such a rich fountain of God’s mercy. Even if you haven’t been to confession in 40 years, just go.
That’s one thing I’m really looking forward to—hearing confessions. As amazing as it feels to hear the words of absolution, I can’t wait to be the one speaking those words on Christ’s behalf. I’m looking forward to being an instrument of God’s mercy.
I never imagined myself being here. I never, ever thought I would be in the seminary, studying to become a priest. But, looking back over my life, the good and the bad, I can see myself drawing ever closer to where I am today. When you take a moment to look back over your life, you can see God’s hand guiding, in both the things that work out, and the things that don’t.