WHEN SOME teenagers leave home after high school, they also leave behind the church. Not John Skrodinsky. When he became a student at the downtown campus of the University of Pittsburgh, Skrodinsky attended Mass, made time for prayer, and got involved with campus ministry, extending an involvement with parish life that began while growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Skrodinsky tells young people in their late teens and early 20s: “It’s often at that time when you find out what kind of commitment you’re willing to make to your church or your faith.” Here’s the commitment Skrodinsky made. At 36, he’s a brother with the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity. He’s a lawyer and director of migrant ministries for the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. In that work, Skrodinsky helps immigrants with legal problems ranging from legal status to landlord troubles.
In the Missionary Servants, “we believe that missions are people,” Skrodinsky says. “You have to be totally involved in accompanying people. That’s where God’s love is made real.”
Skrodinsky is one of those people who didn’t grow up certain of a religious vocation. But he always stayed involved in the church—and along the way, he got nudged. He attended public schools while staying active in youth ministry in his parish, all the while growing up in a town where there weren’t many Catholics.
He gained a sense early that in a parish there is room for grassroots leadership. “I learned that it wasn’t just that there was a priest and there were sisters,” Skrodinsky says. “There were other people involved. All parts make up the parish. The people of God were the parish.”
From time to time in high school and college someone would encourage Skrodinsky to consider a religious vocation. “That was the first seed,” he says. “Most times a young person like I was will dismiss that. First of all, it seems too far off . . . You’re thinking of other things. You’re thinking of, ‘What’s my career going to be? Where am I going to go to college? Will I get married?’ ”
But when he finished college, after earning a degree in elementary education, that seed started taking root. Instead of taking a job as a teacher, Skrodinsky decided to spend some time exploring the idea of a religious vocation. While the idea of teaching and perhaps getting married appealed to him, “I felt a strong calling to totally dedicating my life to the work,” he says. “I wanted to try that out—where I would be able to totally dedicate my whole life to serving God and serving others.”
Skrodinsky described what he felt as being like “that whisper in your ear” that doesn’t go away. “I felt that calling was strong enough in me that I wanted to try it—I needed to try it, because if I didn’t, I’d always be wondering” if that’s what God really had meant for him to do.
So he began collecting information from different religious orders, and he volunteered to go to Mississippi to teach at a school run by a religious order. He hoped “to see whether God was calling me to something else” besides teaching and family life.
It didn’t turn out so well.
“I took on too much” with teaching and coaching, and “I got overwhelmed with the work down there,” Skrodinsky says. He left early, and went back to his parish in Pennsylvania, becoming first the director of the church’s day care center and later working in youth ministry.
But he kept exploring different religious communities, trying to find one whose charism and style seemed to match his interests. “It was good; I always had mail!” Skrodinsky says with a laugh. He narrowed down the list, then visited several communities. When he got to the Missionary Servants—an order with a presence in both North and South America— “I felt at home. I felt comfortable with the people. I felt like the mission or the charism was in line with what I had been taught” and with the way he wanted to serve.
The Missionary Servants sent him to California to study philosophy, a precursor to theological training. He lived in Orange County, studying and doing outreach in prisons and with gangs. “It was a great experience,” Skrodinsky says. “I was fortunate enough to be open to the lives and experiences of others who were drastically different. And probably what most helped me was the sense that it wasn’t my role to judge people. Ultimately they were responsible for their relationship with God and for being forgiven. I was there sort of to be God’s instrument in their lives at that time,” to listen and to speak a kind word—what he calls “a ministry of presence.”
Nearly every week he met with a man who’s now on death row. “He was accused of committing horrendous acts,” Skrodinsky says. Yet “I found his faith to be very deep and very strong.” What he took from that experience was the recognition that “nobody is far away from the grace of God.” All people, whatever their actions, can “ask for forgiveness and ask for God’s redemptive love,” and this prisoner “was really trying to strengthen that relationship” with God.
After a year in California, and a few months leading a Bible study at a summer camp in Tucson, Arizona, he moved back east for a period of novitiate, a quiet time of prayer and study, of learning about the community and its work, of considering whether his walk in religious life should continue.
“For me, the process was affirming every step of the way,” Skrodinsky says. “Each step of the way, it was being reaffirmed that this was the right direction for me. That’s definitely a blessing . . . I’m sure most people go through doubts and questions—that’s all part of the discernment. God challenges us and we listen, we respond, we doubt—we have all those human emotions. But for me, it was mostly reaffirming.”
His family was supportive, too, even though he’s an only child “and that meant no grandchildren.” Skrodinsky says his parents “wanted what was best for me. And they weren’t ready to get in the way of the plans God had for me.” He also didn’t struggle much with the decision of whether to become a priest or a brother. All along he felt pulled toward the brotherhood and toward a life in mission.
Before taking his final vows Skrodinsky spent a year working in Puerto Rico, in a parish about 20 miles east of San Juan, working in youth recreation and with people addicted to alcohol and drugs. The mission year is a chance to see “this is what it’s really like” before making a final commitment, he says. “You’re dealing with all the joys and the pains and the problems . . . . I enjoyed it very much. It was a great opportunity to expand my view of the world, learn another culture and language, to learn about people.”
In 2000 Skrodinsky made his final vows, then was assigned to work as a counselor at a halfway house in Philadelphia for those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. While working there he also started as a night law school student at Temple University, finding that by continuing to work in ministry while in law school, “You keep grounded in the lives of people and why you’re doing this.”
He graduated from law school six years later, then spent some time studying for the bar exam and volunteering for a social justice group in Washington, D.C. Knowing that the Missionary Servants had several mission sites in New Jersey, he took—and passed—the New Jersey bar exam.
A healthy balance
Now he’s director of the migrant ministries program for the Paterson, New Jersey diocese. While that work is demanding, Skrodinsky is careful to try to create balance in his life between professional responsibility and fun—intentionally making time for friends, for contemplation, for exercise, for going to the movies. Ministry can overtake a person’s life, he notes, but “I try to stay active and healthy.”
In a way, while still relatively new in this job, and sometimes apologizing for all he still has to learn, Skrodinsky is continuing in his work in New Jersey the intimate involvement with the lives of people in need he’s had since his first days with the Missionary Servants, connecting through the years with prisoners, men in gangs, drug addicts, and now with immigrants.
The migrant ministries program helps newcomers to the United States get access to medical treatment and schooling, sort out disagreements with landlords, and also offers Mass in Spanish.”They’re very grateful,” Skrodinsky says of the migrants he serves. “They realize we’re extending our faith and sharing our faith with them. We believe that as humans they have dignity and they need to be welcomed here.” Often “the people are grateful to have somebody walk along with them, to have them accompany them in a difficult situation when they feel like they’re up against a legal system, almost up against a country,” he says. “We help them feel they’re not alone.”
When he first moved to New Jersey Skrodinsky considered living with a larger community of religious men at the Shrine of St. Joseph, about 45 minutes away. But he chose instead to live in a small house with a priest and a brother from his order, all of them young and fairly new to religious life, intentionally living close to the immigrants they serve.
“We have a like-mindedness,” Skrodinsky says of the men in the house. “We’re dedicating ourselves to God’s people, in return for the love God has shown us.” They support each other “in the good moments and the tough moments,” he says, sometimes challenging one another “if we see someone’s working too hard or as a community we’re not praying enough.” They try to make space several times a week for communal prayer, for sharing meals, for companionship—not always easy, with their hectic work schedules.
Skrodinksy says he still has occasional pangs sometimes, wondering what it would be like to be married with children. He describes discernment of a religious vocation as being for him a lifelong process of “listening to God, listening to the Spirit,” touching base. All along the way, “God challenges us, and we listen,” he says. God speaks: “We respond.”
Leslie Scanlon is a writer based in Kentucky.