Blessed are we who comfort the mourners
Image: Matthew Kuczora, C.S.C. at the blessing of his friend Brandon’s casket.
MY FRIEND BRANDON was killed in Afghanistan in the spring of 2010. It was finals week when another friend called and told me that Brandon had been shot by a sniper. His commanding officer said Brandon was singled out because he was making improvements in the village and building connections with local tribal leaders. He chose the U.S. Marine Corps to be on the ground with his men and to make the world a better place. He died doing just that.
Despite all the pain around Brandon’s death, in a way it helped confirm my new life as a member of a religious community.
How to make a life of service?
Brandon and I had grown up together, and after high school he went to the U.S. Naval Academy and I went to the University of Notre Dame. We visited each other in college, mostly for Notre Dame-Navy football games (that was back in the days when N.D. used to beat Navy).
At that time religious life and priesthood were about the furthest things from my mind. Sure, faith was important to me. I grew up going to Mass every Sunday, but I was never an altar server and to this day I still can’t pray a rosary without help from a prayer book.
|Matthew Kuczora, C.S.C. (above, center) at a friend’s first Mass|
I went to college to study business, meet a gorgeous girl, and make a ton of money, and I ended up graduating in accounting. But even though my grades were good, it didn’t take me long to figure out that it just wasn’t for me. When I stopped to think about what was important and what gave me real, deep joy, I kept coming back to times where I had done service work.
In my house growing up we might not have prayed the rosary together, but we were encouraged to develop a healthy concern for the poor. That stuck with me when I was on my own in college, and I made it a goal to do some sort of service work each semester. I volunteered tutoring and coaching during the year. One summer I taught kids from underfunded schools with the Jesuits in Manhattan. Another summer I worked in microlending with a nonprofit group in San Antonio. Looking back, that work in San Antonio was probably a last effort at trying to meld the call to serve with my business education, and even that wasn’t enough.
The best advice I ever got: “Look at what books you keep at the end of the semester, and which you sell back.” I couldn’t wait to get rid of the accounting textbooks, but I held onto the books about saints, sexual ethics, and economic justice from the theology classes I was taking. That’s where my heart was—but how could I make a life of serving? How could I combine my love for work with the poor and faith with teaching, cross-cultural ministry, history, even business? It took me a long time to realize that the answer lived down the hall from me.
These guys I’d want as friends
The religious priests in the Congregation of Holy Cross at Notre Dame and the Jesuits I met in New York were different from priests I had known in the pretty average small-town parish in the Midwest where I had grown up. There was a joy you could taste in the way they lived their priesthood and the community life that supported it.
|Matthew Kuczora, C.S.C. (far left) with friends outside Moreau Seminary in Notre Dame, Indiana.|
By the end of junior year I was still pretty confused about what to do. Luckily for me I had good friends and family to help me, but I was also blessed to have Holy Cross priests in the dorm, one as my rector and another who was a political science professor living in residence. I learned that Holy Cross was doing all kinds of things as priests: working in Hispanic ministry, art, medicine, parishes, homeless shelters, overseas mission—you name it. Best of all these were guys I’d want to be friends with if I met them at an office or in the dorm. The joy with which they lived their lives and the diversity of ministry they were engaged in, all supported by a real community of brothers, was something very attractive to me.
I ended up doing a year of volunteer service after graduation to keep discerning, but after that I figured I’d give it a try, at least for a year.
As I start my last semester of seminary five years later, I can look back and say it’s been good. I have to admit that there has been a long process of “grieving” celibacy for me. I honestly feel called to it, especially in the availability that it enables for God and neighbor through prayer and ministry, but there is certainly mourning that goes along with the road not taken.
Despite that, though, there have been many more joys. I’m getting to take the classes that I always secretly drooled over. I have time for prayer and reflection. I’ve been able to work at a parish in Mexico, an orphanage in Honduras, and teach a college-level course that traveled to India.
|Matthew Kuczora, C.S.C. (top photo) renews his vows and (bottom photo) with a young friend in Honduras.|
All those experiences were great—but it was a totally different feeling when Brandon’s mom asked if I would lead his funeral service. Brandon was Catholic, but his family didn’t want the funeral in a church and wondered if I could help.
It’s now or never
Prayer in a quiet chapel and the warm feeling of helping people in need are fine discernment tools, but this was an intense confrontation with the reality facing me: Do I embrace this offer and the bigger question of this vocation, or is it not really right for me?
I had never “done” a funeral before, let alone a friend’s funeral. Of course I told Brandon’s mom I would do it, and I poured myself into preparing for it. Somehow I held it together long enough for us to celebrate Brandon’s life, thank God for the days we had with him, and ask God to welcome him home and comfort our broken hearts.
At the graveside service, as Marines fired a final salute and gave a flag to Brandon’s mom, it was an awful, sickening time, but I was never so glad to be in religious life. I didn’t try to offer any answers but by just being there as a religious it was different than my role as a friend. People looked to me to lead them in prayer and to talk to them about death and suffering, resurrection and God’s love. I was humbled by how people came to me, grasping to find God in this sadness and how important it was for them to find some sign of hope in me. I was amazed at how God gave me the strength to find words when I could and to mourn silently with people when there were no words.
All the years of discernment and all the classes helped me to know about loving service, and in my heart I could feel that priesthood in Holy Cross was right for me, but walking with people through Brandon’s funeral was the first time I really experienced what religious life and priesthood were all about. That gives me strength and joy to take final vows in August 2011, knowing that is what God is calling me to and what a wonderful and needed life it is.
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