By Valerie Schmalz
Father Andrew Morkunas was ordained as a priest of the Washington, D.C., archdiocese on Aug. 29 -- after a 13-year career as an Army officer, six years as a high-powered technology project manager and many years as an indifferent Catholic who had strayed far from the deep faith of his Lithuanian father.
Father Morkunas, 45, looks at his late vocation and the succession of delays to his ordination as signs that each person's life trajectory progresses "in God's time" -- which is also the way the new associate pastor at St. Andrew Church in Silver Spring, Md., signs off his e-mail correspondence.
The example of his family's faith, the friendship of deacons, priests and parishioners at a Catholic parish in Waldorf, Md., and a growing willingness to wait and discern God's will is what brought Father Morkunas to his vocation as a priest.
In January, that vocation suddenly appeared in danger. Studying at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Boston, and already preparing for his ordination in June, Father Morkunas took a break for some night skiing in nearby western Massachusetts. His two pals, at the last moment, decided not to go, so he was skiing alone and was completing the final run of the night at 8:30 p.m.
"I figure, if I finish up now, I can be back in bed at the seminary by 9:30 at night. I'm skiing along at the bottom of the hill, and the next thing I know, somebody is standing over me, asking me, 'What day is it? What's your name? What did you have for dinner?' I had been knocked unconscious. To this day, I don't know what happened," Father Morkunas relates, surmising from two black eyes that he hit a little mogul that sent him face first into the snow.
Although he was wearing a helmet, the safety patrol immobilized his head and neck and sent him to the hospital for a CAT scan. That's when his life took another startling turn, because while he had not been seriously injured in the accident, the scan showed a 4-centimeter tumor that doctors estimated had been growing for 10 years.
From the emergency room, Father Morkunas called his vocations director in Washington, D.C., who immediately set up an appointment with a neurosurgeon for a few days later when Father Morkunas would be in the nation's capital for the March for Life. The verdict: probably benign, but it would have to come out at some point.
"When I went back to the seminary, that's when I hit the low point," said Father Morkunas, "because a tumor is a tumor. They assumed it was benign but... how do you remove a brain tumor? Everyone else, my classmates at the seminary, they [were] all preparing for ordination."
Father Morkunas had plans to split the cost of a venue for a large joint ordination celebration with his best friends, classmates from the Washington archdiocese, to highlight their older vocations -- at ages 45 to 60-plus.
"I [had] to tell my friends, I have to back out. I had no idea what was happening next,"Father Morkunas recalled. "Then the everyday stresses of seminary life, writing papers, doing presentations, reading Scriptures, all that stress, just multiplied. There were nights when I cried myself to sleep."
When he was just 12, Father Morkunas' father died, but he has clear memories of traveling across Cleveland with him for traditional Lithuanian Masses and credits his Lutheran mother, who died when he was in his 20s, with making sure he received his confirmation. Even though for years Father Morkunas said he remained a "CAPE Catholic" -- attending Mass four days a year, Christmas, Ashes, Palms and Easter -- his father's faith stayed with him.
His family drew him back to the faith in his 30s when, after leaving the Army to work in private industry in Washington, Father Morkunas began spending more time with his niece, a year younger and more like a sister to him. Although his niece lived in Cleveland, one of her children was in Washington, and Father Morkunas began visiting Cleveland as she, her husband and his sister-in-law began visiting Washington more.
"They lived their sacrament of marriage with good Catholic lives. They always went to Mass on Sunday. Everyone knew them; they knew everyone. The priest knew them by first name. I was coming back to Washington and all of a sudden realizing how dull and lonely my life was. I started to think, 'Maybe there is something to this church thing. Maybe I'll find a community by going back to Mass on Sunday.' So I did. I started going back to Mass on Sunday. It wasn't like I had this great epiphany, 'I'm going to be a priest,'" Father Morkunas said.
A tall guy, sitting in the front row at St. Peter Church in Waldorf, Father Morkunas stood out. "One day the deacon tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'I'd like to talk to you -- we're going to offer both species at Mass. Would you like to be an extraordinary minister?' I said, 'Sure, what's that?'"
A year later, Father Morkunas was recruited to help with RCIA. He joined the Knights of Columbus, advanced in his profession and, admiring his friend the deacon, he applied to be a permanent deacon -- and was turned down. Chastened, he decided to focus on life as a lay Catholic until a new associate and new deacon came along. And when, to Father Morkunas' embarrassment, the deacon prompted him to share the story of his rejection to the permanent diaconate, the associate immediately told Father Morkunas about an upcoming retreat for older men discerning their vocations. "I was in the sixth year as a project manager, working on a multimillion dollar project for the White House communications agency. ... I'm three years into a 30-year mortgage, with a dog and fully furnished three-bedroom home," Father Morkunas said. "And by the way, when I left the Army I didn't resign my commission. ...
"So anyway, I go to this retreat. ...Cardinal [Theodore] McCarrick gave this homily that spoke directly to me: 'Now is the time -- for you.'"
Between February and August 2005, Father Morkunas was accepted by the archdiocese of Washington and the Boston seminary, resigned his Army commission, sold his house and divested himself of most of his worldly possessions.
"Everything fell into place just like that. This had to be God, because nothing happens that quickly," he said.
The experience of God finding him for his vocation reassured Father Morkunas during the dark days of his brain tumor. At first, he only told his family and four close friends at the Boston seminary. Then, his spiritual director advised him to share the news with others, particularly the rest of the seminarians, saying,"'Imagine the power of prayer,' and he was absolutely right," said Father Morkunas.
After Easter, while spending time with his family in Cleveland, a Cleveland Clinic neurosurgeon and expert on his type of tumor told him it was time to take out the tumor, reassuring him he had another 50 years of life ahead of him. With surgery on May 13, Father Morkunas realized he could not be ordained June 20. The surgeon's advice is what tilted the balance. "That is when I made the decision that I need to take care of this first and everything is going to happen in God's time," Father Morkunas said.
By the end of July he had a clean bill of health, and his ordination was set for Aug. 29. His classmates and family attended the ordination, and after a week in Cleveland, Father Morkunas was at work in his new parish of St. Andrew the Apostle in Silver Spring, Md., in early September, preparing his sermon for his first Mass in his new parish.
"'In God's time' is my personal motto," he said. "That is the hardest thing in discernment, to live according to his plan, but once you give everything up, things fall the way they are supposed to fall."
Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor.