“Ask Our Lady for an adventure and she’ll never let you down,” says Father James Searby, an associate pastor at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, Va.

He speaks from experience. While in seminary, he implored the Blessed Mother for help arranging a pilgrimage to Rome. He’d been yearning to see St. Peter’s Basilica and, in particular, Pope John Paul II up close and personal. At the time, such a trip was financially out of reach.

Three days later, a friend called to offer some frequent-flyer miles.

Walking into St. Peter’s wearing his seminarian’s cassock, he was directed to an aisle seat just behind Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Francis Arinze, two of John Paul’s closest brother bishops. Moments later, the Holy Father’s moving platform stopped right next to him.

Father Searby remembers every detail. “He did the classic John Paul wave,” he says. “Our eyes met and it was as though he clearly said, ‘Be a saint.’ The glimpse lasted maybe three seconds, but to me it felt like three hours.”

“I kept thinking what he said when he was newly elected,” adds Father Searby. “‘Be not afraid.’”

At that moment, Father Searby was a long way from where he’d been just after graduating college. In search of another kind of adventure, he went to work for the circus. Literally. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey hired him as a promoter.

Looking back on that experience now, he says the world of entertainment was exciting but not especially meaningful. At the time he was living with his grandmother and helping care for his grandfather, who was dying. “That,” he says, “ended up being more fulfilling.”

One Saturday evening, while on the road with the show, he drove past a little clapboard church in Portland, Me. It was 4 in the afternoon and it occurred to him that he hadn’t been to confession in a long time. He pulled in.

“I knelt down behind the screen,” he recalls. “A very old priest was sitting there. At the end of the confession, he — I call him Father Moses — said to me, ‘Have you ever thought of being a priest?’ The minute he said it, I can describe it in no other way than thinking I had been wearing these dark sunglasses over my eyes and had not been able to see the light. Life became clearer and, suddenly, the adventure I had been looking for became more real.”

He quit the circus and began to pray more — going to daily Mass, saying the Rosary, making regular confessions. He remembers this as “an amazing time of discernment.”

“It’s the great unknown,” he says. “The adventure we all long for is following our vocation, whatever it might be.”

Witnessing Wonders

Today at Holy Spirit parish, where he’s served since being ordained in June 2005, Father Searby brings that sense of holy adventure to youth — and makes promoting confession a keystone of his priestly ministry.

“He has a great zest for life and particularly seems to connect with young people,” says Father Edward Hathaway, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, Va. “They’re attracted to him for his enthusiasm as a priest and his love for the Church, which is evident.”

Holy Spirit’s youth minister, Christine Najarian, sees that process constantly unfolding. “He gets kids excited about seeking the Lord and growing in holiness,” she explains. “He definitely models it and speaks it.”

No wonder the number of attendees for the church’s annual teen retreat weekend nearly doubled this year. The number of boys quadrupled. Afterwards, when Najarian asked the young Catholics where they’d grown most, she consistently got the same answer: in confession.

“Father preaches a lot on the need for confession,” she says. “The kids have taken that challenge and now make confession an important part of their lives.”

One of them is Alicia Steger’s 13-year-old son Andrew, an altar server. “I notice he’s very willing to go to confession,” seconds Steger. “That’s Father Searby’s influence.”

At the teen retreat, he heard confessions nonstop for 6½ hours one night. “Sitting in the confessional is one of the most beautiful things in the priesthood,” he says. “That’s where real conversion takes place. From there, we go out and see Jesus in the Eucharist and it’s a continuing conversion; we get to know Christ. We become his friends.”

“The greatest poverty today is the lack of friendship,” adds the young priest. “In confession and true communion, Jesus becomes our true friend.”            The thriving altar-service program numbers 120 boys from fifth grade through 12th. Meanwhile, nearly 70 girls have signed for a brand new “Fiat” group in the same grades. And all can listen to his homilies by podcast (at web.mac.com/jrsearby).

Father Searby has expanded the altar-server program to give the boys many opportunities to grow in virtue and get together fraternally with each other and with dads. They attend activities like barbeques, hiking and pickup football; they serve in the parish on and off the altar and attend days of recollection.

“They’re in the early stages of hearing the call of God in their lives, to be a holy husband and father, or a holy priest,” he says. They learn by observation and example.”

The Fiat group for girls was launched after Father Searby prayerfully sought out the guidance of the Blessed Mother and St. Therese of Lisieux. He based the program on John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), with its focus on the fundamental vocations of women to motherhood and consecrated virginity.

“The primary role of girls in Fiat,” explains Father Searby, “will be to accompany Our Lord, get to know him as a friend and be with him as young women imbued with the Gospel.” They’re assigned times to adore Our Lord during the parish’s weekly hours of Eucharistic adoration.

The Fiat girls also help the elderly and the infirm. And they work with parish moms, meet sisters from thriving religious orders and are immersed in the beauty of the Catholic faith so they can most effectively evangelize the culture no matter their vocational calling — as wives and mothers, or as religious.

“Enlivened by the Eucharist and a friendship with Christ,” says Father Searby, “they’ll go out and bring that mysterious relationship to others.”

Just like everyone else who gets behind Father Searby on his adventurous journey beyond Rome and all the way to the New Jerusalem. 

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.