He's in God's Army Now

The way Father Tom Brown sees it, today's young people are often asked the wrong question about their long-term plans.

“Instead of asking young people what they want to do in the future,” the priest says, “we should be helping them to think about what God wants them to do with their lives.”

Now pastor of two parishes some 21 miles apart within the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Mich. — St. Ann's in Baldwin and St. Ignatius in Luther — Father Brown recalls how taking the latter view helped him discern his vocation not so many years ago. He felt a strong desire to become a priest from a very early age, he says. But, after graduating from Wawasee Preparatory School in Syracuse, Ind. (once a minor seminary operated by the Crosier Fathers), he got sidetracked by the allure of the world.

“Instead of focusing on what God might want me to do, I decided to do things my way,” he says. “I got caught up in the American dream — building a career, making money, going after all that the world offers.”

He launched a career in the plastics industry, began rising through the management ranks and joined the Army Reserves. He even got engaged. Yet for all the big things that were beginning to unfold before him, he felt unfulfilled. As the time ticked away, something seemed to be missing.

When that sensation only seemed to intensify with each passing year, he made the decision to quiet his thoughts and desires in order to listen more attentively to what God might be trying to say to him.

“The same thought kept coming up,” he recalls. “There was an awareness that I was not doing what God had wanted me to do. However, to truly discover what God's will was for me, first I had let go of doing what I wanted to do; I had to dismiss what I like to call the ‘my way’ of doing things.”

Realizing he couldn't discern God's call by his own natural abilities, he immersed himself in sacred Scripture. “The more I read the word of God, the more I became aware that one day I would have to give an account for what I had done with my life,” he says. “One day I would appear face-to-face before the Lord.”

Endearing Energy

Once Brown decided to study for the priesthood, he faced many trials. After being turned down at several seminaries, he was finally accepted at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. He had to complete two years of study at St. Mary's College before he was admitted into the seminary to study theology and complete his preparations for the priesthood.

Finally, on June 5, 1999, Father Brown was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Grand Rapids.

Father Ray Bruck, former vocations director for the diocese and currently the pastor of two parishes nearby, has known Father Brown for years. Asked to comment on Father Brown's call to the priesthood, Father Bruck expressed his admiration for the tenacity Father Brown showed throughout the discernment process.

Father Bruck's respect has only grown as Father Brown has grown into his priestly ministry.

“I have always been impressed by his steadfastness, his perseverance and his hard work,” Father Bruck says. “In the seminary college, he aced all his courses. As a priest, he totally endears himself to the people he serves.”

Prior to being appointed a pastor in June, Father Brown served as the administrator of St. Michael's Parish in Muskegon. Dominican Sister Agnes Mary, a pastoral associate at St. Michael's, praises Father Brown for his generosity, especially to the poor.

“With my own eyes I have seen him take off his winter coat and give it to someone in need,” she says.

Sister Agnes Mary, whose 50-year anniversary in religious life is only a few years away, also says Father Brown is a marvelous homilist. “His preaching leads people to Christ,” she says. She goes on to describe how Father Brown helped the parish construct an Eucharistic adoration chapel.

Sister Agnes Mary also says Father Brown's love of the Eucharist and his delight in celebrating Mass are like spiritual magnets, drawing others closer to the sacred mysteries. “He is a very prayerful priest,” she says. “Father Brown doesn't just say the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — he prays it.”

Liz Zagar, a St. Michael's parishioner, says Father Brown is “a humble and holy priest. He is totally dedicated to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.”

Zagar also tells how Father Brown started a weekly holy hour while at the same time encouraging parishioners to return to the sacrament of reconciliation. “Before long,” she reports, “there were lines all the way to the back of the church for confession. It was phenomenal.”

Whether it's youth ministry, prison ministry, administering the sacraments, responding to a boating accident in which a life was lost or just being present and listening, whenever and wherever there is a need, Father Brown tirelessly gives of himself, Zagar adds. “He always has time for you,” she continues. “And he always says Yes to any request for priestly service, regardless of the hour.”

God Responds

Father Brown offers daily Mass at his two parishes despite the distance between them. On any given day, he could have one or more funeral Masses to celebrate at either or both parishes. Yet instead of complaining, he relishes the opportunity to bring Christ to his people.

“Celebrating Mass is a joy,” he says. “It is such a privilege, so humbling. Celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the high point of my priesthood.”

When he reflects on his life, with its many twists and turns, he finds it easier these days to lay his burdens on God and simply trust.

“God's grace is so powerful,” he exclaims. “Our Lord is so patient, so forgiving, so ready to respond to our least little attempt to draw near to him.”

What's the most important lesson God has taught Father Brown by the things he's sent into his priestly life? That you must never give up on anyone, regardless of circumstances, he says.

“God is still working in all of us, including those who have fallen away from the faith,” he adds. “We must keep praying for them. We must believe and have hope that the Lord will lead them back home.”

And, in so doing, that he will turn their focus from their wishes for the future to God's will for their life. That's exactly what will happen in many hearts, if Father Tom Brown's prayers have anything to do with it.

Wally Carew, author of A Farewell to Glory, writes from Medford, Massachusetts.