Father of 10 Embraces Religious Life
Former college president Jeff Karls engages all vocations.
It could easily be thought that a man with 10 children would have no time for religious life. However, Jeff Karls has found time. After 30 years in higher education — including 28 at Magdalen College in New Hampshire — the man who once thought he might be called to be a priest is now helping others discern their own vocations.
In the summer of 2019 Karls accepted the position of executive director of the Institute on Religious Life (IRL), founded in 1974 by Jesuit Father John Hardon, whom the Church recognizes as a Servant of God. The Mundelein, Illinois-based organization has been the means through which hundreds of men and women have discovered the specific religious orders they were meant to join.
The IRL has a wealth of information to guide people in the right spiritual direction, and Karls himself — who has served in educational situations ranging from financial aid to food services to administration and campus ministry — has some general advice for students in this time of social distancing that has robbed many of a sense of community.
What would you say to the young people who have not been allowed to interact in classroom settings or graduate together, as normally done every year at this time?
It has become a very odd, confusing time for all of us — maybe most especially for young people. While the recent health concerns have been taken to an almost unprecedented scale, I have experienced other unexpected turns that might help others find their way to clarity.
I studied business administration at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, but stopped short of the degree, as I bought and ran my own business in 1976 — a restaurant called Jeffrey’s Duck Inn. It was a supper club that had a great reputation and a faithful, local clientele. All went well until the recession hit, and it became challenging to stay ahead in the market. I decided it would be safer to work for a larger corporation and managed a Holiday Inn. All this was enjoyable work, but I longed for something more.
In my early 30s I was still single and discerning a possible call to the priesthood. At the encouragement of my pastor, I attended the annual IRL national meeting held at Mundelein Seminary in the spring of 1985. I was so taken by the beautiful, joyful spirit of the religious men and women, all wearing habits, assembled in prayer, worshipping and socializing with uplifting conversations. There was also an incredible lineup of gifted speakers, including the likes of IRL founder Jesuit Father John Hardon himself. This experience filled me with joy, even to the point of thinking that this was a foretaste of heaven.
From that 1985 national meeting I was inspired to return to college to study philosophy and theology. My pastor referred me to a very small liberal arts school in rural New Hampshire called Magdalen College, where I enrolled as a freshman at the age of 32 and studied theology, philosophy, Latin and science. I also earned an apostolic catechetical diploma from the Vatican and fell in love with the studies — not to mention the community life.
I spent hours praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament in the college’s Chapel of Our Lady, Queen of Apostles and studying Butler’s Lives of the Saints. As time went on, I still had a high view of the priesthood, but was not convinced that I should become a priest myself. Marriage was a possibility.
I had a devotion to St. Joseph and prayed a novena for guidance to know what God was calling me to do. On the day I finished the novena to St. Joseph, the college president approached me as I was leaving the chapel. He asked me, very directly, if I would consider taking the position of executive vice president of the college.
Never would I have imagined this kind of answer from the novena, but I continued to pray and discerned that I should accept the offer. This brought a great sense of peace; and within months, I met my wife, Julie. I continued at the school as executive vice president for 13 years, followed by 12 years as president, and, along the way, we had 10 kids.
Prayer and spiritual direction are obviously parts of your adventurous story. How did you end up at the IRL after your college experience?
While I served at the college I met many students who felt called to priesthood and religious life. I found myself calling on the religious men and women I had come to know through the IRL to provide campus retreats and spiritual direction for the students. As a result of the combination of the structured community, prayer and liturgical life that was part of the college program — and the opportunity for interaction with men and women religious — the college, with an enrollment below 100, witnessed 38 students within 35 years who pursued vocations to the priesthood and religious life. That’s a pretty solid statistic for that size of a school.
I became friends with Benedictine Father Cassian Folsom and Abbot Marcel Rooney, the abbot primate of the Benedictines. We founded the Monks of Norcia Foundation, which exists to support the Monks of Norcia community established in 2000 at the birthplace of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica in Italy.
In 2011 we founded the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art at the invitation of Bishop [Robert] Morlino in Madison, Wisconsin. This was an opportunity for me to return, after nearly 30 years, to my home state with Julie [and most of our children].
While back in Madison, I also became part of the team of St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center at the University of Wisconsin, whose huge enrollment and secular tone could not possibly be more different than Magdalen College. The major thing during that time was the capital campaign for, and construction of, a new center that included a chapel decorated by Evergreene Architectural Arts.
I was also involved in working to save and build up my parish parochial school, St. Michael’s in Dane, Wisconsin, which was struggling with low enrollment. I served as principal for seven years and worked part time at IRL for three of those years. Then last summer I started working full time for IRL. Ironically, I was part of the search committee to find a new executive director. After we had spent some time looking, I was asked if I wanted the job. Truth be told, I had thought of it before, but by accepting the position, I had big shoes to fill after Michael Wick’s tenure with the IRL.
How many religious communities do you represent, and what exactly do you do for them?
The IRL has almost 200 affiliate members, comprised of men’s and women’s communities which may be active or cloistered, ancient or newly founded, international or within a diocese. What they all have in common is a love for the Lord and his Church, faithfulness to their founding charisms, and a desire for the sanctification of their members and the world.
We support affiliate members in three main ways, the first being the promotion of consecrated life among the lay faithful via our periodical, Religious Life, and four websites. ReligiousLife.com is our main site, and on it you can find detailed profiles of the religious communities, qualifications for entry, formation requirements, information on discernment retreats and, often, vocation stories and videos of the community. This is geared toward young people discerning a vocation and laypeople who may be interested in supporting religious life. We also sponsor CloisteredLife.com, ReligiousBrotherhood.com and VocationBlog.com.
Secondly, we operate the Vita Consecrata Institute, founded in 2001 as a program of theological instruction and spiritual formation for consecrated men and women. In collaboration with Christendom College Graduate School of Theology, participants earn a degree or take the classes for personal growth. Aside from the actual courses, the interactions of the religious communities are also a highlight.
For those who cannot attend in person, though, the two-week courses (usually 20 hours in length) are also available for purchase in our catalog. With instructors such as Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel, Norbertine Father Thomas Nelson, Dominican Father Brian Mullady and Marist Father Thomas Dubay, laypeople can learn about religious life from the best of the best in courses on the history and theology of religious life, the vows and, most recently, on human formation.
Thirdly, the IRL hosts numerous regional meetings and an annual national meeting, with both religious and laypeople speaking on a given theme or specific aspects of religious and contemplative life. This event brings religious and laity together and provides opportunities for religious to come together to share experiences, to learn, pray, worship and socialize with one another.
The highlight of the weekend is the Saturday afternoon celebration of Holy Mass followed by a banquet at which the IRL awards the Pro Fidelitate et Virtute Award to a recipient who has exemplified or significantly supported religious life. This year’s awardee is Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, and past recipients include St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Cardinal Raymond Burke.
Are there common challenges among the orders or challenges unique to each one?
The challenges are more often common than not. When we were founded 46 years ago, religious life was in crisis, but people were generally familiar with religious life and had been directly taught by sisters or brothers. Today, it is not unusual for a young person to have had no interaction with religious except through old movies, if that.
That being the case, communities need to find ways to be visible in their geographical area or creatively on social media. Also, young people entering religious life have often been adversely impacted by the culture. Years ago, people entering religious life came from stable families. Today, communities are finding that they have to address the issues that candidates bring into religious life.
How can laypeople support religious life?
First, it might be good to recall what religious orders have done for us. The most obvious and important thing is prayer, but a lot of people don’t realize that many members of religious communities have been in the forefront of scientific study and inventions over the past centuries.
Albert the Great was a Dominican theologian, philosopher and scientist who basically invented minerology and wrote about subjects that included the natural world, the natural law and the effect of music on morality. Roger Bacon was a Franciscan and one of the best known and earliest proponents of the scientific method; Andrew Gordon was a Benedictine monk and physicist who invented the first electric motor; Marin Marsenne was a Minim [religious order founded by St. Francis of Paola] mathematician and musical theorist known as “the father of acoustics,” and Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian who is known as “the father of modern genetics.”
Then there are dozens of Jesuits who have contributed to fields such as mathematics, physics, astronomy, cartography and geology. Combine that background with years of serving the needs of local communities and with all the graces obtained for us through prayer, and we have a very good motive for giving back.
Maybe there’s a monastery or convent near you. Ask if you or your children can volunteer to help in some way. Maybe it is cleaning up the monastery grounds or helping with an event or sharing your computer expertise. While doing so, remember that religious communities are here to intercede for us, so share with them your prayer intentions.
And, of course, since most communities take a vow of poverty, they could use your financial support. For our Vita Consecrate Institute, we are always looking for people to sponsor a religious to attend, because many cannot afford the fees, which run about $1,000 for two weeks of classes and room and board.
Aside from your own resources and St. Alphonsus Liguori’s masterpiece, The True Spouse of Jesus Christ, what would you suggest to a young man or woman who senses a call but is not sure which community it is to?
Read the lives of saintly religious, such as Thérèse of Lisieux in her autobiography, Story of a Soul. Another classic book on the cloistered life is A Right to Be Merry by Mother Mary Francis of the Poor Clares. Also, Vianney Vocations has two new books that give a discerner very helpful advice. They are: A Living Sacrifice by Dominican Fathers Benedict Croell and Andrew Hofer — and Discerning Religious Life by Mother Clare Matthiass of the Franciscans.
Outside of reading, the best thing a discerner can do, besides regular reception of the sacraments, is to pray in quiet — ideally in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Still your heart. Go on “Come & See” events. Even if you learn that a community is not the right one for you, they can answer questions, be helpful companions on your journey, and possibly point out the exact community for you.
Also, get a good spiritual director, which can be your pastor, another priest, religious or maybe even a wise layman. It should be someone who can help you honestly look at yourself and perhaps help you to see what you cannot, or will not, see. Sometimes God is attracting you to religious life for another reason. Maybe you can become a lay member of a Third Order such as the Benedictine Oblate or the Secular Franciscans.
You’re the father of three girls and seven boys. As the years go by with more and more grandkids, what do you see as some of the most important benefits and duties of fatherhood?
With 10 children spread out in age from 31 to 14, with some married, some single and discerning, and three still in high school, the parenting and grandparenting opportunities are enormous!
When visiting and dialoging with the older children, we frequently recall things we did in the formative years — most good and beneficial and some that needed modifications as time went on. The thing that all of our children agree unanimously upon is that Mom and Dad formed them in the teachings of the Catholic faith, taught them how to pray and appreciate the sacraments and beautiful liturgy. All of them have a deep appreciation for beautiful liturgy.
An interesting aside here is that the Liturgical Institute, started by Cardinal [Francis] George, is based in the very same office building as the IRL. Jesse Weiler and Denis McNamara run the programs there, and their podcast, “The Liturgy Guys,” is one way I know Chris Carstens, who is also editor of Adoremus Bulletin and director of the Office for Sacred Worship in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Now that grandchildren are arriving, our children are asking for advice while remembering good books and practices that influenced them while growing up. One book in particular, The Book of Virtues by William J. Bennett, made a lasting impression on all of them, as did the Sunday and holy day rituals of sitting together in the same pew on the St. Joseph side of the chapel at Magdalen College. This, along with living the liturgical calendar with special celebrations at home, praying the Rosary and night prayers with a holy water blessing from Dad are things the children cherish and want to pass on to their own children.
Are there any particularly difficult situations you endured as a family?
We lost our oldest son to cancer at the age of 4. John Augustine was permitted by our bishop to receive first Holy Communion and be confirmed just prior to his death. We are ever so grateful for John and his beautiful but short life and know that we have an intercessor in heaven.
All of us have prayed to him daily with every Rosary, meal prayer and morning and evening prayer, asking his constant intercession. As a father I pray to him often, asking for enlightenment in big decisions and praying that he will inspire all of us to live the Commandments and one day be united for all eternity together in heaven.
What are the main goals for the IRL moving forward?
The IRL will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024, and our biggest challenge today is to reach as many lay faithful as possible in order to engage their help to protect, promote and support religious life. For me, it is a privilege and a blessing to serve as executive director of the IRL, since religious communities are the heart of the Church. They are living what Norbertine Father Thomas Nelson, IRL national director, has noted as interior conversion and transformation into Christ via the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Quite beautifully, this humble dedication to forgoing material wealth, physical reproduction and self-will has resulted in spiritual riches, fruitfulness and genuine freedom that benefit, not only individual religious communities, but the entire Church.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
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