Catholic Herald Staff
Vocations are prayed for, encouraged and promoted more than ever in the Diocese of Superior – but as the experience of Howard and Lynn Neeck, of Phillips, attests, not every parent is prepared for their child to be called.
Years ago, the Neecks took their son Jordan, a high school senior, for a motorcycle ride with Fr. Jerry Hagen, pastor of St. Therese of Lisieux, Phillips. During a stop for lunch, their pastor looked at Jordan and asked, “Have you ever thought of the priesthood?”
Lynn recounts, “Before Jordan could even answer, I looked at Fr. Jerry and said, ‘No, I want grandkids.’”
Introduced by chance to St. Norbert College, De Pere, at a leadership camp, Jordan wanted to visit the campus in spite of his plans to attend a different university. His mother remembers feeling the Holy Spirit’s presence the moment they set foot on campus.
Jordan felt it, too, and told his parents, “This is where I want to be.” They watched him blossom over the next four years.
After graduation, Jordan took an accounting job back in Phillips. He told his mom he felt unsettled and wasn’t sure he was where he was supposed to be.
He decided to go on retreat in December 2012 to reconnect with priest friends from campus. Jordan said, “I actually went into the retreat not heavily discerning, and coming out with a heavy discernment question.”
Months of deliberate discernment followed, culminating with a definitive experience at the Holy Thursday liturgy. Jordan was deeply moved during the consecration and when Fr. Hagen washed the feet of the disciples.
Lynn saw the tears streaming down her son’s face.
“I got my answer,” he told his mom. “I know what I need to do.”
But Jordan remembered his mother’s response to Fr. Jerry so many years earlier. She assured him – apologizing for that knee-jerk reaction – “If God is calling you, who am I to step in the way?”
He called St. Norbert’s Abbey, De Pere, after Easter, requested an application and entered the novitiate the summer of 2013.
Lynn can look back and see how God’s plan was unfolding all the while; she remembers his spiritual sensitivity preparing for First Communion and concern for the salvation of an unbaptized friend. She sees a connection between this mature awareness and two unexpected deaths the family suffered the year before.
A classmate of Jordan’s was killed in a farm accident, and soon after, the Neecks’ 4-year-old daughter, Chelsea, died in a car accident.
Lynn shared her own anger at God through that loss. The only reason she went back to church was her desire that Jordan receive the sacrament of Eucharist.
“I didn’t really feel anything,” she said. It would be that way for 15 years. She attended weekly Mass mostly for her son’s sake until a Koinonia retreat where she felt God’s grace in a tangible way.
But that wasn’t the end of the grieving process for the Neecks. When Jordan was vested with the Norbertine habit at the start of seminary, Lynn again experienced the sense of loss.
She confessed feeling she had lost a child once more; she couldn’t breathe, and her heart felt crushed. Her husband’s response at the time was, “God got both of our kids.”
Not present for the interview, Lynn shared Howard’s admitting to the same sense of loss and separation. He said there was a period of grief adjusting to the realization that because he is a religious, the Norbertine Order is Jordan’s family now. While very proud of their son’s choice to follow this vocation, his parents found it unsettling at first.
Through the journey, Lynn has witnessed the couple’s own growth and the supernatural experience of seeing God’s hands at work, present and in the past.
She thought back to the Saturday before her daughter died. They were scrubbing the floor together and Chelsea matter-of-factly looked at her mother and said, “I’m going to be visiting Bryant” (Jordan’s classmate killed in the farm accident).
Lynn gently responded to her 4-year-old, “You realize that Bryant is in heaven, you’re not able to visit him.”
“I know, but Jesus said that I’m going to visit him,” the little girl said. Lynn remembers her being joyful and happy as she said it. With the expression of a mother’s heart, she wonders if Jordan’s sister hasn’t herself played a role interceding for him on this path toward Christ.
Speaking with the Catholic Herald, Jordan said – though he doesn’t remember many details 20-some years later – “losing a friend and my sister makes me appreciate people more, recognize the sacredness of life.”
The question that can change a life
As the Neecks have gotten to know the Norbertine fraters (seminarians) and priests, Lynn is struck by one common denominator in many of their vocation stories. Some felt the call young, some felt it very clearly, but most say that someone simply asking the question, “Have you ever thought about being a priest?” is what started them on the path to discernment.
Both diocesan and religious priests played influential roles in Jordan’s journey to the seminary. Lynn recalls how close the Norbertines stayed to Jordan; they saw that spark of a vocation and really cultivated it. She hopes that priests and lay people alike are planting seeds of “the question” in young people’s minds and hearts.
But she also spoke strongly about parents’ need to play their part.
“What are we doing now as parents to encourage discernment? With so many families not even attending Mass … How do we do that?” she asked.
In Frater Jordan’s words, “It is important not to let fear dictate our decisions,” and remember “God destined us for greatness.” He iterated that living in fear of failure, “We never reach what God destined us to be.
“Even the minimal of Mass on Sundays fosters an openness and growth towards holiness, whatever vocation one is called to,” he said.
According to Lynn, their family’s living of the faith really developed through the experience of having a young man, who had been raised Catholic, live with them – at Howard’s request – during Jordan’s middle school years. From the ages of 18 to 21, their ward was under house arrest, and the Neecks were his guardians.
It “made us step up to the plate,” Lynn recalls. The family became more intentional about praying, going to church and having family meals. “It made us more attentive to our life and our commitment to faith and the church.” Wondering how to set an example for this boy coming from a broken home, Lynn thought, “What better way than going to Church and praying as a family.”
They have seen it pay off, watching him grow into a stable man who is gainfully employed, married and recently welcomed his first child.
“We don’t do a very good job of letting our husbands know how important they are to the stability of the family and faith life,” Neeck said. She and her husband have taken turns over the years bolstering each other’s faith.
The couple is very excited for Jordan’s ordination, tentatively set for early 2019. The Norbertine community has become like family for them.
Even though Jordan won’t be giving his mother biological grandchildren, she already values his spiritual paternity, especially through his opportunity to share the faith in a bi-weekly podcast called “Canons on the Run.”
Frater Jordan, currently studying at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, hosts the podcast with Frater Jonathan Turba, a second-year novice from Platteville. An idea that developed from conversing while they were training for marathons, the podcast started in October 2017.
With their complimentary personalities, the canons talk about life and their priestly studies as a vocational and general evangelization tool. Through humor and deep reflection, the two men talk about the Norbertine life and ways everyone can learn about and live more fully the Catholic faith.
Running parallels the men’s fraternal journey in community and learning of the faith. As Frater Jordan shared in the introductory podcast, in a marathon (especially as they take place in cities) you are “never alone.” You are accompanied, while at the same time, “always focused on the person ahead of you, trying to catch them.”
Both seminarians have run the Chicago Marathon; Frater Jordan’s time in October 2017 qualified him for the Boston Marathon, which he plans to run in 2019.
As it says in Hebrews 12:1-2a, the verse chosen by the fraters as their podcast theme: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”
“Canons on the Run” is available on Apple iTunes or at nortbertines.org.