Interview with Fr. John Merkelis, O.S.A.

Patrick Murphy: Hello, everyone. This is Patrick Murphy with the Augustinians. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Father John Merkelis. Merkelisis is the Province personnel director and has also been stationed at Providence Catholic High School, the Augustinian high school in New Lenox for many, many years. Fr. Merk, it's great to have you with us today.

Fr. John Merkelis, O.S.A.: Thanks Patrick.

Murphy: Well, the first question I like to ask our friars, father, what was it that called you to be an Augustinian?

Merkelis: I wanted to be a priest from when I was really young. I just like going to church. I like being a server in grade school. I knew I wanted to be a priest. I guess you could call it dumb luck or the Holy Spirit. One day, the Augustinians came into my 7th or 8th grade classroom when they were doing grade school visitation. They said, "If you want to be a priest, here's how you do it." I remember running home to my mom saying, "Mom, I found out how you have to be a priest. I have to go Michigan. The Augustinians have a seminary in Michigan." It took me about a year in the seminary before I found out that Augustinian religious life is different than diocesan priesthood.

 In fact, Fr. Bob Prevost was really instrumental in my late freshman, early sophomore year telling me, explaining the difference. I now look at that as the Holy Spirit. That was God guiding me to discover the Augustinians.

Murphy: That's wonderful. You mentioned Fr. Bob Prevost. Were there any other friars that were instrumental in those early years?

Merkelis: Oh, we have some great staff. Fr. John Peck who have gone to God. Fr. Mike O'Connor, Fr. Frank Crawford who's also gone to God. He was the helper priest on weekends from Mendel coming to St. Victor's. Then in the seminary, Fr. Tim Cuny was there. There was so many Augustinians. I was in a class with Fr. Tony Pizzo. I had met with Fr. Bob Prevost, Fr. Mike Schweifler, Fr. Bob Dedaro. Yeah, those are the Augustinians I'd say at that time.

Murphy: Father, in your perspective, what would you say the role is of the Augustinian Order today? Do you think that the Augustinians are still relevant in today's society?

Merkelis: Absolutely!  Beyond the strong interiority, Augustine believe if you go inside, you'll find yourself and you'll find God. I see a culture, worldwide, not just in the United States, where people are afraid to look inside. They're afraid to discover and be who they are which naturally leads them to God. First of all, there's a strong respect for personal identity. But then you live in a world full of people. And Augustine--which is emphasis on friendship and community life--while I can't think of any other religious order that would have such a nice harmony and blend of the things that we need right now. Discovering who you are and then living in not only a community but a world of other people. I think we are really relevant today.

Murphy: You would say that promoting those values is what the role is of the Order today?

Merkelis: Absolutely. Some are afraid. We're afraid just to be alone. We're afraid. We take great consolation in the things we have. Whether it's the new cars that come out, the new iPhones, iPad, iPods, I tell the kids, "I, I, I." Anything with an "I." We're tantalized by that. Augustine saw the same thing in his time, of course not with electronic devices but he saw people who always wanted the next thing. They're always looking ahead of themselves.

I think we have a strong message about be happy with yourself. Discover who you are first. Take some quiet time. We introduce kids on KAIROS--the senior retreat of Providence--we introduce them to quiet time. We'll get 30 kids to sit quietly for 20 minutes. They laugh because nobody's ever thought them what you find and who you discover when you sit quietly. I think we have an emphasis on the interiority. Then we have an emphasis on you have to make a difference in th world. Yeah, I think we're very, very important for the world.

Murphy: Well, one other thing that I wanted to talk about today was the Continuing Our Journey of Faith capital campaign. I know that you've been very active with helping out with the campaign yourself. For the listeners, the campaign hopes to build funds for the trust, Fr. Ray Ryan Trust for men in formation and vocations and the Journey of a Lifetime Trust for retired and former friars. Fr. Merkelis, why do you think that those causes are particularly important right now?

Merkelis: We have what the world is crying out for. The things I just talked about, finding yourself, putting them in dialog with God and then trying to reach out to our brothers and sisters who are labored. We have what the world's crying out for. It hits me that in the past, we probably had a lot of resources and very few vocations coming in. Now, we have all kinds of vocations coming in. If you've seen the poster that Fr. Tom McCarty has put up, we have more kinds of vocations coming in and our resources are limited. I would hate to miss this opportunity because of the lack of financial resources.

Young people and not so young people are definitely on fire with the Spirit. Boy, I think the best thing to do is to contribute to this cause in the name of Fr. Ray Ryan who is just a dear, was a dear, dear friend to many people, but an example for me. You're giving a gift in his name to carry on the life he lived and is what the world needs. That's how I'd answer that.

Murphy: What would you say about the Journey of a Lifetime trust?

Merkelis: Oh, sorry about that. That's right. I went on the formation one.

Murphy: No problem.

Merkelis: We have so many men who have their lives in faithful service to the Gospel. They are now in need because as they get old, they get limited, they need more resources to take care of their health. They've given their lives and so the least we can do is to make sure that they are cared for in the twilight of their lives as they prepare to meet God. After all the religious, all the priests who have lived their lives, they've given so much of their lives and we just need to continue to care for them. The Journey of a Lifetime provides that kind of resource.

Murphy: Father, I like what you said before, a lot of the men that are either in the formation or discerning a vocation, they're on fire with the Spirit. I really like that.

Merkelis: Yes, they are.

Murphy: Do you have any advice for anyone listening right now that's currently discerning a religious vocation?

Merkelis: Absolutely! Pray! I know that's sort of a standard thing but I discovered they're saying prayers and there's praying. Saying prayers is what you do when you hit something that really kicks the wind out of you and you don't even... words don't come in so you rely on the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Rosary... Those are very, very important tools. They're instruments to continue the relationship with God. But I always tell young people and tell not so young people, the most important thing is the relationship with God. When you pray, pour out your hearts, talk to the Spirit, say exactly what's on your mind. Are you mad at God? God can handle that. Are you sad? God can handle that. Are you happy? Give praise to God.

I would say pray exactly from where you are. I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm nervous today, and then always, always, "God, what will lead me to my deepest happiness? I trust You will but help me to see, to recognize the signs, to be aware of Your goodness around me. Help me to follow You to my greatest happiness." That's what I would tell. I'd tell seminarians and non-seminarians that.

Murphy: That's great advice, Father. It kind of goes back to what you were saying before about people taking the time to reflect and reflect in their interiority and their relationship with God, I think.

Merkelis: Yes. All the things we're involved in really eat away at our time and sometimes at the fabric of the values that we witness. The best way to be revived, I'm talking to myself, I can always tell other people but I really have to tell myself, too, today. The best way to re-energize and revive is to just sit quietly and pour out your heart to God. It's a marvelous thing, prayer. It's great. Let me say one more thing too, Patrick. Grace is downloading. Young people understand when you say downloading, somebody is putting something on your computer. When you pray, the Spirit puts things into our hearts. One of the connections we've made is just to tell people, "Prayer is important because it's downloading. It's allowing God to put Grace in our hearts."

Murphy: I've never heard it put that way. It's an interesting spin at it.

Merkelis: I'd like to copyright that if I can.

Murphy: Great advise, Father. Well, I have another question. Kind of wrapping things up here. We talked about the capital campaign and vocations and how those things are related as well as cared for the retirement needs of the Augustinians. If you were to summarize or offer your best opinion on why people should go an extra mile to make a special give to the capital campaign, what would that be?

Merkelis: In all our lives, there were benefactors that assisted us. Early in my vocational discernment, I should tell you the story, my brother Mark, it was common for all people, all young men when I was growing up to think about priesthood and all the young ladies to think about the convent. My brother Mark wanted to be a priest. There wasn't enough money. My brother Ernie wanted to be a priest, there wasn't enough money. By the time I came around, my mom and dad got the message and said, "We better put some time into this."

The Knights of Columbus came out of the woodwork and said, "We'll sponsor him." The ladies of Coronata, the Women's group, they came out and supported the vocation. The Serra Club was very instrumental, individual donors, family members, friends. I now look back and see, there was just this wave from the Spirit of people who wanted to invest in me for a vocation. Nobody does it alone. I would tell people to walk the extra mile. If they would just take a moment and think about their lives, somebody helped them along the way to get to be who they are. This is your opportunity to help other people, to pay it back.

Murphy: Thank you, father. That was very well put. If anyone likes more information, there's plenty of information here at the website or you can contact campaign director Michael Gerrity at 773-595-4035. Once again, thank you father, so much, for taking out the time. I hope you have a blessed day.

Merkelis: Thank you, Patrick. Before you close off, I have to say, "Hi, mom." Because I know my mom is going to call and listen to this so I have to say that.

Murphy: Okay. Hi, Mrs. Merkelis. I hope you're well, too. All right. Take care, Father.

Merkelis: Thanks, Patrick.

Posted on December 11, 2014 and filed under John Merkelis O.S.A..