Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian
(Third in a series of articles featuring the three men who will be ordained priests by Bishop Barry C. Knestout, 10:30 a.m., Saturday, June 2, at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond.)
It was August 2011. The future Deacon Nicholas Redmond was 33 years old and attending the Life Teen Conference in Phoenix with a group from St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, Charlottesville, where he helped with the Life Teen program. When he saw the priests and seminarians on stage, the idea of priesthood, which he first considered when he was in elementary school, “came roaring back into my head,” he said.
Up until then, he had other plans.
“In 2009, I thought, ‘I’m going to be a permanent deacon. I can have a family; I can have the best of both worlds,’” he said. “But this time (2011) it comes back to me: ‘No, it’s priesthood.’”
That afternoon, dozens of priests were hearing confessions.
“I’m in line getting ready to go to confession. I say a prayer: ‘Holy Spirit, send me to the right priest. Just send me to the right priest,’” Deacon Redmond recalled.
He wasn’t certain he had the “right priest,” but he made his confession and then told the priest what was on his mind.
“‘Father, there’s something really bothering me here. I’ve got my girlfriend, I’m really in love with her. I think I’d be a good husband, I think I’d be a good dad,’” he remembered telling the priest. “’But at the same time I’ve come here to this conference, and I’ve had this idea since I was a kid, and now it’s coming to the forefront of my mind at this conference, that maybe God wants me to be a priest. I just want a sign.’”
When the Church asks you to dance…
Instead of providing a sign, the priest offered an analogy, according to Deacon Redmond.
“‘Well, it’s sort of like a dance. You’re dancing with your girlfriend and it’s going great, and you know what? The Church might come along and tap you on the shoulder and ask you for a dance. And if the Church asks us for a dance, you have to dance. You can’t ignore the Church,’” the deacon recalled the priest saying.
Downcast, Deacon Redmond returned to the area where eucharistic adoration was concluding. The band was playing “How Great Thou Art” in an upbeat, rock style — a way in which the deacon had never heard it played. As he stood, he prayed to the Holy Spirit.
“Holy Spirit, give me a sign. Tell me what I’m supposed to do here: Am I supposed to get married? Am I supposed to become a
priest? Tell me what to do,” Deacon Redmond recalled praying. “I’m praying deeper and deeper and deeper to the point where I felt so connected to God; I never felt more connected to God.”
Looking for a sign
He told God he wanted a sign; he didn’t ask.
“‘God, you know what would be a good sign is if the lady behind me tapped me on the shoulder. If she tapped me on the shoulder, God, I know you’re telling me to be a priest. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, God…Just let me know what you want,’” the deacon said.
The music stopped. Nothing happened. No tap on the shoulder. The participants sat as a speaker took the stage. Deacon Redmond had his eyes closed and, in his words, was “bummed out.” He apologized to God for telling him what to do.
“But Julie (Balik, middle school youth minister for St. Thomas Aquinas Parish at that time) reaches over, taps me on my right shoulder three times, and says, ‘Hey, Father Nick.’ She had no reason to call me Father Nick; she never called me Father Nick. She hadn’t heard any of this conversation with the priest,” he said. “She saw the shock on my eyes, and said, ‘Nick, what’s the matter?’ ‘Julie, why did you just do that? Why did you just call me Father Nick and tap me on the shoulder three times?’”
When Balik told him she didn’t know why, he said, “You have no idea, but two minutes ago I was praying as hard as I’ve ever prayed in my life for a sign from God as to whether I should be a priest. Then 10 minutes ago, a priest told me that the Church might tap me on the shoulder to be a priest. Now you’re tapping me on the shoulder and calling me Father Nick. Now I’m freaking out.”
Balik, who Deacon Redmond introduces as, “The lady who tapped me on the shoulder,” recalled for The Catholic Virginian what transpired that day.
“I could tell that he was very deep in prayer and being very serious. I just reached over and patted his shoulder,” she said. “There’s no reason why I did it; I just did it. I knew he was contemplating priesthood, but he was not really that close to making a decision yet.”
Balik added, “I did it as a reassuring thing. Maybe I was being used by God.”
Praying and being prayed for
Deacon Redmond, 40, referred to that experience as the “core event” of what propelled him toward priesthood, but much more was occurring — and would occur. He broke up with his girlfriend, began the application process for the seminary, and prepared for another year of teaching Spanish at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, where had had taught for 10 years after majoring in Spanish and chemistry at the University of Virginia, and then earning a master’s in teaching from there.
He was also getting ready for another year of doing something he has done since fifth grade — referee. He officiates football, basketball and lacrosse.
Meanwhile, people were praying for him — students, nuns and others aware of what he was discerning. And he prayed, too, particularly before the Blessed Sacrament.
“When I thought about being a priest, all the good and all the bad, all the sacrifices, everything I could imagine, even with the difficulties, challenges and sacrifices, I had this feeling — it was more than a feeling, it was a deep abiding sense of excitement and joy that this is what I’m supposed to do,” the deacon said. “It wasn’t until that moment, a couple of weeks after the tap on the shoulder, that I finally had the confirmation that, ‘OK, this is the path I need to take.’”
Excitement replaces fears
While Deacon Redmond had thought about priesthood at other times, “one of the big fears,” as he termed it, was that he’d be seen as an “oddball.” The opposite occurred.
“I was teaching at a public school; everybody was super supportive. They liked me; it was not as though they wanted to get rid of me. They were genuinely happy for me,” he said. “I was blown away by that because I never expected that kind of support. I kind of expected, ‘What? Are you crazy? You’re some kind of weirdo.’”
He noted his family was supportive, too — his father, Daniel, two older brothers and a younger sister. His mother, Suzanne, passed away in 2008.
“My dad and I are convinced that her prayers from heaven have really helped this along,” the native of Silver Spring, Maryland said.
With fears allayed, Deacon Redmond completed the application process and entered the Theological College, Washington, DC, in fall 2012. As he looks forward to ordination, “everything” about priesthood excites him.
“It’s about living in a parish with people, being able to serve them, whether it’s being able to give a talk on the Eucharist or being able to celebrate the sacraments,” he said.
Holiness — his own and that of those he will serve — is a priority for Deacon Redmond.
“We all need to grow in holiness daily throughout our lives. The universal call to holiness is something I want to embrace for myself, but I also want to help other people embrace it as well,” he said. “It is life through the Church and through the sacraments — that’s how we grow in holiness, that’s how we grow closer to God.”
And to be ready if the Church taps you on the shoulder.
Experiences to be used ‘through lens of prayer’
Among the many things Deacon Nicholas Redmond has come to realize is the importance of prayer.
“I don’t think I had any clue. I was just living my life, doing what I wanted to do,” he told The Catholic Virginian, Tuesday, March 26. “It’s been through this really good discipline of prayer that I’ve learned the need to be humble, to grow in holiness, the need to rely on others — chiefly Jesus, but also good friends in the seminary.”
After the events of 2011 that culminated with “the tap on the shoulder” (see main story), Deacon Redmond was at World Youth Day in Madrid that August.
“I found myself praying in public on the Metro. Seeing a woman on the street crying and saying, ‘Do you want me to pray for you?’ I just felt natural at it,” he said.
He continued, “This is what I was meant to do — pray for people. Serve. Make myself available for everybody. That’s part of what being a priest is about — have a complete, total giving of the self, not for one person, as in a marriage, but for everybody, because, in many ways, everybody needs it. Everyone needs guidance and love.”Deacon Redmond said there is a reason for the skills and life experiences — having had a girlfriend, teaching Spanish, being a referee — he’s had.
“I have no question that God wants me to be able to use them, but now through the lens of prayer, through the lens of the Church, through the lens of a very deep, personal relationship with him,” he said. “I feel like all of those things are going to be put to much better use than I can ever have imagined when I was out there in the world doing what I wanted to do.”