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‘Spiritual fatherhood is real’

November 8, 2023

By Mary Beth Bracy, consecrated virgin
Contributing Writer

Father Leland Thorpe, a priest with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary (OMV), recently celebrated his first anniversary as a priest. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is currently assigned to a parish in Alton, Illinois, Father Thorpe has strong North Country connections. His recent presentation “Friendship Group Meeting: Biblical Way of Praying the Mass” – attended by faithful in our diocese and beyond via Zoom – may be viewed on YouTube.

Roots of a Vocation
“I grew up in a fairly devout Protestant family,” shared Father Thorpe. “The church we attended was a large part of our lives, and my parents were actively involved in it in a wide variety of ways. Going back further, my family has been very involved in the denomination I grew up in (the Evangelical Covenant Church) for multiple generations. In fact, my mom’s dad was a minister in the denomination, and my dad’s parents were medical missionaries for the denomination in Zaire. In a way, ministry is something of a family business!

“After graduating from high school, I attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and majored in Computer Science. During those years, I drifted away from the faith and fell into the typical college scene. But in my last year of my undergrad studies, God really started to make His pursuit of me tangible, as He began making His presence known from seemingly every direction all at once. In my reading, puzzling things out on my own, in friendships, even through my ultimate frisbee team, He started really capturing my attention. This led to a profound reversion to Christianity as I began encountering His mercy, especially in prayer and the Scriptures.

“That reversion experience eventually led to the conviction that I had to know what the Catholic Church said about itself, so I found myself attending the RCIA classes with no real intention of becoming Catholic. However, the more I learned about the Church, the more I fell in love with it – and especially with the Eucharist. By the time I was confirmed and received my first Communion at the Easter Vigil in 2010, I was attending Mass most days and even spending time in Eucharistic Adoration regularly.”

Reversion & discernment
“My vocation story is a bit unique,” continued Father Thorpe. “As I was going through my intense reversion experience and being positively flooded with consolations, God gave me a really clear call to the priesthood. This is one of the ways that God sometimes leads souls – some of us are thickheaded and stubborn enough that we need God to speak really, really clearly to us. In His mercy, He knew that I needed to hear the call in a very clear way that I couldn’t ever deny. I knew I was free to do something else, but I also knew that I couldn’t ever doubt His call.

“As I continued on my reversion journey, I had to keep asking how and where God might be leading me for ministry. So that was also part of the RCIA process. Now, I was fortunate, in that the RCIA program I joined was run by some very holy lay people, but they had recruited a team of really good and young priests who took turns teaching the catechetical material. This RCIA program was run through the cathedral parish in Pittsburgh, St. Paul’s, but met in the Newman Center which was staffed by priests of the Pittsburgh Oratory of St. Philip Neri. So I had these really solid, young priests who were showing me the joy of the priesthood, but also the level of virtue and character that came from their years of seminary formation. I was really inspired by their witness, and that really helped to draw me.

“Once Catholic, I began meeting with a good priest to help me continue my discernment, while also reading pretty much everything I could about the priesthood and religious life. With his help, and through that reading and learning, I found a lot of confirmation of the call that I had heard in prayer, and so continued forward in my discernment.

“My discernment of where God was calling me to be a priest was a bit messy. I visited with my diocese, but felt pretty strongly that God was calling me to community life. I visited a number of communities, but none of them really felt like the right fit at the time. This even included the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. I ended up beginning formation with the Pittsburgh Oratory of St. Philip Neri, where I had found a spiritual home. That community had played a large role in my initial formation as a Catholic, and St. Philip was a great blessing to me. However, I found pretty quickly that I wasn’t a good fit with the community. After about a year and a half of trying to make it work, the community actually approached me and asked me to withdraw. They said, ‘We think you could make a good priest and maybe even a good religious somewhere, but it’s not here.’ So, I withdrew from that community, and had to go back to the drawing board.

“This was really tough, and I spent a lot of time wondering if I had completely blown it. But in prayer and conversations with my spiritual director and some good friends, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary started coming up. In particular, there was a line from one of the letters written by the founder, Venerable Bruno Lanteri, that kept coming to mind. This was definitely a Holy Spirit moment, because I didn’t even know that I remembered it, but it really spoke to my heart at the time and continues to. In a letter to a nun who was really struggling with discouragement in her vocation, he wrote, ‘I recommend that you renew more than ever and very often that holy presumption that seeks grace from the Lord to attain the holiness you would have attained had you always been faithful to his grace.’ In my own place of discouragement and shame, those words - and other writings of Father Lanteri - brought new hope to my discernment.

Inspired by that, I went to visit the Oblates of the Virgin Mary again, and this time I felt right at home. It took a good bit of discernment, and some important conversations between them and the Pittsburgh Oratory, but ultimately I ended up starting formation with the Oblates in 2014, and finished my seminary studies in 2022.

North Country connections
“My parents moved to the North Country in 2012, when my dad accepted a position at Clarkson University, where he continues to work today,” Father Thorpe explained. “I visited them in Potsdam a few times, and enjoyed those visits. In early 2014, I moved into my parents’ house and started thinking of Potsdam as home. I was really fortunate to get to know the people at St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s. They were such a blessing to me! My experience of the church, as an adult convert through the cathedral, was a little unusual. I hadn’t ever really experienced parish life. So the chance to spend time at St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s, through multiple seasons, was a real joy.

“During the first few years of the formation program of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, we send our men home for vacations - including during the long summer break. So I spent most of three summers, as well as several Christmases, in Potsdam and with the people of St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s. Getting to know the goodness of people in the North Country and the joys of life in a small town were really good for me, and a source of great encouragement and healing in my discernment process really helped me along the way.

“I had the great joy of making it back to Potsdam this summer, about eleven months after my ordination to the priesthood. It was such a joy and blessing to concelebrate a Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s with many of the people and families who had been so encouraging to me along the way!”

Challenges & joys
“Spiritual fatherhood is real,” emphasized Father Thorpe. “One of the surprise graces of ordination was experiencing a fundamental shift in my heart to really feel and experience the grace of fatherhood flowing through me, especially while preaching and administering the sacraments. This has provided simultaneously some of the greatest challenges and the greatest joys of being a priest.

“Fatherhood, whether spiritual or natural, is a path to perfection - and so it can be extremely demanding. Nothing in seminary prepared me for the extent of the demands on a spiritual father’s time there can be. But at the same time, those have also provided some of the greatest joys, and the greatest opportunities to marvel at God’s providence. A hospital call comes in the middle of an already full day, and the blessing of bringing the sacraments to God’s people not only outweighs the cost by any measure, but also spills over into everything else and ends up making the rest of the day work better than I could have planned.”

Model of Inspiration
The founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary remains an inspiration to Father Thorpe in his priesthood. “Venerable Bruno Lanteri was a priest in Northern Italy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he helped to lead a renewal of the faith in his region by giving parish missions, helping people to appreciate the full richness of the Catholic faith and to encounter the great mercy of God. One of his frequent sayings really expresses this well: ‘If I shall fall, even were it a thousand times, I will not lose courage. I will not be troubled, but say immediately and with peace, ‘Nunc Coepi - Now I begin.’ He was constantly calling people to ‘begin again,’ with great confidence in God’s mercy. A group of priests formed around him to help with this work, and that became the kernel of the congregation.

The OMVs are now in 10 countries.

“Within the United States we have four parishes, two retreat houses, two chapels, and a special ministry for training spiritual directors in Denver, said Father Thorpe. “A good number of us also serve as faculty or spiritual directors in seminaries. You can learn more about us online at www.omvusa.org. You can also access some of our founder’s writings there and submit requests for prayers through his intercession.”

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