Fr. Tony Stephens graduated from Christendom College, Front Royal, VA, in 1999 with a B.A. in Theology. He entered the Fathers of Mercy in the summer of 2000. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 4, 2005.
My journey to the Fathers of Mercy was one that began on a small family farm and cattle feeding operation in northwest Kansas. My father and his two younger brothers had accumulated some land for themselves over the years, and they were able to work out a mutually beneficial relationship whereby the two of them raised crops that my father would purchase to feed the cattle he was raising. He needed a substantial amount of feed, since he took care of as many as two thousand head of cattle at a time. Having so many cattle on the hoof in one place meant that there was a lot of work to do in terms of feeding them and keeping them healthy. Much of the work that I learned to do in my youth had to do with animal health. I
was trained to walk through a pen of cattle and seek out and separate from the herd any that might be sick. I knew enough about their medications to be able to treat them for their maladies. I had enough experience working with animals that, by the time I was in high school, I began to seriously consider a career as a veterinarian.
While my parents were always supportive of me in my decision to pursue this career, I think that it was always their hope that I would enter religious life and become a priest. They encouraged me in my efforts to study the math and science in high school that would help me later in college, but they also encouraged me to spend time around religious communities and to attend retreats offered by the diocese for young men discerning a call to the priesthood. I did not take a serious interest in the idea of the priesthood or religious life, but I certainly did not shy away from the idea. My real interests lay in animal health, and I thought that was the only thing that would make me happy. It was a long time before I acknowledged in myself that there was a call from God that I needed to answer in order to be truly happy.
I took a big step in answering that call when I made the decision to attend Christendom College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Virginia. I surprised many friends and family when I told them of my decision to attend a liberal arts school over a state university with a program in veterinary medicine. My response at that time was, ?I am going to attend for one or two years, and then I?ll transfer back to K-State to continue with veterinary studies.? I finished my first year at Christendom, and while I was happy that I had such a good year, I was still intent on transferring out after my sophomore year. It was in my second year, that I began to experience some questions in my mind about what I was really called to do with my life. I wanted to be open to God?s will, but I really had my heart set on my personal plans. By the end of my second year, I wanted to finish with a degree from Christendom, as I felt that two additional years in a Catholic environment would give me an opportunity to think, study and pray in a way that would not be available at a state university.
In those two years, I remember spending a lot of time praying for the grace to see God?s will for me. More than once I mentioned my struggles to a priest friend of mine, and his answer was always the same: ?Tony, pray this simple prayer for the grace to see God?s will for you: ?Lord that I may see.?? I now see that this was excellent advice, but I was not satisfied with it at the time. I wanted a thunderbolt to strike me to indicate God?s will for me, as my heart was not yet sensitive enough to hear the still small voice of God speaking to me. I thought that I should have some sensible consolation and certitude that would indicate the path that I should follow. Not finding the answer from God that I wanted, my fervor for seeking a religious community or diocese subsided. I continued to pray, and I thought that maybe I was called to the married life. I dated several wonderful young women over the course of several years, but it only seemed to complicate my life more than answer any questions. The more time I spent with girls, the more I felt called to be a priest.
Even after I graduated from college in May of 1999, I was still undecided as to what I was going to do with my life, and I knew that I had some important decisions to make. I intended to enroll in some math and science classes at a local junior college to revive my interest in a veterinarian degree, but I could no longer deny the fact that I felt a call to serve God as a priest. So I went back to northwest Kansas to work for my Dad and to think and pray. Back at my old job of caring for sick cattle, I would think to myself: ?Wouldn?t it be great to do this for a living as a veterinarian? I could make good money and be my own boss.? But immediately, a voice would say to me, ?But rather than being a doctor for animals, why not be a doctor for souls?? I asked myself this question on a daily basis, and I finally resolved to answer God?s call by visiting the Fathers of Mercy. I had met their priests and seminarians at Christendom on several different occasions, but never made a visit to their house in Kentucky. Even after my visit to their house my struggle to discern God?s will continued. However, the visit did give me some hope that I might finally be on the right path to doing God?s will. By January of 2000, I was reasonably certain that I was called to the order, and applied for admission. I was overjoyed to be accepted to the novitiate in June of 2000.
People often ask me what it was that attracted me to the order. When I first visited, I was not certain why I thought that I was called to be a Father of Mercy. Having been with the order for a few years, I now know that God called me here to be a mission preacher, spreading the knowledge of God?s mercy to all humanity. I have always enjoyed meeting people and discussing the Faith, and as a mission preacher, I have no doubt that I will meet many new people who want to discuss the Faith. One of the most exciting memories of my time during the novitiate was to have the mission preachers return to the house with tales of success (and/or failure) that they had experienced on their travels. Seeing them cooperate with God?s grace as His instruments instilled in me the same desire to bring about the conversion of souls. I am still one year from being ordained a priest, but I know that as a seminarian and religious brother, the studies and prayer life that I establish now will make me a more effective instrument for spreading the message of God?s mercy in the future.