Michael Fowler's Journey Leads to Special Vocation
By Bob Castello
SJCS Communications Manager
Michael Fowler was constantly on the move -- from Houston, Texas, to New Orleans, to Columbus, Ohio, back to Houston, to Arlington, Virginia, and then to Greenville.
By the time he enrolled at St. Joseph's Catholic School for his junior year, it was the 10th school he had attended.
But all of that traveling had little to do with his real journey. That is, until he arrived at St. Joe's.
"The seeds that allowed me to eventually hear the call were planted at St. Joseph's," he said.
Though it took a while, those seeds took root, and Michael, a 2008 St. Joe's graduate who returned this past year to teach math and assist with Campus Ministry, will soon begin a new journey and travel to Rome to answer that call and study for the priesthood.
In between there have been many bumps, a few detours and numerous questions, but he stayed the course because of people he met at St. Joe's.
"I never really had friends before," Michael said. "I had people I would hang out with for a few months, and then I would leave and be torn away from them. I made my first friends at St. Joe's, which was a big component of my faith life."
His senior year, Michael met a group of people through theology teacher Michele Houmis who were involved in the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, founded by Father Luigi Giussani.
"This group of people very intentionally looked reality in the face and didn't ignore anything, didn't take anything for granted, always tried to get to the heart of the matter," Michael said. "Even in my years away from the church formally, I could never leave these people. I thought, 'If I'm not with these people, I don't know how I'll be able to live at all. These people look life in the face. I want that.'
"The thing is, I didn't know God on a personal level, I didn't know Christ, and I didn't want to settle for believing in some distant guy that people had told me about."
His Faith ‘Crumbled’
Upon graduation from St. Joe's, Michael attended Villanova University. He participated in a variety of Campus Ministry activities, but, he said, "In the face of a very complex world, my very rigid, infantile faith didn't hold up and it crumbled."
"That was a good thing because it had to crumble," he said. "In order for that more real faith to be born, something else had to die. It had to happen. I kind of just fell out of the habit of being a faithful person.
"I had all those ideas that were making me more judgmental than they were making me love it. I could tell I needed to take a year off from the pastoral dimension of the faith to let a lot of these ideas flush out of my head and to allow God to bring about more organic faith in me.
"Looking back, I really see that as a radical act of trust. I couldn't get to the bottom of it on my own. I thought it would take a year or two. It ended up taking much longer."
Nonetheless, from Villanova to -- following college -- Boston, he continued to ask questions, continued to engage in issues of the faith with friends involved in Communion and Liberation.
"In all my time away from the Church, I could never walk away," he said. "Through my friendship with these people, God was always keeping me pretty close by."
Michael was living in Boston at the beginning of the pandemic, and then he moved to Athens, Georgia, in August 2020 because of a girl he had been dating. Almost immediately their relationship ended.
Three weeks after he moved, his mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. At about the same time, a good friend of his in Boston, the father of three children, was diagnosed with cancer.
"Father Giussani says, 'The protagonist of history is the beggar,' and I really learned how to beg through these experiences of suffering and difficulty," Michael said.
Then two years ago, while on a retreat in the mountains of Georgia, "it all clicked."
"I finally met Christ in a really intimate way," he said. "Literally the first day of that retreat, I could tell this person, this Christ, is real and is here and is responsible for everything in my life."
By then, his whole family was living in Greenville. Michael had been visiting his mother about every other weekend when she had the strength between chemotherapy treatments.
On one trip in the summer of 2021, he was driving along I-85 when a voice popped into his head telling him he was called to be a priest. He tried to ignore it because he had had a similar experience a few years earlier.
While living in Boston, Michael's best friend belonged to the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, the order inspired by Father Giussani. In November 2017, Michael told him he thought he had a vocation.
"After listening to me tell my life story for a few hours, he said, 'OK, that's nice. Forget about that. Don't try and figure it out. Put it on the backburner. If it's true, it will re-emerge,' " he said.
"So I didn't think about it again until July of 2021. I took my friend's advice. And it never went away. For months."
His mother died on January 8, 2022.
"In a strange way, it was a beautiful way to spend that day," Michael said. "The whole family was gathered around her bed in the living room, just praying rosaries and reading psalms, crying together and laughing together. It was a moment of beauty for the family, unlike anything I had seen.
"So even in these seeming moments of darkness, it's possible for Christ to be present and bring about a sense of unity and beauty."
His Time Had Come
Because the feeling of a vocation never went away, Michael decided it was time to act on that calling, and he knew he wanted to be involved in the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo.
One interesting aspect of the order is there is not much of a process to it. He has had a spiritual director in America with whom he has talked a great deal over the course of the past two years. In March, he went to Rome for two weeks to visit the seminary and talk with the superior and the director.
"That was really the application process, them getting to know me and getting a sense for who I am, what my life has been like and what my relationship with Christ is like," Michael said.
They followed up with a Zoom call in early May and confirmed that they want him to come.
Michael, who addressed the graduates during the 2023 commencement ceremony, was hoping things would turn out this way, and thus, he was assuming he would only be at St. Joe's for one year. However, he said this one year has seemed like five because it has been so transformative.
"This time at St. Joe's has been a confirmation of my vocation," he said. "The students perceive Christ in me through math class, through Campus Ministry, through whatever else. I've seen that the reason they love me is not because I'm great. It's because Christ has given me abundance of life, and I offer this to them, and they respond to that.
"And so I see that the beauty of my time here does not make me conflicted about whether or not I should go. It makes me realize I have to go. If I turn my back on the person who gave this to me in favor of staying at a place where things are comfortable, then the well would dry up."
The road ahead includes three years of philosophy and theology classes, a year of mission away from Rome and two more years of theology classes. After six years, if all goes as planned, Michael will be ordained and serve as a deacon and then be ordained as a priest.
"It's a long road, but I'm looking forward to being in school again and learning and to a lot of self-exploration," he said, "and to catching my breath. I'm very excited about that. I'm very excited to share this journey with others that I trust.
"Everything is an encounter to get to know Christ -- even questions, even frustrations, even doubts, even uncertainties. These are all moments to get to know Him more intimately, not obstacles to be avoided in favor of a nice, efficient faith life."