|4/10/2014 10:15:00 AM|
Senior priest has had a colorful life
After switching college majors every year, practicing journalism at home and abroad during active duty with the Navy Reserve, traveling the world and earning a master's degree in English, Rev. Larry Asma, CM, faced a crossroads in the 1970s.
The Peace Corps had accepted him for work in Iran, but he couldn't shake the feeling that his attraction to religious studies and all things mystical meant something about his vocation in life.
"Either I have to stop reading about all this stuff or I have to do something about it," Father Asma thought.
Today, he recalls, "There was always a sense I was looking for something more, something deeper."
So, instead of joining the Peace Corps, he joined a Trappist monastery in Dubuque, Iowa, and lived as a novice for a year. The demanding schedule, simple diet and manual labor took a physical toll, but he still discerned religious life during the year he spent recovering.
"I was very happy there - the sense of meaning and purpose," he said. "God still seemed to be calling me to community life."
In Albany Diocese
Today, the 66-year-old Illinois native is enjoying his first venture onto the east coast and his latest assignment as a Vincentian priest: He's serving as chaplain for the Daughters of Charity retirement home in Menands.
Father Asma reflected on his years in ministry with gratitude. Being a Vincentian, he said, has given him "purpose, meaning, friendships, a way of serving God who is present in people who can't speak for themselves. The only thing that I sincerely hope that I do is be a good herald of the kingdom of heaven."
Father Asma grew up in town so small, its welcome sign read, "Population 255."
"They might have counted the cows and horses," he noted, laughing.
He worked summers with his father at an outboard motor factory and attended Catholic schools. He remembers thinking as early as fourth grade "that I wanted to dedicate my life to God in some special way. Some people saw it as somewhat of a burden going to daily Mass, but I found it to be very moving or profound."
As he grew up, he considered religious life. He talked to priests and read Scripture, but by his second year at the University of Wisconsin, he put a possible vocation on hold in favor of learning and getting life experience.
"It was still always in the back of my mind," he said. He dabbled in biology, philosophy, history and English and enjoyed a trip to the Soviet Union as part of a Russian history seminar. He saw ballet at the Kremlin, visited monasteries and domes in Kiev and ate dinner with a woman who was likely a spy.
"We were told not to take pictures at border crossings, but that's one of the first things I did," Father Asma said with a laugh. "I was living dangerously."
After graduation, he spent a year as writer and then editor of a weekly newspaper, then enlisted in the Navy Reserve to avoid being drafted for Vietnam.
Ironically, his two years of active duty started on a 300-foot long destroyer ship in Vietnam, doing correspondence and keeping records. He always carried a mini New Testament in his pocket and read on deck.
"I loved being out at sea and just seeing the horizon," he said. "The sky and the sea was all you saw. It deepened my relationship with God, and there was a grandeur, a majesty about creation."
While on leave, he traveled in India, Singapore, Thailand, China, Taiwan and Japan. For a year, he wrote stories for a Navy newspaper in Guam, where he was also a disc jockey for American Forces Radio and spent free time scuba diving, snorkeling, playing tennis, riding a motorcycle and learning tae kwon do.
Drawn to God
He enjoyed learning about different religions during his travels, realizing "it was the one God who made us all and we're all drawn to God."
Eventually, Father Asma settled down to earn his master's degree in Scripture from Illinois State University en route to the priesthood. A vocation "wasn't just my will...it was God's desire," he said.
After six years of priestly studies, he taught Scripture and theology and did spiritual direction with seminarians at a college in St. Louis. In 1985, he took on a temporary assignment as a chaplain at a psychiatric facility - and stayed for 21 years.
He said the role fit perfectly with the Vincentian charism of "taking care of the poor, the marginalized, the downtrodden - the people who don't get any respect. It was challenging to me in a very delightful way."
Father Asma provided counseling and intervened when staff wanted to put patients into isolation. He incorporated religion into his counseling when appropriate; forgiveness was a big theme: "Holding onto resentment takes up a lot of psychological energy. It takes up [people's] ability to do happier things."
When he suggested forgiveness to one angry patient, "He just exhaled a deep sigh," Father Asma said. "There was something about the message of the Gospel that touched him. That was the beginning of improvement for him psychologically."
Father Asma saw patients as "a metaphor for our own spiritual life." Because of original sin, he said, people don't always see things clearly, but "the therapy of the sacraments [helps] make our relationship with God right."
The priest also volunteered at a homeless shelter, working with people with mental illness.
In 2009, he moved to the West Indies to be a spiritual formation director at a seminary, but it closed. His superior then asked him to come to the Albany Diocese.
For the past three years, Father Asma has celebrated Mass for retired Daughters of Charity and assisted at local parishes, including St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph in Rensselaer, St. Michael's in Cohoes and St. Ambrose in Latham.
In his free time, Father Asma writes poetry, reads and studies and paints watercolors. He enjoys being a spiritual guide to the women religious: "I tell the sisters jokes and they laugh at them. Sometimes they're corny."
Wherever Father Asma's superior assigns him next, he said he's happy with his life choices: "I had thought of becoming a hotshot Scripture scholar. It just didn't work out. But I have no regrets."
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