Born and raised in Boston, Father Ron Gillis calls 1967 the year of “The Impossible Dream” because the Red Sox won the American League Pennant and because the youngest of eight children in the Gillis household was ordained to the priesthood.
“My father was in seventh heaven,” he said, reflecting on his vocation. “I regard it as a miracle, the whole expectation that you could be called by God to give everything. I looked at the crucifix and said, ‘Lord, You did all that for me. What should I be willing to do for You?’”
Today, 44 years later, Father Gillis serves as chaplain at both the Reston Study Center and Oakcrest School in McLean, and as a spiritual director at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., a position he has held for the past 30 years. Some years, he has given ongoing spiritual direction to more than 40 seminarians, driving twice a week from Northern Virginia to listen, advise and guide those in priestly formation.
As an Opus Dei priest working in the Washington, D.C., area for the past 38 years, Father Gillis has administered the sacraments, taught courses, preached, and provided spiritual direction and evenings of recollection for hundreds of married men and women as well as students. He always has been selfless and ready to help others on their personal path to sanctity, part of the universal call to holiness.
Opus Dei, a personal prelature of the Catholic Church, was founded in Spain in 1928 by St. Josemaría Escrivá, who taught that work and the circumstances of ordinary life are occasions for growing closer to God, serving others and for improving society.
Even as a young man, Father Gillis had a strong sense of purpose for his life and never had any doubts about his vocation.
“It was impossible to grow up in Catholic Boston and not have a strong sense of vocation because vocations were abundant,” he said. “It was a very common question for Catholic young people to ask, ‘What is my vocation?’”
“We were surrounded by the Faith and by the sense of dedication, also present in our parents, who raised large families. They were working-class people, very committed to the Faith,” said Father Gillis.
He attended Catholic elementary and secondary school where his teachers sensed he had a vocation to the priesthood.
“The nuns were after me in the eighth grade to go away to junior seminary,” he said, adding that he was not ready at that young age to make the commitment.
Later, while a junior in high school, Father Gillis said a friend “dragged me along” on a retreat at a Trappist monastery and it made a profound impact on him.
“It was in August and it was the feast of St. Bernard,” he said. “I always remember that it was like going to heaven. It was so beautiful, the peacefulness, the spirituality, the whole thing was magnificent, the Divine Office, the Liturgy. Then we were helping to make the hay with the monks. The silence, I remember thinking this is really the peace of God. This is really wonderful, but I don’t want to stay here.”
He asked himself how one could bring this sense of the presence of God into the midst of the world.
“I don’t have a monastic vocation. I like being in the middle of the world. When I encountered Opus Dei, that’s what happened. I saw that these people are involved in things, but they take spirituality very seriously. I was struck by this kind of formula that we need to bring Our Lord to so many people who are good people who live in the middle of the world,” Father Gillis said.
Following his freshman year of college at the University of Toronto, he became a member of Opus Dei and then transferred to Boston University because there was no Opus Dei center in Toronto. After earning a bachelor’s in history, he went to Rome in 1964 to study for the priesthood as a seminarian at the Roman College of the Holy Cross. While in Rome, he had the opportunity to learn from St. Josemaría Escriva himself.
“He was a great coach and a tremendous leader of men,” said Father Gillis. “As the founder, he was strong and enormously affectionate.”
He instilled in the seminarians that the only thing that really matters is personal sanctity, that we be saints. Always ready to admit his own challenges, the saint taught that determination to persevere, even in times of tremendous trial, is the journey of the soul toward holiness. To begin again is man’s goal because of our fallen nature we will have failings.
“The spirit of St. Josemaría is that the important thing is the struggle,” said Father Gillis. “The struggle is the sign of holiness. A saint is a sinner that keeps trying.”
In 1966, Father Gillis went to Pamplona, Spain, to continue his studies. After his ordination in Segovia, Spain, in 1967, he went on to earn a doctorate in cannon law in 1969 and returned to the United States.
“I went to Rome in 1964 to study, just after the Beatles had appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’” he said. “I remember thinking this music is the most fantastic but it’s immoral for them to wear their hair that long. Everybody had their hair buzz cut. Then when I came back after being away for five years, in 1969, I like to tell people it looked like everybody had their fingers in an electrical socket, a complete change,” he laughed.
He worked in New York and Boston until 1972 when he was assigned to the Washington area, which has been his home, except for one year that he spent in Pittsburgh. In 2005, he became a resident chaplain of the newly built Reston Study Center, which is an educational center dedicated to the character development of students and professional men.
He reflected on his role as a priest over the years and the Church.
“I have lived through these tumultuous years, coming from that period of total solidity in terms of structure and stability of the Church, to live in the tumultuous times of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” Father Gillis said. “It has been a unique experience, an adventure to see how basically a revolution occurred, not just in the Church.”
He said that prayer is the answer to solving all of life’s challenges.
“Prayer is the only weapon we have. The Church will rise up when we get on our knees,” Father Gillis said.
God is never far from us, He is with us in our ordinary, daily life.
“God has chosen the low road, the way of Bethlehem and Nazareth, instead of the high road. He came in through the back door, in the real world,” Father Gillis said. “As St. Josemaría said, ‘If you don’t find God in the real world, then you don’t find Him at all.’”
In November 2010, Father Gillis was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. He is currently undergoing treatments, the success of which he attributes to the prayers of many. Through it all he continues the work and spiritual direction that he loves. “The Holy Spirit works through you,” he said. “The most important thing that a spiritual director does is to listen to people’s hearts. You have to love people.”
Source: Arlington Catholic Herald. Socarras is a freelance writer from Annandale.
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