Father Dominic Legge, OP, shares his vocation story and advice for college students on discerning personal vocation
Father Dominic Legge, OP, visited Notre Dame’s campus on January 18 to deliver a lecture as part of the university’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Fr. Legge entered the Order of Preachers in 2001 and was ordained a priest in 2007. Before discerning the priesthood, Fr. Legge practiced law for several years as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School, a Ph.L. from the School of Philosophy of the Catholic University of America, an S.T.L. from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, and a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of Fribourg. The Rover had the opportunity to sit down with Fr. Legge for an interview during his visit to campus.
Irish Rover: How would you define vocation in a general sense?
Father Legge: If you just look at the etymology of the word, it’s “calling.” And we can think about that in a kind of generic way: “I have a calling to be a lawyer,” or “I have a calling to be an accountant.” But more specifically, in the Catholic and also I would say the Dominican tradition, a vocation is understood to be an invitation of Christ to follow him. And, of course, that invitation is offered to every human person. The specific form of life grows out of the graces that Christ gives you to be his disciple and to follow him. So, from my perspective, vocation, especially when you’re talking about a religious vocation or a priestly vocation, is a particular way—shaped by special graces—and a concrete form of life, by which you follow Christ or are consecrated totally to him.
Is it possible to miss your vocation? If that happens, what does that mean for your life?
I think it is a mistake to think of vocation as if God has some stone tablet in the sky where he’s engraved what you’re supposed to do, and your job is to guess what it is, as if he’s hiding it from you and you have to somehow read the tea leaves to figure it out. A lot of people do think about vocation that way, and then they’re worried that they haven’t guessed the right answer, and that their whole life will be a failure.
I think God works with us in a much more organic way. He wants you to be his disciple, to be his intimate friend, and he’s trying to draw you into life with him. So, of course, the fundamental foundation for a vocation is friendship with Christ, friendship with God. Saint Thomas Aquinas would say that’s constituted by the life of charity, or the life of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, which you get at baptism.
How can one discern a vocation? To begin, live in a state of grace and grow in virtue—those are the prerequisites for beginning to see how Christ is inviting you to follow him in the concrete, and what concrete graces and desires he’s giving you. So that’s the first requirement, that you escape from slavery to sin. This doesn’t mean you’re absolutely free of sin—of course no one is free of every taint of sin, except for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary—but escape from vice and begin to live a life of the theological virtues. Then you will begin to hear God’s invitation, you will begin to experience the way that you can concretely follow him. And then it’s important to see what you love.
Now there are some people who are afraid of Christ’s call, and they resist it, or they never really open themselves to it. That’s a dangerous place to be, I think, and that’s where you can encounter people who live with a kind of permanent sadness—a life tinged with sadness because they knew that they were invited to something great, and they didn’t accept.
You attended Yale Law School and had a successful career as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. What led you to the priesthood? Was that something you had ever thought about?
I had not given it any serious thought. I was thinking about getting married, but I wasn’t sure that that was the right decision, and I went on a retreat at a Benedictine monastery to pray about that. When I was on the retreat, I was really hit over the head with the very frightening realization that all my life I had asked God to give me what I wanted, but I had never honestly asked him what he wanted me to do with my life. I was immediately afraid of that question because I thought, “Well, what if I ask and he says, ‘I want you to be a priest,’ which would mean the end of my legal career, the end of my hopes for a family, the end of this relationship that I was in, and could he possibly ask me to do that?”
After a lot of agonizing in the chapel on the retreat, I realized that I would either ask, or I would walk out of the chapel not having asked, which would be a way of saying, “I am going to do what I want, and I hope that’s okay with you. But I don’t really want to know what you want.” And, on some level, that would be turning my back on the Lord and refusing him, and even though I was not the best Catholic, I received enough grace to know that I shouldn’t do that. So very reluctantly I said, “Alright, Lord, I give up. If you want me to be a priest, that’s what I’ll do. But show me what you want me to do.”
That was a very profound turning point in my life. I still had a long way to go before I was ready myself to see that I wanted to be a priest and to be a Dominican. But that was a crucial turning point.
After that retreat, did you break off your relationship right away? How did that go?
Yes. I left the monastery and went over and had a long conversation with my then-girlfriend, which was a very painful conversation to have because I cared about her a great deal. She was wonderful, and said, “Listen, if this is what God is calling you to do, you need to figure that out, and so we should take time off to figure that out.” And I also had the confidence that if God was inviting me to the priesthood, he had something else wonderful planned for her. Which he did.
How did you come to enter the Dominican order in particular?
I had known the Dominicans as a graduate student and had appreciated their preaching and their liturgy. Then, while working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., I got to know the Dominican House of Studies there. The more I got to know the Order there, the more I just felt like I was at home. I was very attracted, of course, to the charism of preaching and to the intellectual life and to the liturgical life—and to the fraternity of the brothers. Those were the elements that drew me.
As a priest, a Dominican, and a professor of theology, what are the most challenging aspects of your vocation? The most rewarding?
The most challenging, probably, is just that there is a tremendous amount of work to do to evangelize our culture. I have more to do than I could possibly ever do. It’s not being busy the way a partner in a law firm is busy, or someone working in finance on Wall Street, where you’re working around the clock; it’s much more rewarding and spiritually consoling than that. Your life is very full, whether with teaching or preaching or hearing confessions or giving spiritual counsel to people or organizing conferences on Thomistic philosophy or theology. There is so much good work to be done, and we need more faithful men and women to advance the message of the Gospel.
What advice would you give to college students in particular, for discerning one’s personal vocation? What are the most important things to be thinking about?
The most important point I’d make is that God’s grace is very powerful. It’s much more powerful than our sins or our vices or our weaknesses. God, by his grace, can transform you from the inside out, so trust that he has a plan for you and that his grace will accomplish it. Once you have that trust in him, which is really proper to the theological virtue of hope, then the sky is the limit, and he will begin freeing you from the things that are blocking your path.
Ask God to help you remove those obstacles to life in Christ; you will not really be able to see clearly until the major ones are removed. But once he removes them, it’ll be like a flower opening up and beginning to bloom. It becomes very beautiful, and the possibilities are wonderful. That, I think, is the most important piece of advice. It may not sound very practical, but I think actually it is very practical.
Discerning one’s personal vocation can become a very interiorized process. How important is it to be open to seeing God’s grace working through other people in your life rather than totally interiorizing the process?
For anyone making any serious decision, you should apply your own mind to the question and think about what is best. That’s an obvious point, but not everybody starts there. And then you should pray about it. Open yourself to God and place yourself at his disposal. And then you should seek wise counsel. Those three things are important things to do for any significant life decision.
That does not mean that the priest, or whomever you are seeking counsel from, will be a divine oracle to you; that’s not the most helpful way to think of the role of a spiritual director, as if he is mediating the voice of God to you. His role is to help you identify the obstacles to grace in your life, to give you wise counsel, and to help you to think about the issue in a way that maybe you hadn’t before. At least, that’s the Dominican way of approaching spiritual counsel.
I think discerning a vocation has much more to do with God’s invitation, and your gradual discovery of the ways he is making it possible, by his grace, for you to be his disciple in a particular form of life. And it will be life-giving to you and a source of joy, and it will attract you. Having someone who is more experienced, who can give you wise counsel about how to follow that path, will be a big help.
Tim Bradley is a senior studying theology and economics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.