"Playing Mass” was a favorite childhood pastime for Br. Sam Joutras O.S.A. and his cousins. “When I was in second grade I remember us playing Mass together, with pretend hosts and homilies,” says Br. Sam. “I would put on a blanket as a chasuble, though I didn’t really know what I was doing.” The look and structure of the Catholic liturgy, and the movements at the altar, made a deep impression on Br. Sam from a young age. “Mass is attractive to kids. It’s something totally different from the rest of your life. And it demands a totally different way of thinking about life.”
Growing up in the Most Holy Redeemer Parish in Evergreen Park, IL, Br. Sam felt drawn towards the priesthood early on; however, that desire went mostly unacknowledged or unexpressed for years. “Looking back, I see the call to the priesthood all through my life, but I was afraid to pursue it,” he recalls.
Br. Sam is of a generation of brothers and priests who grew up during the height of the scandal surrounding the Church’s handling of sexual abuse cases of minors. Their journeys of discernment are uniquely marked by this environment, in which the general attitude toward the clergy was rapidly shifting. “When I first felt called, that was when all these past cases of abuse were coming to light. People generally had a very bad connotation with even the word priest.” In his home, however, the Catholic faith still held an important role, with his father serving as a lector and his mother a Eucharistic minister at their parish.
A HEALTH CRISIS DIRECTS HIS FAITH
In the Catholic liturgy, as in our own spiritual lives, the heart must often follow where the body leads. In 2003, at the age of 11, Br. Sam experienced a crisis in his physical health that would reorient his faith and prayer life. One morning, while preparing for school, Br. Sam collapsed in the shower and went into a seizure. His family brought him to the hospital, where scans later revealed that he had a large tumor on the left side of his brain. Surgery would be necessary.
Health had never been a concern for Br. Sam before; he was an active, athletic student and a member of the park district wrestling club. All that suddenly was upended. “This was a scary time for me, but especially for my parents. This was all out of nowhere. Suddenly our lives were different, and we all struggled to understand and accept.” As Br. Sam and his family prepared for the surgery, they learned that the parishioners at Most Holy Redeemer Parish had begun an ongoing Rosary prayer service for his health and recovery.
“This was truly my first and most humbling realization of the power of prayer,” says Br. Sam. “A surgery that was supposed to take 4 hours was finished in 45 minutes. It was a complete success.” This is when he first developed a devotion to the Rosary and came to rely on the power of prayer. “At such a young age, to see the miraculous force of prayer was a gift to me. The experience awakened me to see things in a different light.” Though he recovered fully from the surgery, he would never again be able to wrestle competitively.
MOVING FORWARD, SEARCHING FOR A PATH
As his faith continued to deepen, Br. Sam turned his athletic interests to the Cross Country and track team. After his family moved to New Lenox in 2006, Br. Sam attended Providence Catholic High School and St. Jude Parish, both of which brought him into contact with the Augustinian Order, and a vision of a life lived in fraternal community. “I saw how joy-filled they were,” he remembers, “and that impression stuck with me later on.”
Throughout high school, Br. Sam tried on the idea of many different careers, still not ready to act on his interest in religious life. “For a while I was interested in medicine, then I thought I might be a teacher, or a physical therapist, but nothing ever felt completely right.” He went on to study at University of Illinois, where he declared a Spanish major. He became increasingly active in the campus Newman Center as a retreat leader and altar server, and his devotion to the Rosary continued to grow.
"WHY NOT ME?"
When he returned home for the summer after his Sophomore year, Br. Sam’s mother faced him with the question: Are you considering the priesthood?
“She had asked me this once before when I was in high school, and I answered no. It must have been a mother’s intuition.” Still then as a Sophomore he was not ready to admit. “I immediately answered ‘No.’ And then in my head it struck me: 'Why not? Why not me?’”
It was in his Junior year then that Br. Sam seriously began to discern his vocation, and acknowledge his desire to become a priest. When he reached out to speak to someone about discernment, the Augustinians came immediately to mind. “For me, the image of priesthood was formed by my memories of the Augustinians during high school.”
In 2013, Br. Sam phoned Vocations Director Fr. Tom McCarthy O.S.A. and, after a 2-hour conversation, decided to attend the Come and See weekend during his upcoming Spring Break. “It was during the Come and See weekend, that I finally felt a vocation that fit with me, in a way no other career path did. At that point my mind was made up, that I would pursue my discernment with the Augustinians.”
"IT IS A VERY UNUSUAL VOCATION"
While Br. Sam had finally acknowledged and affirmed his calling within himself, he still had reservations about sharing his decision with others. For the rest of his Junior and Senior year, he largely kept his plans a secret from his friends and family.
“It is a very unusual vocation. Oftentimes it takes people by surprise when you tell them. Really though the Church itself is very unusual. It took me a while before I felt comfortable telling my friends and family, and some of them were a bit wary at first. But now I enjoy the full support of everyone. They see this is what I am called to do.”
Br. Sam entered into the Pre-Novitiate at Villanova in 2014, together with the largest group of men for the Midwest Augustinian Province in over 40 years. He was one of 11 men to profess initial vows to the Order in 2016, and he is now in his second year of studies at the Catholic Theological Union. His undergraduate Spanish major has been put to great purposes already through his service to the community at St. Rita of Cascia Parish on the south side of Chicago, and it is his hope to spend his upcoming Pastoral Year in the Augustinian Missions in Peru.
Written by Sean Reynolds