By Judith Costello
For The Catholic Messenger
Father Jason Crossen, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf, is enthusiastic about his vocation. He’s found joy and satisfaction in his role as a parish priest. But the 44-year-old priest’s road to saying “yes” to God was a long and winding journey.
He first considered becoming a priest while altar serving at St. Mary Parish-Wilton during elementary school. “I was carrying the holy oil,” he recalled. “I felt the fire of the Holy Spirit. It was something strong and more than a feeling.” After sharing this experience with his mother, she replied, “You have one of the Irish vocations: To be a firefighter, a policeman or a priest. In other words: to be of service.”
Still, this interest was not exclusive. He had other dreams, of becoming a pilot or serving with the military police. In 1991, at age 17, he joined the National Guard and left home for Boot Camp in Alabama — a different part of the country, a different way of life and among total strangers. The place where he sought solace and familiarity was the church.
“I went to help at Mass every week and would stay afterward to help out,” Fr. Crossen recalled. “One week the main chaplain was away and I assisted a different priest. He was an older man who didn’t know me from Adam. But he said something that was like an arrow going deep inside. He said, ‘You should be a priest. God’s army needs a few good men, too.’”
Phone calls to the outside world were limited during basic training. But during one call, shortly after this incident, Crossen told his mother he might reconsider his choice and look into social work. She responded in a surprising way.
“I hadn’t talked to her about the priesthood since elementary school but she said, ‘Good. Now you’re thinking of the priesthood.’”
When he returned home in 1992, his parents invited a priest for dinner and his mom said, “Jason is thinking about the priesthood.” Fr. Crossen recalls having an urge to kick her under the table. It felt like unwanted pressure. But the visitor was tactful. He told the young man about an upcoming vocations retreat.
Such prodding — from the Holy Spirit, a complete stranger and his mother — had not yet convinced Crossen. He tucked away the invitation to the retreat and enrolled in criminal justice classes. Things did not go smoothly. Crossen began falling behind in his class work. Papers went unfinished. He felt stressed. One day on the way to class he had a flat tire. That was the last straw.
He told God he would turn around that day and sign up for the retreat “just to see what it was like.”
“It was as if a veil lifted. Things got easier. That’s what happens when you follow God’s will. At that retreat I was with 40 others and it was the first time I did not feel alone. It felt right.”
After that, things started to fall into place. He met with Bishop Gerald O’Keefe and the vocations director. He completed minor seminary at St. Ambrose University in Davenport while continuing to serve in the National Guard. He was honorably discharged in 1995.
Then he headed to major seminary at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. After the first year he went with three other seminarians to India for five-and-a-half weeks. The Americans stood out among the emaciated poor they met. The seminarians worked with the destitute and the dying and every evening prayed with the Sisters of Charity. Mother Teresa met with them once, just two months before her death in 1997, and shared her wisdom saying, “Be holy priests. You are called to help the poorest of the poor. In America, you will work with the spiritually poor.”
Crossen reflected for a long time on her words and came to the conclusion that Americans thirst for God but don’t always recognize it. They seek to fill that longing with drugs, drink, money, work and worldly success. Addictions are the result of filling life with things, rather than with God.
Fr. Crossen was ordained to the priesthood in 2000. Today, his life has come full circle, as the interests of his past mesh with his vocation. He is police chaplain for the Bettendorf Police Department and recently was recognized with a Community Service Award.
“Being a priest means embodying the compassion and hope of Christ. Priests see people at their highest (baptism and marriage) and their lowest moments (illness and death) which gives an understanding of the balance between joy and sorrow. What do I think of the priesthood? It is an absolute privilege!”