A gradual, grace-filled road to religious life
September 27, 2021
There was no Saul-like, on-the-road-to-Damascus moment for this Paul.
No flash-of-light, fall-to-the-ground instant when he suddenly encountered Jesus.
For Paul Hotovy, the road leading to Aug. 15 – when he became Brother Paul and professed his first temporary vows as a Salesian of John Bosco – was a gradual one. It was built on a solid Catholic foundation his family established, he said, and with the example that family members and others set for him.
It was a foundation that he was able to return to after he started losing interest in the faith during high school and college. He fell back on that faith, Brother Paul said, when in his 20s he knew he had to live out the beliefs he was presenting to high-schoolers – or be nothing more than a hypocrite.
After his profession of vows at the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw, New York, Brother Paul, 32, will continue formation to become a priest, taking philosophy and theology classes at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, and living nearby in community with other Salesians.
He was well prepared when he entered the Salesians of John Bosco in 2018, said Brother Tom Dion, coordinator of pre-novices at a Salesian community in Ramsey, New Jersey, where he first met Brother Paul.
“He came to us as a very talented person who already had teaching experience,” as well as a deep desire to follow God’s will, Brother Tom said.
“He’s really excelled in our formation program, and we’re just very happy having him as part of our program. I’ve been really proud to watch him go forward and deepen his relationship with God and deepen his vocation.”
Brother Paul, the fourth of six children, was homeschooled before attending Mount Michael Benedictine School in Elkhorn. His family’s parish is St. Leo the Great in Omaha.
Particularly influential to his vocation, Brother Paul said, was the family’s faithful observance of night prayers together.
That practice started small when their children were young, by just sharing what they were thankful for that day followed by a Hail Mary and Glory Be, said Steven and Marguerite Hotovy, Brother Paul’s parents.
The prayers grew as the children grew, they said, to include an act of contrition, the Prayer of St. Francis, Mary’s Magnificat, the Memorare, as well as prayers to St. Michael, St. Raphael, St. Gabriel, and more.
“That practice really was important for my faith,” Brother Paul said. “It was just the family aspect of practicing the faith together. It wasn’t just Mass on Sundays. We had this communal moment every day when we prayed together. I honestly think, in hindsight, that was actually a very powerful thing.”
The Hotovys said they saw hints as their son was growing up that he might one day embark on a religious vocation. Those signs weren’t always overt, his father said, but they noticed their son’s sense of detachment, a unique encounter he had with the Blessed Mother, and at least one incident when he expressed a desire to become a priest.
Brother Paul said he grew up with a reverence for priests.
“I remember as a kid – like 10, 11, 12 – I’d go to Mass on Sundays, and the priest was somebody I’d look up to. There was a lot of reverence around the priesthood. I also had a great-uncle who was a priest (the late Msgr. Myron Pleskac of the Diocese of Lincoln), and he was a really good priest.”
Brother Paul graduated from Mount Michael in 2007 and in 2011 from the University of Notre Dame, with a bachelor’s degree in history. He earned a master’s degree in teaching through Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, a program that gave him teaching experience at Pensacola Catholic High School in Pensacola, Florida, while he completed summer classes at Notre Dame.
For five more years, Brother Paul continued to teach and minister to youths – works that aligned with the ministry of the Salesians and their founder, St. John Bosco.
That time included going back to Nebraska, St. Leo and his alma mater, Mount Michael, where he was a resident assistant.
Brother Paul’s years of teaching and helping youths were also a time of discernment. A pivotal time came during his five years at Pensacola.
“The one really helpful thing for my vocation was being asked to help with retreats and give witness talks about faith and prayer and relationship with God,” he said. “And in that, I kind of realized my hypocrisy when I was trying to formulate this talk to help the young students take their faith seriously, but I wasn’t doing that myself.
“I didn’t know as much about the faith, I wasn’t really practicing the faith, and it didn’t really have a lot of bearing on the decisions I was making outside of maybe going to Mass on Sundays. So helping with retreats sort of exposed how much I really tried to practice my faith. And I’m the type of guy who wants to practice what he preaches.”
Being surrounded by good people helped, Brother Paul said, including the religious sister who was principal at the Florida school and fellow teachers “who were much stronger Catholics than I was,” in addition to his older brother Mark back home, who had stepped up his faith life.
‘THE LORD PROVIDED’
Then 24 or 25 years old, Brother Paul headed back to confession, started going to Mass more frequently and read the Bible and other spiritual books.
He had been dating “a really good young woman” and was thinking about marriage. But as he discerned in his new life of faith, he discovered an ever-increasing lure toward priesthood and religious life.
“Which means I broke up with my girlfriend,” Brother Paul said.
“It was tough,” he said. “Luckily we’ve stayed somewhat good friends since,” and his former girlfriend is now happily married.
“Certainly the Lord provided for her and provided for me,” Brother Paul said.
For about two years after the breakup, he didn’t actively explore his calling.
“I wasn’t dating anybody,” he said. “I just kept praying, studying, reading books and what not.” He spent two years in Omaha and at Mount Michael, where he found silence, prayer and a spiritual director.
Then he met Father Dominic Tran, vocations director of the Salesians of John Bosco, who had been taking classes at Creighton University, residing at St. Leo and offering Masses there on the weekends.
Brother Paul said he was hanging out near the sacristy after Mass at St. Leo, helping his brother Mark, who was the sacristan, when Father Dominic asked their names and bluntly asked them: “Have you thought about becoming a priest?”
Mark was dating someone at the time and wasn’t considering the priesthood, but his brother answered truthfully: “Actually, I have.”
Marguerite Hotovy called the encounter with Father Dominic “incredibly providential.”
It set off a couple get-togethers with the vocations director, the gift of a book on St. John Bosco, some emails and a visit to a Salesian community in New York.
The next summer, Brother Paul volunteered at a Salesian camp for youths in Chicago and was given a further chance to taste life in a religious community.
“Those were really good experiences for me,” Brother Paul said, “and ultimately I felt God calling me to join the Salesians.”
He said he felt a passion for their mission of teaching and working with youth. His path toward priestly ordination will continue with two years of study at the seminary at Seton Hall, followed by two years of teaching at a Salesian school, followed by four years of studying theology.
MOMENTS OF GRACE
During Brother Paul’s years as a candidate in the pre-novitiate program in New Jersey, “he really jumped into the program and gave it his all,” Brother Tom said.
Brother Paul stood out for his sincerity in wanting to know God’s plan for him, discovering that plan and wanting to learn more, Brother Tom said. “God has led him in a direction, and he’s followed.”
Brother Paul said he’s grateful for the people who’ve helped him along the way, including his parents, late grandmother and other relatives.
“I definitely see in hindsight, in different moments of my life, God’s grace,” he said. “There’s been a lot of people he’s placed in my life who’ve had a really powerful impact on me as a person, as a Catholic, as someone discerning religious life and the priesthood.”