Two Simple Questions: My Vocation Story

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Maryknoll Brother John Blazo finds a life of mission and community in his calling.

One day during my junior year at Archbishop Molloy High School in Jamaica, New York, my French teacher called me into the hallway. “Have you ever thought about becoming a priest or a brother?” he asked me. 

My family had already begun asking what I wanted to do after graduation. I had no idea — but it started me thinking about my future. Although I was drawn to religious life, I didn’t feel called to become a priest. 

The high school was staffed by Marist brothers, and while I admired them, I did not feel called to be one of them. Their emphasis was on education, but I didn’t want to go to college. Helping my father with handyman tasks for our neighbors on Long Island, I was more interested in practical work, like maintenance. 

My family received Maryknoll magazine, and I read about Maryknoll brothers doing hands-on work around the world. Most of them didn’t go to college, yet they led remarkable lives of service.

I was nervous about exploring this idea — and didn’t know how to take the first step. That is, until the day my French teacher, Brother Philip Robert Ouellette, called me out of the classroom with his question.

At first, I thought I was in trouble. But as we spoke, I relaxed and told him my thoughts about Maryknoll.

Brother Ouellette said that a Maryknoll priest was coming to the school the following week to interview boys who might be interested in Maryknoll. He asked me a second question: did I want an appointment?

I did. 

Once I had the interview, the Maryknoll priest then visited my home in Hempstead, New York, where he met my parents and younger sister. I remain grateful that my family and friends supported me — especially the girls and guys on the bus I rode daily to and from school. Even after so many years, I’m still in touch with some of them.

As they say, the rest is history. I joined Maryknoll in 1963, and took my first oath two years later, at 19.

The Second Vatican Council brought many pastoral changes to the Church, among them, encouraging Catholics to pursue higher education. We were prompted not only to study our faith, but also to take part in secular education that would help us learn more about our world and God’s role in it.

I — who hadn’t wanted to go to college! — attended Westchester Community College in Valhalla, New York, for an associate’s degree and continued on to Mary Rogers College at Maryknoll. Rogers College, which originally educated only Maryknoll sisters, by then had opened up to brothers and lay students. 

During college, I was able to spend two summers in predominantly Mexican American communities in New Mexico. One was a small town and the other, too small to be called a town; at both places, I was warmly received. Enthralled by the enthusiasm of the high school Catholic Youth Organization members and the active participation in parish life, I practiced my college Spanish. These formative experiences showed me what I wanted to do with my education. 

I received my bachelor’s degree from Rogers College in adult education with a minor in Latin American studies, and in 1975, was assigned to Central America.

Maryknoll Brother John Blazo (wearing glasses) studied adult education and Latin American studies before serving on mission assignments to Nicaragua and Guatemala. (Eric Wheater/Guatemala)
Maryknoll Brother John Blazo (wearing glasses) studied adult education and Latin American studies before serving on mission assignments to Nicaragua and Guatemala. (Eric Wheater/Guatemala)
My first mission was in Nicaragua, where I traveled from village to village, training catechists. After only six months, however, health reasons forced me to leave this work and go to Guatemala City to recover.

When Maryknoll opened a new mission in the Petén region of northern Guatemala, I could barely wait to join. It was a team effort. Priests, brothers and lay missioners supported each other as a community.

My original perception of being a brother came from before the Second Vatican Council. Back then, a brother’s vocation was seen only as a supportive role to help priests, in this case, to assist Maryknoll priests in their missionary work. However, together with my brother Maryknoll Society members, I came to see myself as both a brother and a missioner.

Like other religious, whether men as brothers or women as sisters, I choose to live in community, enjoying the closeness of other people while learning from them about Jesus, the Church’s mission and myself.

As a brother, and not being ordained, I see myself as a bridge builder between the clergy and laity. Most of my ministry in Central America was going out to others in the community, forming lay leaders and guiding prayer services, visiting the sick, etc. I would tell people that anything I could do, they could do, because for those tasks, ordination was not necessary.

I was not disappointed when, in 1982, I had to return to the United States due to illness, because that was actually a blessing. I discovered a passion — and a talent — for mission education and promotion, right here at home.

I spoke out about what I had witnessed in Central America, where the U.S. government funded bloody civil wars. More generally, I shared mission stories with groups at schools and parishes. Mission education opens a window to other cultures and how they express their Catholic faith.

At 77, I have spent four wonderful decades in the States accompanying people on the path to become missionary disciples.

Wherever I have served, my favorite thing about being a brother has remained the same. It has been being in relationship with people of different backgrounds to get a fuller understanding of God’s presence in the world and Maryknoll’s role in teaching that message.

In thinking about brotherhood — or any vocation — one needs to ask God’s help in making the decision. Prayer, talking to others already following that vocation and keeping a journal are extremely helpful. In the journal, it’s important to keep track of a timeline and practical steps to be taken.

As I look back, I see that each phase of my life led to the next.

When Brother Ouellette called me out of the classroom that day — over 60 years ago — who knew where those two simple questions would lead?

Featured image: During a tour of the Maryknoll Society headquarters in Ossining, New York, in 2018, Maryknoll Brother John Blazo points to cofounders Bishop James A. Walsh and Father Thomas F. Price. Brother Blazo joined Maryknoll six decades ago. (Diane Mastrogiulio/U.S.)


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About the author

John Blazo, M.M

Maryknoll Brother John Blazo, originally from Hempstead, New York, served in Nicaragua and Guatemala before working in his current role in mission education and promotion.