By Jerry Duggan
Father Mark Thibodeaux, SJ, cannot recall a time in his life when he did not want to be a priest. Still, as certain as he has always been about a religious vocation, his calling has taken several twists and turns along the way.
As a young man, Fr. Thibodeaux did not foresee becoming a Jesuit or becoming an author. He felt called to be a diocesan priest.
His love for the Church stems from his faith-filed upbringing in the predominantly Catholic town of Church Point, La.
“The Church was the sun of my universe growing up,” he recalled. “I spent a lot of time there, not just at Mass but at social events as well, and grew up with several close friends who were also called to a religious vocation.”
During his senior year of high school, Fr. Thibodeaux found himself amid the application process to become a diocesan priest when an unimaginable series of events unfolded.
First, a teacher of Fr. Thibodeaux’s remarked that he should be a Jesuit, to which he chuckled. Growing up just 11 miles from Grand Coteau, he was vaguely aware of what the Jesuits were, but had never considered the Society of Jesus a possible avenue in which to pursue his broader vocation to religious life.
The next class period, Fr. Thibodeaux was in the school library when he felt something indescribable. He wrote down what he felt on a note card and has it to this day. He immediately knew it was something he had to act on.
“It was the most surreal experience of my life,” he recalled. “I had been ‘thrown off my horse on the way to Damascus.’ I had to take action because what I felt had to be God at work.”
Soon thereafter, Fr. Thibodeaux learned more about the Jesuits, applied, and was accepted for the following fall. Despite his relative lack of familiarity with the Society of Jesus, he immediately fell in love with his vocation. It has presented opportunities that Thibodeaux never expected, chief among them the opportunity to become a published author, an endeavor that started in earnest by accident.
While completing his regency at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, Fr. Thibodeaux taught theology to sophomores and noticed a curriculum omission.
“I noticed that we never actually taught kids how to pray, to meditate and contemplate,” he said. “I had a spiritual director at my parish in high school, but most of my students did not, so I felt we should be teaching them how to do this.”
Father Thibodeaux searched extensively for the right book to use to teach the students these fundamentals but could not find any to his liking. So, he started to put together materials of his own. At the time, however, they were a series of loose handouts – he did not intend for them to form part of a book.
He saw his collection of written works expand further when, during his theology studies, he took an independent study course on “writing about contemplative prayer.” It was then that a book began to take shape.
Father Thibodeaux submitted his work to a publisher, figuring he had nothing to lose, and was shocked to find that they were interested in publishing his first work, Armchair Mystic, two months before his priestly ordination.
In time, Fr. Thibodeaux learned to love writing, but publishing was never his real goal. Still, the offers come one after another.
“Every time I get published, no one is more surprised than I am,” he said. “God had this as part of his plan for me, even though I never saw it for myself.”
Through his various assignments in active ministry – a five-year stay at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory of Houston as a campus minister, 10 years as novice director in Grand Coteau, La., and, since January 2019, as associate pastor and then pastor at Holy Name of Jesus Church in New Orleans – new opportunities to write have presented themselves.
In April 2020, amidst the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic, a parishioner asked Fr. Thibodeaux to put together an online retreat. What he threw together on a whim was such a success it garnered 33,000 views and resulted in a sixth published work.
“It’s true that I became an author by accident, but it has still been a source of great joy for me,” he said. “God called me to something I never could have seen myself doing, but in doing those things, I ended up happier and more fulfilled.”