Mid-life crisis? These professionals found their vocations later in life

5 mins read
Franciscan Father Gino Correa is pictured in an undated photo blessing Tau crosses given to the postulants during the ceremony welcoming them to the Order of Friars Minor. Pictured right to left are Ryan Crain, Thomas Pack, Jimmy Beh and Samuel Allen. (OSV News photo/Octavio Duran, courtesy Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe)

After a certain age, any dramatic career change runs the risk of being labeled a “mid-life crisis.” Those who are younger might get a well-meaning lecture on patience and paying their dues. Those who are older might be asked, “Why now?”

But what if a vocational redirection instead meant a sort of spiritual homecoming?

For three Franciscans from the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe — postulants Jimmy Beh and Thomas Pack and Father Steven Kuehn — joining the 800-plus-year-old religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi was not just a proverbial leap of faith. It also was a change of professional path none of them first expected, but which each says has placed them just where they’re now meant to be.

A love for fraternity

“Long story short, I was in the Navy for about 12 years,” Father Kuehn, 42, told OSV News. A U.S. Naval Academy graduate and helicopter pilot, the priest spent that dozen years serving on a U.S. Navy destroyer, a frigate and an aircraft carrier.

After piloting 332 helicopter missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom — and serving as a senior officer on the USS Ronald Reagan — he eventually began to debate whether to continue his Navy career, or return to civilian life to start a family.

“And then honestly — not out of nowhere, but — I started feeling this other movement inside of me,” reflected Father Kuehn. “I was raised Catholic; raised in the Catholic Church — and it had always been important to me, but I’d never really felt drawn or called to the priesthood. So it was those last few years in the Navy that I felt something kind of stirring.”

After investigating diocesan seminaries and religious orders, the Franciscan friars “just seemed like the right fit,” Father Kuehn said. “I never would have predicted it, or even seen it coming.”

His family was “very much” surprised, but supportive.

Currently chaplain at St. Bonaventure University near Olean, New York, Father Kuehn entered the initial stage of religious life — the postulancy — in 2015. “The program is kind of set up so it’s a gradual process to kind of assimilate, to see if it is the right way of life,” he shared. “So that helped me, I think, to transition.”

That’s not to say it was easy, however.

“I felt like I was impatient with the process — I just want to be there already, wherever there is,” said Father Kuehn. “Just the challenge of starting over again in your life journey; I felt like I was starting from square one.”

Still, there were also similarities between the Navy and the friars.

“There’s a rhythm, I feel, with both ways of life,” Father Kuehn explained, as well as “the camaraderie with the people you’re working with in the Navy, or living with the friars. There’s this bond — you don’t always necessarily get along with everybody, or see eye-to-eye with everybody, but we’re in this together. So it’s kind of like this brotherhood … that, for me, was very similar.”

Ordained in April 2023, he has ministered in hospices, food banks, jail ministries and soup kitchens.

“With the friars, I’ve really appreciated the brotherhood — we stress fraternity; the community,” Father Kuehn said, “and also the care for the vulnerable, the poor. Those things have really given me life in these last few years as a friar. That direct service to the poor — it’s shown me God’s care for all people. And I’m just grateful for this way of life.”

Learning a new way of life

It’s a way of life that is repeatedly reported as in decline. A study of men and women religious making their perpetual religious vows in 2023 — released Jan. 26 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University — showed a continued decrease in the number of permanent vocations to consecrated life in the U.S. In the study, 87% of the participating religious superiors said their orders had no members profess perpetual vows in 2023, up from 82% in the 2022 report. In 2023, one in 10 institutes had one perpetual profession, while 4% reported between two to 15 members professed perpetual vows.

The Atlanta-based Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe, however, welcomed seven postulants to its latest class — among them Thomas Pack, a former NFL scout, and Jimmy Beh, previously a teacher and higher education administrator. The postulants represent a new era for the recently unified province, which in fall of 2023 combined six Franciscan provinces and spans the United States coast to coast.

“It really is a different way to go about doing life. Being 30, (almost) 31 — there’s some unlearning that goes into the learning. Unlearning things that I was holding on to.”

Jimmy Beh

Beh, 30, said his vocation path was less a startling epiphany and more “a curiosity that didn’t go away. The invitation is not this grand gesture ritual or anything. It was a very kind of casual thing, just sitting in conversation,” he explained. “And yet, it kind of spoke to this longing and curiosity that I had had for a while, and posed a new path for me to follow or explore. That’s what kept me discerning, and has brought me to this point.”

For the Jesuit-educated, Washington, D.C.-raised Beh — whose career in higher education included posts at the University of San Diego, his alma mater; Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington; and Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore — friendship with the Franciscan friars, including his current postulancy director, Franciscan Father Gino Correa, strongly influenced his discernment.

“Someone finally asked if I was thinking about it — kind of off the cuff — and I remember just being like, ‘Maybe I am,'” Beh recalled. “And I had no idea where that response came from.”

From there, things quickly escalated — so much so that Beh admits he occasionally wonders, “Wait, what happened?”

“It really is a different way to go about doing life,” Beh said. “Being 30, (almost) 31 — there’s some unlearning that goes into the learning. Unlearning things that I was holding on to.”

As a Franciscan postulant, he’s “surrounded by folks that encourage me, and support me and challenge me in working through that. There’s a lot of freedom that comes within this process,” he said, “and I’ve really enjoyed that.”

A persistent call

Pack, 33, a member of the same postulant class as Beh, grew up Southern Baptist in a “very religious” family outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. He admits that when he attended the University of Chicago to study linguistics, he had never even met a Catholic. The required philosophy readings were his introduction to the Church’s tradition and he found himself hooked on the Church Fathers.

After graduation, “I was teaching in Catholic schools — so probably I was a closet Catholic. I was more Catholic than not,” Pack reflected. “I dragged my feet on RCIA (the process of becoming Catholic) for a few years, and then I finally did it.”

Pack became a Catholic during Easter 2018. At that point, he acknowledges, “I’d kind of had religious life already on my mind, for a few years.”

“As a teacher and a coach, you want to mentor people. But you mentor them by putting your arm around them, and getting in the weeds with them.”

Thomas Pack

Still, the competitiveness of the gridiron also played a key role in Pack’s career. Not only did he coach high school and university teams, he worked with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns as both a scouting assistant and film/charting analyst.

But a call to religious life continued to persist.

After an initial time in the postulancy — in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — Pack returned to teaching, the Browns and coaching. He kept in touch with the friars, however — and was eventually asked, “Would you think about coming back?”

He did, in August 2023.

“I was just deep in prayer over spring and summer, and it seemed like time to take the jump,” Pack said.

Like Father Kuehn and Beh, Pack feels his previous career skills are completely transferrable.

“As a teacher and a coach, you want to mentor people. But you mentor them by putting your arm around them, and getting in the weeds with them,” Pack said. “It’s not like a top-down hierarchy, or anything like that. It’s really being right next to them — side-by-side, walking with them and letting them know, ‘I’m here and I’m with you.'”

Kimberley Heatherington

Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.