Philosophy chair and Passionist on following his calling
How Father Theodore Vitali, C.P., became the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Saint Louis University is something of a miracle, or perhaps a twist of fate.
Growing up in
Connecticut with a schoolteacher and a waiter at the head of the house, the young Italian school boy dreamed more of getting a date for Friday night than becoming a priest. However, his intuition led him in another direction.
“It was more of a calling I couldn’t ignore,” Vitali said about his decision to pursue an ordination.
With high school quickly approaching, Vitali chose to explore this calling by attending a Catholic school and participating in a retreat led by the order of priests called the Passionists.
Never before had
Vitali experienced such beautiful music and powerful preaching as when he first made contact with the order of the Passionists. And still void of the desire to actually chase after ordination, Vitali describes his decision to join the Passionists as, “more of a draft.”
In a way quite similar to joining the Armed Forces, joining the Passionists was extremely challenging – both physically and mentally.
“In high school, I was a jerk,” Vitali said. “But eventually the intellectual life took over and elicited from me a curiosity…and I gained a taste for philosophy.”
The young priest read
so much philosophical work, he eventually mastered Latin. He began learning from early philosophical work pertaining to the existence of Godand the truth behind religion.
“For 40 years I’ve thought about the question, ‘does God exist?’ and pondered over the problem of human suffering,” Vitali said.
In his years at SLU, his favorite class remains ‘Philosophy of Religion,’ a 300-level course pertaining to the questions Vitali fervently studied in his years before ordination.
After being ordained, Vitali received a doctorate of Philosophy at SLU and became chair of the philosphy department at Bellarmine College in 1976. He accepted a position as chair of the Philosophy department at SLU in 1984.
Although Vitali’s guidance has been the heart of the entire department, he recognizes his superiors who have defended, supported and allowed his endeavors.
“For the past 24 years, Father Biondi has supported me,” Vitali said, “and I could not have done what I have without him. I have always had trust in my superiors.”
In addition to his love for philosophy, Vitali holds an unparalleled love of nature, or the “wildness” as he prefers to call it.
Every summer he spends a few weeks at St. Nick’s parish south of Fairbanks, pastoring and helping throughout the parish. During his time in the wild, Vitali will hunt, fish, canoe, hike and find peace in the spirituality of his surroundings.
“I believe the wild to be an extension of the reincarnation, of the mystical experience that is so sacred,” Vitali said.
While he has killed four black bears and has come face-to-face with a wolf, more often the wilderness provides a glimpse into the divine and has taught him more about life than anything else.
“The fierceness and the beauty in nature is not something that can be separated,” Vitali said. “This is shown through the flower, fireweed, as it blossoms from the ashes that result in the explosion of a tree.”
Even at 71 years old, Vitali has no intention of slowing down. His adventures experiencing the “sacrament of the wild” and his aspirations for the philosophy department have him full of vigor for life and ready for adventure.
He may never have intended to join the priesthood, attend the retreat that led him to the Passionists, or become the head of two philosophy departments, but the callings he responded to throughout his years have led him to happiness and fulfillment.