Martino Choi finds his calling in the Catholic Church

by Ted Jou '99

Martino Choi '05 (@frmchoi) is a Catholic parish priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, and he is currently assigned to St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Rockville. His career choice may be unique among Magnet alumni, but he feels like dedicating his life to God is an extension of the same drive and passion that he remembers in his peers in the Magnet Program.

Although he enjoyed his time at Blair, Fr. Choi says that by the time he graduated, "it was clear that I did not want to go into Math, Science, or Computer Science as a career." He went to the University of Maryland as a Government & Politics major, and when learning about legal theories in a law elective, Fr. Choi remembers wondering, "where do we get these theories and principles from?" The next semester, he enrolled in a class on the philosophy of law, and he found that as he explored philosophical and legal questions on a deeper lever, many issues came down to basic questions of, "What is good?" He remembers one assignment in particular when he had to consider whether it would be right to torture a terrorist with a ticking time bomb, which really challenged him to question: "Do we just get to determine what is good, and do we get to decide on exceptions to morality?"

He decided to minor in philosophy, and the more he learned, the more he asked himself: "What is our purpose in life?" "Where are we going?" At the same time, he was getting involved with the Catholic Student Center at UMD, and the church seemed to answer a lot of his questions: "This is where we derive the good from, and here are the teachings of the Catholic Church that are providing a coherent answer."

The study of philosophy helped him to make the decision to attend seminary on an intellectual level, but that was is only one part of the equation. Fr. Choi explains that "it's a calling - it is something that I have to believe that God wants me to do." The idea of the joining the priesthood had first entered his mind in middle school, but while religion was a big part of his life through his childhood, he didn't really "feel" it until he was in college, when he could say that he had experienced a "personal encounter" with Christ.

Fr. Choi remembers searching for a niche when he first started at College Park in 2005. In his first semester, he did theater at the urging of a TA, and in his second semester he joined Army ROTC. None of those activities stuck, but he found a home with the Catholic Student Center in his second year. As he made more friends through his activities in the church, he began to lose touch with some of his high school friends, but he says that it felt like "I had found something that was greater than myself," and "something that I could base my identity off of." It was during this time that he experienced his first real personal encounter with Christ, and it was when he feels that he "really appropriated my faith and said, this is something I want to deepen."

From his academic study of philosophy and his participation in the Catholic Student Center, he felt his head and heart align. He found a trusted mentor in the chaplain at UMD, Father Bill Byrne, who was the first priest that Fr. Choi was able to know on a personal level: He was "a faithful and he was joyful, but he was normal." Fr. Choi began to realize that, "I love being Catholic. I love understanding the Catholic teachings and trying to understand them better." He found that "there was a certain joy that came from it," and he wanted "to be able to share that with others." As he made his way towards graduating from UMD in three years, he began to ask himself, "So what does that mean? How do I live my Catholic life as joyfully as I can - as fully as I can?"

At first, he decided to become a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, but his parents were strongly opposed to that decision. Fr. Choi remembers them telling him: "If you want to be a priest, you should go to seminary, but if you don't want to be a priest you should go to graduate school or find a job - don't just stay in between without making a commitment one way or the other." In his final semester at UMD, they told him to move out of his off-campus apartment and come back home, and it forced Fr. Choi to reevaluate his choices.

When thinking about his decision, Fr. Choi explained: "I think the way it works is that God has a plan for you, and sometimes when you aren't really following that plan, then things don't work out the way they are supposed to. It's almost like you're going through a maze - life is a maze - and there are certain doors, and you have to make sure you go through the right one. Sometimes you'll walk around for a while and realize you're at a dead end - this is clearly not the way I'm supposed to go." The conflict with his parents showed him that becoming a missionary was not the right path for him, and he realized that he had taken seminary off the table without truly considering it. Once he decided to apply to seminary, "the doors seemed to open," and he believed he was on the path that God intended.

Fr. Choi enrolled in seminary at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD. Seminary was similar to college, but with a very structured schedule that Fr. Choi compared to a military academy but with more spiritual rather than physical exercise. His seminary education focused on four pillars: intellectual, spiritual, pastoral, and human formation. For someone with a Bachelor's degree, seminary is six years, with four years of theology and two years of philosophy.

After four years in seminary, however, Fr. Choi found himself struggling with his decision to enter the priesthood. He took a year off from his seminary studies to serve in a parish full-time. As he told the Catholic Standard in June 2015, he went on a silent retreat in February of his pastoral year where he spent eight days in deep study and prayer, speaking with no person other than a daily meeting with a priest who was leading the retreat. On the fourth of fifth day of this retreat, Fr. Choi found himself in prayer, telling God: "I don't think you want me to be a priest. I'm going to leave seminary and go to law school - I'll get married and have kids, and maybe one of them will become a priest." He did not expect a response, but in his heart, Fr. Choi could hear the Lord saying: "That's a good plan, but that's not my plan." After hearing that voice, Fr. Choi understood that being a priest was not a choice but a calling, and that it was his calling.

Fr. Choi was ordained in June 2015 (Catholic Standard), which was just in time for Pope Francis's visit to Washington, DC (WJLA). As one of three priests at St. Patrick's, he shares responsibilities for daily and weekly mass, counseling, taking confession, and just helping out wherever he is needed, whether it is speaking to a class at St. Patrick's Catholic School, visiting nursing homes and hospitals, or giving tours to local boy scouts and cub scouts. St. Patrick's is located at 4101 Norbeck Road, and anyone is welcome to visit!