November 1, 2019

2019 Vocations Awareness Supplement

Chatard graduate finds ‘life in balance’ as a professed Dominican

Dominican Brother James Pierce Cavanaugh, left, processes in to St. Vincent Ferrer Church in Chicago on June 2 to profess solemn vows as a member of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans. (Submitted photo)

Dominican Brother James Pierce Cavanaugh, left, processes in to St. Vincent Ferrer Church in Chicago on June 2 to profess solemn vows as a member of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

Ever since he was in the fifth grade at St. Pius X School in Indianapolis, James Pierce Cavanaugh knew he wanted to be a sports broadcaster. He knew it throughout his time at nearby Bishop Chatard High School.

Cavanaugh carried that goal through college at Indiana University (IU), graduating in December of 2013 with a degree in sports broadcasting.

But just two weeks prior to graduating, he made a decision. He would be a broadcaster, yes. But he would dedicate his life to broadcasting the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ as a Dominican priest.

‘In pursuit of the whole college thing’

It was a decision a long time in coming.

“My freshman year at IU, I didn’t really go to Mass, maybe three times,” Dominican Brother James Pierce admits, despite telling his parents he was going to Mass at St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington. Rather, he says, “I was in pursuit of the whole college thing.”

Midway through the first semester of his sophomore year, his parents came to visit, and the family went to Mass at St. Paul.

“There’s a unique way they do the collection,” Brother James Pierce, 27, explains. “It became clear that I hadn’t been going to Mass. I was busted.”

The situation forced him to consider whether or not he truly believed the faith he’d been raised in.

As he considered the question, he realized there had been a disconnect for him—there was faith, and there was life, and for him they had always been separate. So, he decided he not only believed the faith, but that he also needed to live according to the faith.

He became involved in campus ministry at St. Paul, which is administered by Dominican priests of the Chicago-based St. Albert the Great Province. He started going to Mass and confession regularly.

It was during confession in January of his sophomore year that a life-shift moment occurred.

“My penance was to ask Jesus what he wanted me to do,” he recalls. “I went to the chapel and asked that question, and I felt this sudden attraction to the priesthood.”

A call to the ‘Cadillac of habits’

For a year and a half, Brother James Pierce wrestled with the question of his vocation mostly internally. His senior year at IU, he started talking more openly with friends and priests about the vocation he was discerning.

Among those he spoke with was Dominican Brother Raphael Christianson, who was assigned to St. Paul Catholic Center for his pastoral year, part of his formation for the priesthood.

“Even my senior year, I was still set on getting a broadcast job,” says Brother James Pierce. Brother Raphael encouraged him to get a job, “but also to set up a time to visit the [St. Albert the Great Province’s formation] house in St. Louis to get an idea of what the Dominican life looks like.”

So he did. And from the first moment, he says, “I was blown away by their joy.”

For the first time in his life, he says, he encountered men who were capable of “heart-to-heart talks and deep conversation about their faith—real conversation, real relationships,” the Dominican brother recalls.

He liked their schedule—joining for morning and evening prayer, going to Mass together and gathering for recreation time. He even liked what they wore.

“Wearing the habit all the time struck me as different in a good, attention-getting way, that it was clear to these people what their life was about,” says Brother James Pierce of the long, white tunic—and occasional black hood and cape—worn by the order. He recalls one priest sharing that he was told, “Come join [the Dominicans], and we’ll give you the Cadillac of habits!”

By the time Brother James Pierce left the house, the wrestling with discernment was over: “I felt convicted to pursue this path” of priesthood with the Dominicans.

That visit to St. Louis occurred in December of 2013, just two weeks before he graduated.

“I had to completely change course,” he says. “It was exciting, it was scary, but it felt like what I was supposed to do.”

‘Such impossibly good news’

Brother James Pierce became a novice at St. Dominic Piory in Denver, Colo., in November of 2014. He made his first profession of vows about a year later.

One of the many things he has been studying during the last five years is the charism—or way of serving—of the Dominicans, also known as the Order of Preachers.

“We’re about preaching the full Gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world,” he explains. “We preach the catholic—universal—understanding of Jesus Christ inviting the whole world into full relationship with him. It’s such impossibly good news.”

While there are Dominican parishes in the United States, the order is moving more toward college campus ministry, he notes.

“To study is an integral part of our charism,” he explains. “It was for St. Dominic and [St. Thomas] Aquinas, and that’s been passed down.

“So we’re about college campus ministry, the intellectual life, evangelizing and encouraging young adults—all of these in intimate connection with … interaction with Jesus Christ to make him the Lord of their life.”

His degree in sports broadcasting grounded Brother James Pierce in an understanding of communications—an important component of relaying the Gospel message.

But communicating that message involves challenges, he says.

“The content [of the message] is true, but people are inoculated to it,” he admits. “They think they’ve heard the message, understand it, and that they don’t need it.”

So, the challenge now, he says, is determining how to “talk about that content that is true and world-changing, and communicate it in a way so they hear it as if for the first time, a way they never have before.”

‘I know my life is in balance’

A trait that makes this message more appealing is the joy of the one delivering it. Brother James Pierce exudes this trait as he talks about what happened on June 2 this year.

“I professed my final vows,” he says, joy flowing in his voice. “The biggest moment for a Dominican is entering into solemn vows—I’m in it for life.”

He finds fulfillment in this knowledge.

“I’ve kind of gotten married,” Brother James Pierce explains. “So, I know in what way I’m ordering my life to God—I’m a vowed religious.

“That vow commits me to preaching the Gospel for the salvation of souls. That’s what my life is about, and I have the freedom to make my life all about that. I have the surety of that path.”

He notes, too, that he is “not under the illusion that I’ll sail through life with the same fervor now, the fourth month after my solemn profession. Like married couples in year 25 understand better the ups and downs and difficulties and confusion of married life, I’ll expect that, too.”

Yet Brother James Pierce finds comfort in his understanding that there will be an ebb and flow to his life as a vowed religious.

“It’s a lifelong [journey of] growing into this understanding of what it means to invite Jesus Christ into others’ lives,” he says. “I know my life is in balance. I know what my life is about and what it will be for the rest of my life. This is my consolation.”

(For more information on the Dominicans or seeking a vocation with the Dominicans, go to


See more stories from our 2019 Vocations Awareness Supplement

Local site Links: