I began my discernment journey 11 years ago with these two words that kept coming up in prayer, but I wasn’t sure what it really meant.
Months later, I attended a Vocation Discernment Retreat, hoping for God to give me an affirmation that I wasn’t called to the priesthood, so that I could get a confirmation on marrying the girl of my dreams then. But God instead revealed a path that immediately gripped my heart with excitement and joy, even amidst the pain of knowing I would have to leave the one I love with all my heart. I then realized: God was asking me to sell my dreams of marriage, for a higher calling to the priesthood.
Many years later while in my 6th year of seminary formation, I went through a vocation crisis. I was experiencing desolation in prayer, unworthiness in sin, and even an attraction towards someone. I thought God changed His mind, and I was close to calling it quits. That’s when I learnt that just as love is more than a feeling, but a choice, so too is my vocation dependent not just on my feelings, but on a choice to remain faithful regardless of how I was feeling. At this stage, I was asked to sell my need for spiritual consolations.
Recently, after having completed my seminary formation and waiting for my ordination, I went through another round of crisis, feeling frustrated and disappointed with things that seemed to obstruct what I wanted to do in my eventual priesthood. It wasn’t till someone challenged me if I had fully given up my life to Christ that I realize I had placed so much emphasis on my priesthood as the pearl of great price, that I hadn’t really fully given my life to Him who ought to be my pearl of great price. This time, God was asking me to sell my attachment to the vocation of priesthood in order to more fully give my life to Him and really do whatever He tells me. And when I did, all desolation was removed, and I felt immense peace once again.
For now I’ve learnt, that seeking one’s vocation is not about the WHAT, but about WHO am I giving my life entirely to, so that I do whatever He tells me to, even if it means SELLING EVERYTHING.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 326/330 – 390), nicknamed since antiquity as ‘The Theologian’, was a fourth-century bishop, born in the rural setting of modern-day central Turkey. He is venerated as a Father of the Church, and is one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with Ss. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa.
Gregory fought strenuously for spiritual orthodoxy, particular in relation to a doctrinal understanding of the Trinity, championing the Nicene perspective, and developing a unique Trinitarian language. He viewed the Nicene stance as a midday between the heretical extremes of Sabellianism and Arianism.[i]
Classically trained in rhetoric and philosophy, he is responsible for transposing Hellenism into the Early Church. In fact, “Gregory’s literary ability was regarded so highly by the learned connoisseurs of Byzantium that they ranked him with the great stylists of classical poetry and prose.” [ii] For example, Psellos (c. 1017 – 1028) describes Gregory’s style in glowing terms as embodying the gifts of figures such as Demosthenes, Pericles, Lysias and Herodotus, whilst outranking them, in wit, persuasive power, beauty and skill.[iii] He was even well regarded by Renaissance humanists for his literary prowess.[iv]
Gregory has left the Church with a large corpus of written works: letters, poems and orations. It is through his orations—speeches delivered in homilies and sermons, and polished and edited in his later life—that he has extended his greatest influence, both theologically and literarily.
Among his 44 orations is Oration 42—a Farewell Address; a kind of apologia directed at his flock at Constantinople upon his resignation. A resignation made for the purpose of quelling the dissensions and controversy surrounding his Canonically awry position in Constantinople. He thus stepped aside, to keep the peace.
The audience included the 150 bishops of the Eastern Church gathered for the First Council of Constantinople (381), and various rivals low and high. It is also addressed to the Nicaean faction in general. He is defending accusations against his style of ministry in Constantinople, whilst raising the banner of his Trinitarian faith. He says his farewells with a mix of sadness, joy, and satire, and leaves by throwing a few preacher-punches at the “great and Christ-loving city!” a descriptive term he calls unenlightened, while at the same time it is expressive of his hope of what could be.[v] Still, the tenderness of his delivery is undeniable—in Gregory is a pastor who loved his people.
The Cult of Numbers
The portion of this Oration I’d like to draw attention to is section 7, where Gregory alludes to a worldly, economic kind of religious way of thinking, that can be described as the cult of numbers. This can simply be understood to be a measuring of spiritual success and fruitfulness in Christian communities, based solely on numbers—on the population of a group in the Church or the Church as a whole. It is an outlook that focuses on the external of quantity, to the exclusion and neglect of the quality of such members. A quality defined by sound spirituality and doctrine, manifesting in holiness and love.
The Context of His Farewell
In the context of his Farewell Oration, he speaks to a church where the Nicene community has recently regained power from the Anti-Nicene’s; finally having the support of imperial policy on its side. It is “a people now grown from small to great, from scattered to well-knit, from a pitiable even to an enviable state”—and Gregory testifies to this increase as the work of God, the rich harvest won through his ministry with the support of his companions.[vi] Yet he does not praise the increase in numbers as the real reason to rejoice, but the increase in this people’s quality: a people who soundly “worship the Trinity”.[vii]
Gregory—God and Numbers
In the following extract Gregory shares what he thought he “heard God saying” (Or 42:8) in those days when the faithful adherents of the Trinity in Constantinople were a mere remnant, “tiny and poor” (Or 42:4), vastly outweighed by those who “wickedly divided” the Godhead in their false doctrines: many of whom, brought from darkness to light, falsehood to truth, now stand before Gregory as he speaks.
“But you build walls around me, and marble slabs and mosaic floors, long colonnades and porticoes; you glitter and shine with gold, spending it like water and gathering it up like sand, forgetting that faith camping in the open is worth more than the richest impiety, and that three-people gathered in the name of the Lord are worth more to God than tens of thousands who deny the divinity. Do you value the Canaanites more than Abraham, all by himself? Or the Sodomites more than Lot on his own? Or the Midianites more than Moses—though all of these were aliens and strangers? What of the three hundred of Gideon, who manfully lapped up the water, while thousands were rejected? What of Abraham’s household slaves, a few more than these in number, who pursued and defeated many kings and their armies of thousands of men, few though they were? And how do you understand this passage: ‘If the number of the children of Israel should become as the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved?’ Or this: ‘I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bent their knees to Baal.’ No this is not the solution—God does not delight in numbers![viii]
The Approach of a Spiritual Man
Gregory understood this Scripturally-derived lesson of God so very clearly. His understanding was applied in the way he went about his ministry. Faced with a tiny remnant Gregory did not conjure up systematic methods to increase his flock, with the mind of an accountant and tact of an administrator. Nor did he subject himself to human standards at the compromise of the Gospel message to gain sympathizers (Or 42:19). Nor did he play politics, to win members to his flock—siding with one faction against another, but he simply delineated between truth and falsehood, paying no regard to human groupings. And nor did he lord his authority over the Anti-Nicene’s in order to crush them, and consolidate the numbers of his Nicene-flock, when the tables turned in his camps’ favor, but rather he acted mercifully, to the point of being blamed for leniency by his very own.
For St. Gregory was a spiritual man, who saw things with a spiritual eye. Seeing success in the quality of his people, not in their numbers; to the point he even lost favor with much of his own due to his steadfastness to the Gospel of mercy. He knew what was at stake — “the salvation of the soul”— and saw his pastoral responsibility with a sharpness of vision: “to guard and protect his flock” but above all “by distributing the word” in teaching, example and the sacraments, which he calls “the first of our tasks” (Or 2:35).[ix]
In one of his poems he defends his Word-focused approach as a Bishop; an approach carried out from the motive of saving souls, not to increasing numbers for the sake of numbers:
You’ve been considering a bishop as you would an accountant, laying stress on mere rubbish, where I’ve been concerned with important issues. A priest should have one function and one only, the sanctification of souls by his life and teaching… Other matters he should relinquish to those skilled in them.[x]
Learning from Gregory
There is so much we can learn from St. Gregory on the cult of numbers. The lesson he understood so well, is perennially relevant to the Church in all its spheres: on the universal scale, the local parish scale, on the level of the religious community, and even to the microcosm of every youth, bible study or prayer group. The value of all of these is not weighed by the numbers of attendants or alleged adherents, but on the quality of the interior fruits of sound spirituality and doctrine, brought forth as the harvest of the Word; nourishing the real spiritual growth of its members, shown to be authentic by a visible and practical love.
It is easy for groups to become ‘accountant-minded’ and focus on numbers as the measure of spiritual success. Acting in ministry from the motive to “increase numbers,” and investing efforts to win “bums in seats.” Yet by focusing on numbers, we lose our focus of love—depersonalising the face of ‘the other’ into a mere number, thus losing sight of the face of Christ in our neighbour; and this is all a consequence of chasing after numbers instead of a deepened relationship with the Word and the lived proclamation of His Truth—a proclamation that reaches out to ‘the other’ as the image of God, not as the means to bump up a statistic.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus shows us that we need not focus on numbers, for “God does not delight in numbers!” but we need only focus on God the Trinity, seeking to increase the quality of the “tiny and poor” remnant in our midst—above all by seeking the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ourselves (in prayer, instruction and the sacraments); and this labour will be blessed by God who in time, will bring forth an increase far greater in quality and quantity, than we could ever achieve by our quest for greater numbers.
God did so in Constantinople in the fourth-century A.D., and He can do so again in our day; so long as we see like Gregory that our strength lies not in numbers, but in our God, and the unconditional Love He has for us (Ps 28:7). That Love of the Father for the Son, the Love who is the Holy Spirit—and increasing in this Love, which always reaches out, and not in numbers, must be our sole and only focus.
[i] Brian E. Daley, S.J., Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2006), Oration 42:16, pp. 147-148.
Have you ever encountered a story – whether in the form of a book, film, television – that seemed written especially for you? As I immersed myself in the fictional town of Narbrook, PA, page after page left me marveling at the magnificence and relevance of “The American Tragedy” trilogy – Fatherless, Motherless, Childless – authored by Brian J. Gail.
Beginning in the 1980s and concluding around 2030, Gail journeys through the real-life ramifications as his characters face conflicts surrounding the sexual revolution affecting their professional and family lives. Father John Sweeney serves as the spiritual guide to his beloved parishioners, among whom are Maggie Kealey, Joe Delgado, and Michael Burns.
It was a delight to journey with the characters along their unique trials, so excellent was Gail’s character development. I found myself laughing, sorrowing, and even at times perplexed at these seemingly real humans.
Maggie, oh Maggie – how I delighted in her gradual transformation from a wife and mother who struggled with migraines all the way to the founder of a NFP clinic and takes on Planned Parenthood (called Proper Parenthood in the trilogy) in a lawsuit for the crime of refusing to provide the abortion pill to a young girl.
Through the characters of Joe Delgado and Michael Burns, I received insights into the cynical, at times creepy business world.
Father Sweeney allowed me glimpses into the life of a parish priest and provided me with deeper appreciation for all the priests with whom God has blessed me. I very much related to his discovery/realization of the fullness of truth as described in Fatherless: “For the first time since he was ordained he truly hungered and thirsted for truth — the simple timeless beauty of it, the raw yet ineffable power of it, the magnetizing allure of it” (Fatherless, 469). In the epilogue of Motherless, Father Sweeney shares with a brother priest where he finds his peace and joy:
“In being permitted to walk the walk with the people of God. In helping to facilitate their sacramental encounter with Christ. In watching as He reveals Himself to them, and them to themselves… Earning their trust by challenging them to live as they know they ought. Exhorting them to give themselves away, to accept suffering, to seek the will of God in their lives, and to find their peace… their joy… in their crosses.” (Motherless, 508)
While I personally usually prefer non-fiction books regarding Catholicism, this rare gem in Catholic fiction provided “real-life” insights not found in theological works. It’s one thing to explain the reasoning of various Church teachings, but sometimes, illustrations prove much more powerful in depicting the “how’s” of living out the Catholic faith in the familial and professional spheres of daily life.
After having been curious for so many years about how it is to experience a Chrism Mass, I finally got a chance to attend one.
From all that I heard about it, I expected that it would be an awesome experience: the spine-tingling sight of a multitude of priests simultaneously consecrating the bread and wine, the blessing of the oils to be used for the sacraments, the renewal of priestly vows. I imagined I would be in ecstasy witnessing these rituals rich in history and symbolism.
I knew the church would be full so I went there early in hopes of getting a good seat. It turned out I did not arrive early enough. There was already a crowd spilling out into the grounds of the church, and the Monobloc chairs the parish put out were not enough. Grudgingly, I found a place for myself on the steps leading to the church, out in the heat during this hottest time of year in tropical Philippines. “Outside the Church, there is no air condition,” I quipped to myself as I saw those lucky enough to be seated inside.
But from where I was, I could hear the choir singing and it was beautiful. The entrance hymn was longer than usual. I imagined a long entrance procession with all the priests in the diocese. When the door to the church opened slightly, I smelled a whiff of the incense.
I could also hear the liturgy, and it was beautiful too. The first reading was the passage from Isaiah which begins with “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me.” The responsorial psalm was Psalm 88, which speaks of God finding David and anointing him with oil. The second reading was the passage from the book of Revelation which says that Christ “loves us and has washed away our sins with blood, and made us a line of kings, priests to serve his God and Father…” The Gospel was the passage from Luke about Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth reading aloud the passage from Isaiah.
I heard the homily of the bishop, where he spoke about fidelity to the priestly vocation. I also heard the renewal of commitment to priestly service, the special preface for the Chrism Mass, and the Roman Canon.
As I listened to the liturgy, I thought of all the priests in the world. I thought of all the priests who have accompanied me in my spiritual life: the priest who baptized me, the bishop who confirmed me, all the priests who gave me communion, all the priests who have absolved me in confession, my past spiritual directors and my present one, the priests who have preached the retreats and recollections I have attended, the priests who led the pilgrimages I have joined…I thought of our parish priest; priests in far-flung provinces and mission territories; priests who serve as chaplains in schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions. I thought of all the saintly priests. I thought of priests who are being persecuted for their faith and their vocation.
I also thought of all the weak priests. I remembered the priests depicted in Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Shusaku Endo’s Silence, and in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo and realized that there are real life counterparts to these priests who would have to render an account to God for themselves and for the souls they were entrusted with.
I also realized that I could offer up all the inconveniences I was experiencing there and then for all the priests all over the world.
The church grounds became festive after the Mass, as the priests exited the church and crowds greeted them with flowers, streamers, tarps, party poppers, specially composed cheers, drums, whistles, party horns, and vuvuzelas. Some groups gathered in the restaurants close to the church to treat their parish priests for breakfast.
Seeing the outpouring of love and support for the priests moved me. At the same time, I also felt bad thinking that some priests have no one to support them.
Some criticize the special treatment given to priests, especially in Philippine society. I acknowledge that it can indeed lead to temptations and abuses. I acknowledge, too, that priests are not impeccable. But considering how much we owe these priests and the weight of the burden entrusted to them, I think we laypeople should ask ourselves if we are helping them enough.
We should ask ourselves if we can perhaps share more of our resources to help our priests in their mission. More importantly, we must offer sacrifices and pray for priests more. We should pray for holy priests that they may remain holy. We should pray for weak priests that they may be strengthened in their weaknesses.
Finally we should thank God for giving us the priesthood, and thank our priests for being shepherds who give their lives for their flocks.
To all priests who may be reading this, I know being a priest is not easy, and I know that I, for one, can do more to support you in your vocations. But I want you to know that I appreciate what you do for souls. Let me tell you this Holy Thursday, from the bottom of my heart: thank you for your perseverance in the priesthood!
Recently, I was able to attend the ordination of my brother-in-law to the priesthood, and there, before my eyes, his soul was eternally changed, indelibly marked. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon before—I’ve attended many baptisms and confirmations and Easter Vigils, and I’ve even been to another ordination. I’ve also met many persons who’ve been indelibly marked, as all who are baptized and confirmed are, and I have the immense blessing of knowing many priests. And I am among the indelibly marked! Yet we all look physically, outwardly the same as we did previously. Inwardly, though, we are changed, like the man born blind (cf. John 9: 6-9). Much like the form of bread and wine conceal the greater truth of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, so our bodies conceal the greater reality of our changed, marked, and claimed souls through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and, for some, Holy Orders.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, in paragraph 1121, that these three sacraments, in addition to conferring grace, also confer “a sacramental character or ‘seal’ by which the Christian shares in Christ’s priesthood and is made a member of the Church according to different states and functions. This configuration to Christ and the Church, brought about by the Spirit, is indelible; it remains for ever in the Christian as a positive disposition for grace, a promise and guarantee of divine protection, and as a vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church.” The indelible mark of these three sacraments is a positive orientation towards God and openness to His grace, that we might love Him, serve Him, and be more like Him. I’ve been baptized and confirmed, and in those sacraments, not only have I been claimed for Christ by this indelible mark—this sacramental grace from the Spirit—but I have also been given an avenue, a calling, a vocation to be more like Christ. These sacraments call me to be Christ in this world, according to my state in life.
What an incredible thing! To be so changed inwardly that it cannot be undone, no matter what. We truly are the Church, the baptized and confirmed, that we have been so changed that not even the gates of hell can change us back—we are eternally for Christ, then, by virtue of these sacraments, and that is a glorious comfort. Surely we can still choose against God, choose sin and evil and Satan, but that cannot undo or revert our souls back from this indelible mark; we are changed forever. It reminds me a lot of something C.S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare….There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
At my brother-in-law’s ordination, I encountered a cathedral packed with everlasting splendors, hundreds of people invested in the seven men who were giving their lives over in service to Christ and His Church, hundreds of unordinary people witnessing the eternal changing of these seven men’s souls. It is a glorious feeling to not only witness the conferring of this greatest sacrament of service but to also be among hundreds of other eternal, splendid souls who are doing the same. Surely, this is what heaven is like: a multitude of changed souls, oriented eternally toward the Triune God, worshipping, praising, and participating in Him together. This is exactly what the ordination felt like. Truly, if you’ve never been to an ordination or an Easter Vigil, make it a priority.
It is a wondrous world we live in and a wondrous God we serve and love. He is a wondrous God Who loves us so much to create us in the first place, and even more so to give us the means by which to come to Him even more fully and easily through the sacraments. Carrie Underwood has a song called “Something in the Water,” in which she sings about how baptism changed her, how the Lord has been even more at work in her life since, and how she can depend on Him even more than she could before. She’s talking about the first and most available indelible mark we can receive, this positive orientation toward grace and God. How generous is our God to give us, as Catholics, two more ways to be indelibly marked, two more ways to be even more closely configured to Him and more deeply opened up to the power of the Holy Spirit! We are the few, the proud, the eternally changed, the indelibly marked—let our lives be shining examples of this in the world, of Him in the world. People can’t tell just by looking at us that we’re any different than they are, but our words, deeds, and joy set us apart; they open up the changed nature of our souls to share with others. This is the call of baptism, of confirmation, and of the priesthood: to be lights of Christ to others as we are more closely configured to and united with Him.
To some in the Church, “Father knows best” is seen as fundamental to Catholicism. I’m not referring to our biological fathers, but to our religious fathers who lead us in the Sacraments every day. This belief endows these men of God absolute authority in everything, especially anything related to the Church. In this mentality, we are not allowed to question and we are not allowed to engage in dialogue. This idea is bought hook-line-and-sinker by those who argue that women should be allowed into the priesthood.
The view that priests and bishops have autocratic power over all things Catholic is, at best, an incomplete look at the dealings of the Church. While the Church is not a democracy, it is not a dictatorship either. The order of the Church was made by God and God isn’t a heart-less ruler, He is Love itself.
When I was in an Ecclesiology class years ago, a classmate of mine made an apt analogy. “The Church,” he said, “is like a pyramid.” If you are looking at it from the ground, it appears to be a strict hierarchy with the many laity at the bottom, the few leaders at the top, and the pope at the very top. But if you look at it from above, from God’s view, it’s a square and all appear to be equal. We’re told in Matthew 5:48 that we are to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. As He does not discriminate, neither should we. We should look at the Church as a square, too.
The answer to clericalism isn’t more clerics. We need to challenge and support our Church to do better, to become truly the Body of Christ. This means more involvement by the laity. To use yet another analogy for the Church, the Church is supposed to be a huge family. Families are built on trust, love, and communication. When a problem comes up, somebody eventually has to have the last word (usually mom or dad). If that leader is to be just, however, they must listen to everyone else and respond appropriately.
As another blogger recently noted: “Are there abusive husbands, bad fathers, tyrannical priests and overbearing prelates? Of course. But the solution is not to get rid of patriarchy, but to get rid of bad patriarachs. Neither does ordaining women to the priesthood rid the world of overbearing and tyrannical priests and prelates.”
The priesthood isn’t about power. Jesus told the apostles to serve as he does. As another blogger recently said: “The priesthood, then, is a radical rejection of the world of power with its earning and owing. The priesthood is not an institution of power, but of weakness, for it is neither a creation of man, nor an achievement, nor a reward, nor anything that can be said to come from some power of man — it is received.” Women are not missing out on power by not being priests. They are only missing out on one of a myriad of ways to serve.
“The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.”
When I read this, I thought of all of you priests who spend hours in the confessional, some even staying there at fixed regular hours whether or not someone comes. You priests make the Church a place of mercy freely given whenever you make yourself available to anyone who wants the sacrament of Penance.
I know it can be draining to sit for hours inside a narrow box while listening to a succession of people talking about their personal miseries. The tedium of the task makes it is easy to forget that you are exercising an awesome power. But awesome indeed it is, for when you give absolution, you are transmitting God’s mercy in His name. I am reminded of the following part of Portia’s soliloquy on mercy in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:
“‘[Mercy] T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown: His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself;”
For four years, I worked as a law clerk. I spent every day of those four years inside a small cubicle, poring over records of murders, rapes, embezzlements, siblings squabbling over their inheritance, and all the other possible atrocities committed by mankind. I felt during this period that my job was not much different from yours. But you priests have it better. For in my, all I could do was to recommend to my boss what judgment to render according to the law. You priests, on the other hand, can give a repentant sinner the forgiveness of God. You have the power to tell a repentant sinner, in the name of God, that God has forgiven him or her. After you pronounce the formula for the absolution, the repentant sinner’s crimes are cleansed away, as if he or she had never committed them in the first place.
You may sometimes feel that the hours you spend in the confessional are wasted. It is true that the hours you spend hearing confessions or waiting for penitents to come can be spent instead catching up on parish administrative work or running a feeding program. It would indeed be wrong to neglect these kinds of activities.
But whether you feel it or not, the hours you spend in the confessional benefit the whole Church. So many people, rich and poor, young and old, have regained peace of soul because of the sacrament you administer – the kind of peace that can only come from a good confession.
Your availability in the confessional is, in itself, an eloquent sermon. Whenever I see a confessional with the priest’s light on, it’s as if I hear Christ say, “I am here. Come and receive My mercy.” The sight of a confessional with a priest wearing a purple stole is an invitation from Christ to approach Him, and to be forgiven, healed, embraced, and strengthened by Him. Many people, doubtless, decline this invitation. But when you priests make yourself available to give the sacrament nonetheless, you are acting as Christ the Good Shepherd Who seeks out the lost sheep.
I do not know how many people appreciate your administering the sacrament of penance. I wrote this letter because I want you to know that I, for one, appreciate it a lot. Thank you for making the Church “a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” I pray that more will take advantage of the mercy you make so accessible.
As I approach ordination to the Diaconate after 12 years in the seminary it’s easy to think about the many “what ifs” in my life. Things such as career, money, jobs, a wife, children, and even a permanent home are things I’ve given up in pursuit of this call. A call, however, is both something desirable and undesirable. When it comes to vocations I call to mind that “when you were young, you fastened your own belt and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will fasten your belt for you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18). Any walk of life requires sacrifice and any vocation, in my view, goes against the grain of our desires.
While the Apostle Matthew was called, “rose and followed him” (Mt 9:9), this is not true of all followers. Calls demand a response, not necessarily a wholehearted desire for the content of that call. Peter himself said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). Isaiah lamented, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lip in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Is 6:5a). Jeremiah complained, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth!” (Jer 1:6). All types of people are represented in Scripture. The overwhelming majority are those who aren’t too keen to do what God has asked of them—it’s not bad to see ourselves in them.
The Lord responds to our response. “Do not be afraid” (Lk 5:10). “Whom shall I send?” (Is 6:8). “To all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you to speak I shall speak” (Jer 1:7). The formula of God’s call is uniform: He reassures us and says, “Do I send whom I have not chosen?” (cf., Is 42:1). This is true because “it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (Jn 15:16). Then he tells us rather bluntly, “You will do as I command” (cf., Dt 12:32). We must confront the reality that life is not what I want but what God wants in His time and in His way. Prayer sharpens our hearing, but it is time, grace, and the Church that makes us desire His will as if it were our own.
The call is, for some, a process of constant humiliation, disappointment, frustration, and difficulties. Yet, “Await God’s patience, cling to him to do not depart, that you may be wise in all your ways. Accept whatever is brought upon you, and endure it in sorrow; in changes that humble you be patient. For gold and silver are tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation” (Sir 2:3-5). I know what awaits me from others moving forward: disrespect, hatred, dismissive attitudes, and many other things. I know that in my own heart there is a fear of timidness, complacency, and apathy. Yet God has cared for me with those who love me. He has cared for my heart by giving me peace, courage, faith, and hope. I’ve come to find that all things in me are good but not fulfilled. No one can fulfill himself and love is never fulfilled except from outside of myself. This is His gift to me: the love of God and neighbor is my own fulfillment.
Having given up everything to follow Him I approach a new chapter in my life: sacrificing personal desire for the sake of those sheep whom Christ said to feed and shepherd. I will soon experience this call and experience it with the people of God, and there are many trials and many blessings herein.
As I prayed about these things in my heart I called to mind the couples that I will marry. I called to mind that they too are called and respond as all men do to God’s call. I thought of my friends with children and the unique opportunity that having children offers in your life, but I also considered the many trials they will experience. In a life that is, by necessity, “focused on the things of this world” (cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34). What hope is there for a married couple and, I thought, what could I say to them to take the concrete experiences of their life and see God?
This, then, is my desire for marriage: that couples reflect on the fact that their relationship truly reflects the Divine Life and to keep this close to their heart throughout their own trials.
Only parents can experience God as a parent. Reflect that God calls us sons and daughters, too. A child comes forth in pain, crying, but it is met with love. The child is needy, depriving sleep from one’s eyes and peace from one’s mind, yet it is loved because it is life and the “fruit of my body” (cf., Dt 28:4). Throughout his or her life, their suffering is your suffering, their anxieties are your anxieties, and their joy is your joy. When they are sick you heal them. When they are scared they run to you. When they are arrogant they turn from you. When they are bad they anger you. When they are away they sadden you. Through it all these emotions are intensified because of the love with which you first loved them.
Your spouse, the one whom you love, was a co-creator and cooperator in your own love. You share life and you share hardships, even if each one bears it unevenly. Your love changes you and it is completed by being received and then returned. This too is the life of grace. This is a life of faith in as concrete a manner as one can experience it. This is the God of the Old Testament and New in as intimate, reasonable, and accessible way as one can approach it.
Any child becomes a sign of God’s covenant with His people. Know that your feelings for your child are merely a fraction of what God feels for you. Yet despite your child’s suffering that result from his wickedness, from misfortune, or persecution your love for him remains undaunted. If a mother or father’s love can endure evil and even death, how much more does God’s love endure through our sins and the sins of of the world!
Jesus promises that “his burden is easy” and his yoke light (Mt 11:30). Life has shown us that it is not easy. “Much labor was created for every man, and a heavy yoke is upon the sons of Adam” (Sir 40:1). Christ said this, however, because not only is this life of imitating God possible, it is peace for the soul. For “when a woman is in labor, she has pain because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (Jn 16:21). This is love God shows to those who return to Him, love and peace we all have access to.
Life for both of us, ordained or married, is a unique call from the others. It is a life of responsibility unlike any other. This is a gift given to us, even if it doesn’t always seem good or desirable. All life is a gift, no matter the type, since we are all pilgrims on one path—may our feet not stray! We have all been called.
What is holding you back? It could be something great or small, but we all face hurdles and roadblocks on our journey toward the Lord. When discerning, it seems that these can’t always be named and some seem unsurpassable. What is holding you back?
St. John of the Cross speaks a great deal about “detachment” in the spiritual life. In one of his writings, Ascent of Mt. Carmel, he writes
“As long as this attachment remains, it is impossible to make progress in perfection, even though the imperfect be very small. It makes little difference whether a bird is tied by a thin thread or by a cord. Even if it is tied by a thread, the bird will be held bound…it will be impeded from flying as long as it does not break the thread.” (Book One, 11.4)
St. John of the Cross illuminates a commonly overlooked part of anyone’s spiritual life and discernment. When someone makes the decision to follow God, and ultimately surrender to His will, that person must be willing to truly surrender ALL to the will of God. As human beings, this frightens us a little bit. The fear creeps in as to make the Christian believe that giving everything up will lead to unhappiness. However, if we look at the above quote those fears can be put to rest. Is the bird more free and happy when he is able to fly online casino or when he is stuck tied to the thread?
It is the same for discernment. There are things that tie us down and the first step to becoming detached is to identify those threads and cords that keep us from flying. Some are obvious while others are a little tricky to put a finger on. It will take some time to identify and let go of these burdens, obstacles, and hurdles, however, it can be done.
The Lord calls each and every person to sainthood. He calls each and every person to be with him for all of eternity. The Lord calls each and every person to strive for holiness. He calls each and every person to be who He created them to be. He created birds to fly. He created you for greatness, for holiness, for Heaven. What state in life, what vocation a person is called to helps achieve that greatness and leads others to do the same.
It’s time to cut the cord and soar—soar toward your ultimate fulfillment and happiness in the Lord.
I thought of you today, and hoped you were doing well. I got to thinking about the role you”ve had in my life, and the things I”ve left unsaid. If you have a moment, I”d like to say them to you now.
Thank you for always being there. You have been a constant presence in my life. I always knew that I could count on you to be around, and I thank you for that consistency.
Thank you for all of the words you”ve spoken to me over the years, even when it seemed like I wasn”t listening or that I thought I knew better. Although I have never told you, I did hear you. I appreciate all of the time that you put into the words you say and how you say them.
Thank you for never taking a day off. Being a father is a 24 hours per day, 7 days per week job. Even when you were trying take time for yourself, even when you were on your day off, and even when it was your vacation, you dropped everything when I needed you. You know that evil never takes a day off, so neither do you.
Thank you for being an example of true masculinity. Thank you for being faithful to your promises, for admitting your weaknesses, and remaining strong in your convictions. You are an example for my husband and sons to follow, and I am truly grateful.
Thank you for the times you were severe. Thank you for not sugar coating the truth. When I made big mistakes, you didn”t make excuses for me. You told me what I had done wrong and challenged me to be better. Even though I may not like it, please continue to do so, because I need it.
Thank you for loving my children. Thank you for greeting them with joy and for being an example for them. You see them at their best and sometimes at their worst. You teach them and encourage them, and I know you will be a cherished guide for them throughout their lives.
Thank you for your compassion. Thank you for listening and for not judging. Thank you for chastising without condemning, and for correcting without discouraging. The trust I place in you is one of the greatest gifts that I have, and I will do my best to be appreciative.
Thank you for doing a job that people criticize you for. Thank you for enduring rude looks and for being the punch line of jokes. This world places a heavy burden on your shoulders, and I know that you do your best to carry it.
To every priest who has been a part of my life, the priest who baptized me, and the priests who taught my CCD classes, to the priests who celebrated Mass at my high school, the priests who came to retreats and lock-ins, to the priest who heard my first, true confession, and never saw me again, to the priests who lived in the dormitories on my college campus, the priests who were my professors, and the priests who greet my family at our parish every Sunday:
Some help for when your son tells you he wants to be a priest…
I worked at a college for a few years that came up with what some claimed to be such a wonderful marketing slogan: Pushing Boundaries.
Question #1 – what does that even mean? I was always perplexed by such an outrageous catchphrase for a college. Is that similar to overstepping boundaries or crossing boundaries? That doesn’t sound too good. Psychology, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences point to the fact that boundaries are often a good thing. Laws are enacted to help promote peace and the common good. Do we need to push those? On second thought, our society and political system seems to be answering that question already.
Question #2 – What boundaries are in place that you wish to change-all of them or just those with which you disagree? Is it the idea that some
laws and policies inhibit us from being truly free thus we need to alter them? For instance, there are people who argue that the “rules” of the
Catholic Church are outdated and constrictive. I would argue that most of those people don’t actually know the “rules” and therefore cannot make the judgment.
Boundaries, rules, policies, guidelines, and limitations are not always a negative thing. In fact, they are often more freeing than restrictive.
Knowing and setting boundaries (not pushing them) can be very helpful to us as parents when the topic of vocations come up in our home.
What do I do when my son tells me he is thinking about becoming a priest? First things first, do not overreact. It obviously took your son a lot
of courage to bring that idea to the table and openly say that to you. There are two extreme reactions that can take place – either you over
react and want to ordain him tomorrow, or you overreact in a negative way and thus discourage him from future discernment. How you react is key; we do not realize the impact our opinions have on our children.
One the one hand…Those will overreact with joy
Since finding young men for the priesthood in today’s society is becoming more and more difficult, it is important to remember that God calls. He is the one who calls, invites, and stirs within a man the desire to serve God more and more. If we constantly bring up the idea of this vocation and badger him about it, he may begin to feel pressured to move toward the priesthood before he is ready. Don’t brag about it to other
people in your church. He can share the news with people when he is ready. In the meantime, ask people to pray for him and all vocations!
On the other hand…some overreact with fear
Some may react to the idea of priesthood with complete fear. No daughter in-law, no grandchildren, No one to carry on the family name, no money, no certainty of where you will be living, etc. Let’s face it, some will react to their son’s discernment as if he were discerning flying into
outer space to blow up the asteroid doomed to destroy earth! Take a breath…it’s going to be OK. Just because a priest is not married or
doesn’t have biological children, does not mean that he isn’t enjoying life or the gifts God gave him, including his sexuality. Celibacy is a
beautiful way of living out God’s plan and priests are blessed with numerous children and extended family through the lives of their
parishioners! Just like you worry about your kids, priests stay up late some nights worrying aboutthis parishioner struggling with finding a job
or that parishioner who is having a tough time in their marriage. And just like you, the priest rejoices with and celebrates the joys in their
“children’s” lives – weddings, baptisms, etc.
So, how do you react? Knowing the proper boundaries, and not pushing them, react in love. Let him know you are proud of him for having the courage to discern the call and tell him you are here to discuss it whenever he wants. God will lead him in the right direction.
Beginning my new job in vocations this summer has been an amazing experience. Not only have I come to truly appreciate the importance of this ministry, I have also noticed that even with the amount of resources available, there is still something lacking. As with any job or ministry, there are people who are invested in the success and improvement of it. For example, in the business world, companies hire consultants to assist their various departments to improve productivity and growth. Companies that do not change, adapt, and improve upon “the way things have always been done” will be left in the dust by their competition. In the ministry of vocations, it is imperative that we listen to the voices of our “consultants,” the People of God to improve our efforts to help people answer God’s call in their lives.
A vocations office is not merely a recruitment office for priests and religious. In fact, if these offices are focused primarily on the quantity of men they accept into the seminary, they can be likened to a corporation that simply mass produces their products looking to fill shelves rather than focusing on the quality of the product and how it affects the consumer. A vocations office (or any ministry for that matter) cannot be a business. Christianity is about developing and fostering a personal relationship with Christ and his Church. Therefore each Christian ministry must flow from that understanding.
Where do we learn about fostering relationships? From the earliest moments of our lives, our social and relational development stems from within our families. I constantly catch myself interacting with my wife and son the way in which my father acted with my mother and me. When I look at men and women who are discerning the priesthood or religious life, I often notice that they were exposed to priests, brothers, and sisters at one point in their life and had a profound experience and relationship with them. I witness parents with young children bringing them to volunteer days and events hosted by religious communities and I pray that from those experiences a vocation will be fostered. On a side note, when praying for a vocation to be fostered, it cannot be limited to one way of life. For instance I cannot pray that my son grows up to be a priest. Moreover, I must only pray that he be open to God’s call in his life and that he truly discerns through his relationship with the Lord, whatever that may be. Back to the point, it is my duty to expose him and help him develop positive relationships with different priests, religious orders, and holy families.
Recently I have had numerous parents approach me asking how they can lead their children to their individual vocation. In the weeks to come, I will be publishing resources and guides for parents on “How to react to a Child’s desire to be a priest or religious,” “Dos and Don’ts of Nurturing Vocations in the Home,” and “How to Pray with Your Kids.” Some parents worry when their child (of any age) mentions that they want to be a priest or enter a religious community. First things first-thank God that you are doing something right! As with anything your child says they want to do or become (so long as it is healthy and good), encourage it with love and a genuine interest in it. Parents, I need you to be a consultant for vocations. Let your priests and local vocation directors know what your kids want to know about priesthood or religious life. Ask questions on how to better the fostering of vocations at home, in school, and in parishes. This vital ministry cannot be left to Vocations offices—it’s too important and must always be seeking to improve. Help wanted for the future of the Church – inquire within.
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