Earlier this month, the dioceses in the U.S. celebrated Vocation Awareness Week. This was a time set aside by our bishops to reflect on the vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and to encourage families to find ways to nurture that vocation in their children and grandchildren. I am going to
offer some brief reflections on the vocation I know best – the vocation to the priestly life. Many of the saints have reflected on the necessity of the priesthood for our salvation: Without the priesthood, there is no Eucharist; without the Eucharist, there is no Church; without the Church, there is no salvation. But as important as it is to reflect on the need for more priests (especially in this age of an advancing priest shortage), I want to reflect instead on the mysterious call to the priesthood.
Some of you may have been at Mass when our seminarian, Patrick Blenman, told the story of how he was a 10-year-old boy at Holy Angels Parish in Sidney, where I was serving in my first assignment after ordination as vicar [assistant to the pastor]. I knew that he had a good, devout family, so I was talking to them and had the inspiration to take my Roman collar off, place it around his neck, and tell him, “That looks good on you!” To be honest, I had completely forgotten that incident, but it doesn’t surprise me that I did that. Although the call is mysterious (why is one young man called and not another – that remains deep within the heart of the Lord), it is very often found in families where the love of the Mass and the Eucharist becomes part of the air they breathe, so to speak: a “given” that the sacrifice of the Mass is at the heart of the life of every Christian.
I am sure I have told the story of how my parents would go to Mass week in and out, no matter how tired or busy, even if minor illnesses got in the way. And of how my grandmother, when we stayed with her, would make us go to Mass one half hour early and kneel in absolute silence (and without slouching!) until Mass began. Long before I understood what the Mass was, or had any real interest in it, I knew that it was of the utmost importance to my family, and that it demanded the attention and respect that come as signs of love.
That is certainly a key building block in the life of a young man, because from the earliest age as a boy, he is “built” to understand that discipline and repetition are marks of love. (If you doubt this, think of how many boys have a real love and respect for a football coach, say, who works them hard and is very demanding. If that can be the case for the love of a game – football – how much more should it be the case for the love of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, making Himself present in His saving sacrifice of Calvary at the altar!) For that reason, I’ve become convinced that the tradition of having boys serving together with their priest at the altar (and knowing what they are doing!) is an important vocation builder.
Part of the reason for the discipline of silence is that our men need to learn that the Lord speaks to us in the Eucharist – heart to heart, and man to man. In my own vocation story, when I was wrestling against my call to the priesthood (I had other plans that involved marriage and a large family), I experienced a real turning point when I was at Mass, before Our Lord in the Eucharist. I was doing a volunteer year some 25 years ago, working with inner city children from New Orleans, at a school sponsored by the famous St. Louis Cathedral. My job was to bring them to Mass (5 blocks’ walk through the famous French Quarter each way) and make sure that they were quiet and respectful while at Mass.
That was definitely challenging, because some of them were not well disciplined. But I had a real love for the children. I distinctly remember one day, after being frustrated with some of them, kneeling down after Communion in the brief period of silent meditation, when the Lord started speaking to me. I don’t mean that I was having a vision or some such, but rather that I knew the Lord was communicating directly to me. It went something like this. “I love these children. I love them enough that I died for them. That is why they are here at Mass. And I want you to lay down your life for me so that my love can come to many through the Mass.”
It was a turning point because, up until that time, when I came to see how important the Mass was, I kept praying that the Lord would raise up good men to serve at the altar, so the Mass could be celebrated beautifully with reverence and love. The “shift point” was realizing that this call was not to some generic, anonymous “good men,” but to me in particular, as unworthy as I was and am.
From there, seemingly out of the blue, I had many people encourage me to think about the priesthood (sometimes people who barely knew me!). The Lord used that as a sign. I found out much later, from my brother seminarians, that this is not at all uncommon. If you feel that “Holy Spirit” instinct, don’t be afraid to tell this to a young man you know.