Finishing a talk on the priesthood, the eyes of the young men in the room are bright, inspired by stories of sacraments celebrated, evils vanquished, lives renewed. The questions flood in: “How do they choose which seminary you go to?” “What’s the worst liturgical disaster you’ve witnessed?” “When did you know you wanted to be a priest?” The conversation winds down and a moment of down time coalesces around the coffee pot. One of the dads is there, getting a cup. As the latest antic grabs everyone’s attention, he turns to me. “You know, Father, I wish I had heard this stuff when I was younger. Sometimes I wonder if I had a calling to the priesthood.” There is a quiet intensity in his eyes for a moment. It is hard to know what to say.
This is not a particular experience that happened to me. It is a reconstruction based on more than a dozen similar experiences. More than a dozen times that a married man has given voice to this question that he has not been able to let go of, even many times after decades of marriage. “Could I have been called to the priesthood?”
Can a man really have been called to give up a happy marriage?
At this juncture, some would be happy to take this reflection in a predictable direction, interpreting these experiences as evidence that the Catholic Church should ordain married priests. “If these men had been able to be married,” we can hear them say, “they would have been able to follow God’s call as priests.” But is the desire to marry, or the call to marriage, what prevented these men from being ordained?
My experience does not support that claim. Most of the men who have posed the question to me of whether they might have been called to the priesthood did not feel that they were prevented from becoming priests because of the celibacy requirement. Many of them have been very clear that they do not see the two vocations so easily combined. In fact, most appreciate the wisdom and beauty of the Church’s practice of priestly celibacy. It is precisely the call to a celibate life of service in the person of Jesus Christ (who never married) that is attractive to them. Even in the rare case of a man not entering the seminary because of a woman he loves, in my experience the later doubts are not about whether he was called to be a married priest, but whether he was called to the celibate priesthood. Whether the Lord had asked him to give up the good of marriage in order to be a priest – that is what these men wonder.
“Alright,” some might say, “but look – everyone has their moments of disillusionment. Priests wonder if they were called to get married too, right? The grass is always greener…”
Sure everyone has their moments… The “what if” trains of thought that come up on bad days. I understand that. I’m sure most priests have had more than a few lonely nights when they have wondered what it would be like to sleep with someone beside them. And I’m sure most married people have had more than a few aggravating nights when they have wondered what it would be like not to have to share the bed with someone - and this someone in particular.
But most of these guys who I speak of have seemed to be in happy marriages. From what I can tell (granted many times difficulties are hidden), these have been men who probably have some of the healthiest marriages of anyone you would meet. I’m sure many would say they could not imagine finding a better wife. And I agree. From what I have seen, their wives are wonderful women, and they have beautiful families. And they know it. They are not unhappy. You don’t have the sense that they are missing something, that they are miserable. They don’t wonder whether they would have been happier as a priest, or more fulfilled as a priest, or more able to do good for the world as a priest. But they still wonder whether they were called to the priesthood.
And this makes sense to me, because the call to the priesthood is not a rejection of marriage, but an invitation to lay the good of marriage aside in order to be of service to the Church in the person of Christ. A man with a genuine call to the priesthood should both value and be capable of finding great joy in marriage. He should be capable of being a good husband and father. If not, he would have a difficult time acting in the person of Christ, who is the father and spouse to the Church.
I would go so far as to say that a man who is called to the priesthood could, for one reason or another, not hear or respond to the Lord’s call and instead easily and with many consolations and joys enter into a marriage. There is no celibacy gene. There is no quality that makes a man who is called to the priesthood incapable of being a wonderful husband and father. The only intrinsic difference between a married man and a celibate priest is that one has been called to the priesthood and the other has not.
Can Jesus’ call really go unanswered?
Can a man really have been called to a vocation other than the one he is living? Could he have been called to the priesthood even if he is now in a sacramental marriage? Could he have been called to sacramental marriage even if he is now a priest? I think we have to say yes.
God gives us this freedom. He gives us the freedom to choose other than what he desires for us, other than what he knows will bring about the greatest good. This is more obvious when sin is involved. If a man is overtaken by lust or greed of pride, these sins cloud his vision and keep him from responding to the call of Christ. We can close our eyes and block our ears. We can refuse to listen. We can be like Jonah, and get on the boat going the other way. We can even be like Judas and betray him.
But there are also other factors that can get in the way of our ability to hear and respond to Christ’s call that do not involve personal sin. We live in a fallen world – not every seed lands on fertile ground. Some falls into weeds or onto dry soil. Christ calls, but his voice is not deafening. A call to the priesthood is usually a whispering wind, a gentle tug that one feels only when the chains of this world have gone slack.
Our modern life is particularly hostile to discernment. The world around us is distracted and noisy, hostile to the kind of interior reflection that is required in order to listen to God. Cardinal Tagle of Manila in a recent talk on vocations in the 21st century spoke of these challenges. “Listening is not a virtue anymore,” he said. We know how to make noise, but we do not know to listen, to be receptive, he lamented. “We have a Global crisis in listening.”
This is why the Church speaks so vehemently about the importance of prayer and spiritual counsel for those who are discerning their future. Discernment is not to be taken lightly. Hearing and responding to the call of Christ does not come automatically. Many times his call is not recognized at first, and like Samuel, we need the guidance of a wise spiritual mentor like Eli. If a young person does not go “up the mountain” to pray, does not have good spiritual counsel and advice, there is the very real risk that he will not be able to hear and respond when the Lord calls. He will be too tangled in weeds, too weak from lack of roots.
What happens when Christ’s call goes unanswered?
Now, at this juncture things get quite speculative. I am unaware of any authoritative Catholic teaching about the repercussions of not following the call of Christ to a particular vocation in life. It seems to me that the safest path is to look to the larger context of salvation and humanity’s universal vocation to holiness. And so we return once more to Genesis. Clearly in Genesis we see that God had a plan for Adam and Eve and that they did not follow it. So what happened? Death, destruction and woe. But then what happened? God did not just abandon humanity after we had rejected his plan – instead, he sent his only Son to restore us and to set us on a new and more beautiful path than we would have imagined or been capable of choosing for ourselves. As we hear in the Exultet each year “Oh happy fault that won for us so great a redeemer.” And so we know that Jesus can bring new life, fruitful and abundant life, to those who have gone astray and have not followed his will. He never abandons us, he does not deride or torment those who have scorned his ways. Instead, when we turn back to him and seek his will, even our failures and sins can be transformed through his grace into occasions for new life and salvation.
This truth of our salvation is the key to understanding the repercussions of our acceptance or rejection of the plan that God has for each of us. Seen through the lens of salvation history, I think we have reason to trust that even if Christ had called a man to the priesthood and he did not listen to that call but instead sought out married life or single life either because of his own fears and limitations or because of his sinfulness, if that man were to persevere in his efforts at living a holy life, the grace of Christ would bring new and abundant life and holiness to him and, in a sense, “redeem” his vocation. The stone that the builders reject can become the corner stone. This confidence is rooted in the fact that from the cross, the greatest denial of God’s will and rejection of his path, Jesus Christ has reunited us to himself and given us the pathway to life.
“So does it matter what I choose, if Jesus will make all things turn out well in the end?” Well, does it matter that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit? Does it matter that we crucified Christ? Of course! These were great and grave sins and misguided actions that had evil repercussions. Would that we had not eaten the apple or crucified Christ! But notice that we cannot, in looking back, say that life would have been better had we not. We do not know. In Christ, God’s saving grace has surpassed any attempt to quantify the repercussions of sin. This is where reason finds its limit. Here we find a strange reality: we should not have done something, but we cannot explain why not; there was something that should have been done, but we cannot explain why. The limitations of time require us to think in terms of cause and effect, in terms of before and after. God does not operate according to these limitations. Our choices are not shackled to time for God – he sees them and knows them for all eternity, and he knows how to effect the greatest good through his grace while at the same time giving room for us to discern and act freely. We do not know how he does this, but he does. We must stand before him, stand before the cross, in awe.
What are the ramifications for men and women who wonder whether they could have been called by Christ to walk a path that they did not follow? It seems to me that if they have asked for his forgiveness and are seeking to do his will they should be at peace. More, they can even be thankful that they did not listen to Christ in a sense, just as we thank our Lord for the fall of Adam on Easter Sunday. Through Christ, even a path chosen in willful disobedience or ignorance can become a source of great joy and blessing. Men should think of the blessing of their family, if they are married - the blessing of their ministry, if they are priests – and not wonder what would or could have happened if the apple had not been eaten. We do not sit around on Easter morning wondering what life would have been like had there been no fall. We contemplate the incredible love and mercy of God who gives every spiritual grace and blessing even to those who have sinned or innocently turned away from his voice.
The importance of discerning well when we are young
My hope, as we come to this point, is that we see in response to the question of whether we have followed the call of Christ both the great freedom and responsibility entrusted to us in discernment and also the abundance of his grace and mercy for us when we don’t get it right. This realization should instill in us a great trust in our Heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us and at the same time an intense desire to listen to his voice and follow his will.
While it is likely that we will get things wrong, and even some of the most important things wrong, our trust in God’s love and mercy should not lead us to complacency. We know that Christ calls us to a path in life for our own good and the good of the world. Original sin still affects us all, even after the resurrection of Christ. Choices have consequences.
Listening to Jesus and following him is therefore of the utmost importance throughout the whole of our lives, and particularly when we are young. Young people are given a natural curiosity and docility combined with keen senses precisely so that they can be listen and follow the voice of Christ. This is because the choices that they make, even the small and seemingly insignificant ones, will determine much about how the rest of their lives unfold.
For this reason, it is hard not to see a diabolical origin to the contemporary notion that young people are almost required to be self-absorbed and distant from God and parents, mentors and guides. “We live in an increasingly artificial world… in which we exclude God from our horizon without even realizing it,” Pope Francis remarked during his homily for Ash Wednesday this year. This limited horizon and superficiality, so rampant in our culture, is poisonous to discernment. It stunts the natural capacity of the spiritual senses, making young people timid and afraid to listen and follow Christ.
For this reason, the Church must make a particular effort in our time to encourage and guide young people in their efforts to listen to Christ and discern his will. I am convinced that there were many thousands of men and women over the last few decades who were called by Christ to be priests or religious but who, because of the changes in our culture and their own challenges, were unable to respond to his call. It is critical that we help young people identify the obstacles that will keep them from hearing and responding and put in place the ingredients that allow for mature and healthy discernment. The church cannot afford to raise another two blind and deaf generations.
Obstacles to discerning Christ’s call
What, exactly are the weeds of our day that choke out the light and keep young people from discerning well? What about those that are particularly tenacious for a young man considering whether Christ is calling him to the priesthood? It is important to identify areas that might compromise our ability to either hear respond to what Jesus is telling us. Some of the principle obstacles I have identified are:
Fears. We all know that fear is not from God and that perfect love dispels all fear. But that has not kept many very good and well intentioned men from giving in to it – Moses, Jeremiah and St. Peter just to mention a few. Those contemplating the priesthood are sometimes almost paralyzed by fear. Fears of loneliness, rejection, failure, and their own sinfulness are often overwhelming.
Attachments. We know the story of the rich young man who walked away sadly because he was attached to his many things. This continues to happen in our day among those who Jesus invites to follow him. Many times it is not money or possessions that have enslaved a man, but instead his concern for his reputation, or his desire for comfort, perceived need of sexual intimacy, or insistence on personal independence.
Family pressure. Jesus warned that no prophet is unwelcome except in his own native place. Families are having fewer children and often have expectations that their children will go on to have successful careers and provide them with grandchildren. One or both parents might be hostile to the Church or indifferent. Sometimes a parent or parents may want their children to be priests so badly that it makes it difficult for them to discern freely.
Social and cultural expectations. The status quo does not include the priesthood. It’s not on the radar. If you are just being swept along with the crowd, you will probably end up getting married. It’s amazing how many couples I have encountered in a first pre-marital meeting who cannot answer the question “So why are you getting married?” “It’s what you do?” Being open to a vocation to the priesthood or religious life requires that the young person be able to hear a counter-cultural choice.
False urgency. One of the requirements for any authentic human act is that it be deliberate, and deliberation in this world of ours requires time. The church requires years of discernment and preparation before a man can be ordained. There is a minimum requirement of 6 months preparation for those entering into marriage. In times of upheaval and instability, young people many times experience a desire to settle down, find an answer, make a decision. There is a natural uneasiness when we are not in control, when we are uncertain about the future. Sometimes this leads to an attempt to resolve things quickly, to set the parameters hastily so that we can find the stability that we desire.
Religious trauma. Perhaps it was a run in with the parish priest. Maybe it was a Catholic friend who betrayed us. Sometimes a particular incident is not the obstacle, but a generalized experience of lukewarmness and hypocrisy among priests and the Church as a whole have been encountered. It is hard to hear a call to something you have never seen lived out faithfully.
Moral failures. A young man is tempted and fails - makes a big mistake. Then he is convinced that this episode proves that he is not worthy, not capable of being a priest. Certainly there are some sins that present true obstacles to consideration of the priesthood. But there are many others that the devil loves to stand before a man who is discerning as if they were insurmountable.
False sense of duty/obligation. “Let the dead bury their dead.” Jesus was incredibly impatient with those who placed other duties and obligations above the duty to follow his call. And this is because many times, what masquerades as a sense of duty and obligation is actually a form of pride. “My parents (or girlfriend/boyfriend or employer) could not live without me!” A young person can falsely convince himself that he cannot possibly follow the call of Christ because the world needs him. It would be catastrophic!
Laziness and decadence. If you are on the Xbox all day, it will be difficult to find your way to the seminary. A young man gets his first job, first car – he has a comfortable apartment, a girlfriend who doesn’t really expect anything from him, friends who don’t challenge him, hobbies that don’t require any sacrifice. Life is good! There are a lot of reasons to put Jesus off when life is easy. It is easy to forget that none of us are getting out of here alive.
There are a myriad of ways that this world and the evil one work against our ability to listen to Jesus and follow him. No list can be exhaustive, because we are each weak in different ways and struggle with different demons. It is critical in the process of discernment that we try to identify the weaknesses and struggles that we are having and work through them with a spiritual director over time so that we can gradually become more capable of listening to what Jesus is saying and responding to him. While there will always be a degree of sinfulness and weakness that we have to battle, it is critical that young people never tire of the struggle to achieve the freedom to unreservedly follow Christ.
Ingredients of healthy discernment:
In the face of obstacles and weakness, the Church has long exhorted her children to take up practices that will facilitate a mature and healthy discernment of God’s will.
Prayerfulness. Speaking about the importance of prayer in discernment, Pope Benedict told our bishops that “Prayer itself, born in Catholic families, nurtured by programs of Christian formation, strengthened by the grace of the sacraments, is the first means by which we come to know the Lord’s will for our lives. To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God’s call. Programs, plans and projects have their place; but the discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.”
Scriptures and sacraments. In the Eucharist we are nourished and given strength to follow Christ. In confession he forgives our sins and restores us to grace. In the scriptures, Christ speaks to us, encouraging us, challenging us, consoling us. The scriptures and sacraments are great and powerful mediators of God’s grace in our world and are essential to one who is trying to listen and respond to Jesus.
Virtue The greatest obstacle to prayer, Fr. Thomas Dubay points out, is sin. We cannot live in intimacy with Jesus, we cannot even hear his voice clearly, if we are not working to follow his will. A man who is not living a life of charity, but who is caught up in anger, pride, resentment, gluttony, sloth, bitterness, malice, greed, or lust – this man will not be able to follow the voice of Christ who asks that we first make peace with our neighbor before we come to the temple to bring our offering. The cardinal virtues free our humanity to respond to the theological virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit, which in turn allow us to hear and follow Christ.
Faithful mentors and guides. It is important that the people who we speak with about life’s more profound questions are capable of giving us sound advice. In our pop-psychology age, this is harder and harder to find. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “Just do what makes you happy/gives you peace/makes you whole/etc...” “So you feel ______ when you _______ because______? Tell me more about that…” Great, so the person is a good active listener. But the goal is not to listen to yourself talk, the goal is to listen to what Jesus is saying to you. Who are the people who know him? Who are the people who have been faithful in good times and in bad, who are deferential to someone other than themselves? Who will tell you the difficult things you need to hear, not just try to make you feel better?
Friendships. It is so important that we dedicate ourselves to relationships of mutual recreation, support and encouragement. If all of our relationships are unequal, we do not experience the unique joy that can be found in friends collaborating and working together. Many times these relationships are the ones that sustain us during difficult times and that challenge us where we most need to be challenged. A group of faithful, God-fearing friends cannot be overvalued.
Insightful spiritual direction. If our discernment is to be honest and true, there needs to be a spiritual guide who we are willing to entrust with the vicissitudes of our interior lives. Too many men hoard their greatest battles all for themselves, and in the end are slain by them. A good spiritual director will respect the vulnerability of his directee and with gentle guidance help him to see where the Holy Spirit is at work and find the strength to follow. There is only so much that can be cured superficially – sometimes there are areas that require delicate surgery at the hand of a skilled practitioner.
Humble simplicity of life. This should be pretty clear. Big dreams of grandeur and power, wealth and prestige are incompatible with healthy discernment. Even the desire for ecclesiastical honor and recognition must be resisted. The litany of humility contains the prayer “That others may be holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should.” Our Lord insisted that whoever seeks his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for Christ and the Gospel, will save it. He must increase, we must decrease.
Marian devotion. No one is better at listening to Jesus and following his will than his mother. She is constantly exhorting us “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary is the example for every disciple, the model for all believers. Her fiat is the most pure and radiant acceptance of God’s will to ever sound across this world. If we desire a model and an intercessor as we seek to discern our vocation, we can find no better.
Time. Perseverance and patience are required in order to follow Christ. Our submission to time reminds us that time does not belong to us, but to God. We are not the masters of our own futures – the future belongs to Christ and he bestows it upon us according to his will. Discernment cannot be scheduled, cannot be marked out on the calendar. All that we can do is enter into the time that God has given us with open eyes and ears, waiting for him to speak and eager to obey when he calls. We cannot control when or how he will speak to us. His ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts our thoughts.
Can a man who is discerning in goodwill still be led astray?
Yes and no. There may be the rare case when a man, through human error and the fallen nature of this world, is not able to follow the call of Christ despite his best intentions. His experiences, fears, weaknesses, or temptations might get the best of him during a critical time. But as we said above, Christ does not call us merely once and then cut us off. He is merciful and loving. He knows about out fallen nature – he has taken upon himself our weaknesses and suffering. And so there are no dead end roads in him. The cross shows us that even the most horribly made choice can become in Christ a source of great joy and new life, and ultimately the birthplace of a beautiful vocation. This “redeemed vocation” in the wake of a poor decision, does not annihilate the memory of the first call any more than the resurrection of Christ annihilates the memory of Eden. And yet, in him, all things are made new, all things work to the glory of God the father. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.