Called to be a priest?
A Reflection by Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP for Vocations Day, Our Lady of the Angels Parish, Rouse Hill, 2 October 2011
Elijah took shelter in a cave on Horeb, the mountain of God. And the Word of the LORD came to him, ‘Why are you hiding here, Elijah?’ He answered: ‘I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I am the only one left and they are out to kill me.’ Then the Word of the LORD said, ‘Go outside … for the LORD himself will be passing by.’ A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing the rocks – but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake – but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire – but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a whisper in the breeze: on hearing this, Elijah covered his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. The voice of the LORD said to him, ‘Elijah, stop hiding here ... Go, take the road back to Damascus.’ (1 Kings 19)
It is good to take time to listen to what God is saying to you, as you are doing on this vocations reflection day. Elijah couldn’t hear God in the midst of the storm, the earthquake and the bushfire, but only in a ‘still small voice’, the whisper of a gentle breeze. Likewise it can be hard for us to hear God amidst the bustle of daily life, the studies and work, the electronic gadgets, the social life, the roar of the traffic and so on.
God doesn’t generally break through those barriers by sending us personal text messages on our mobiles or interrupting pop concerts with an announcement on the public address system. When we talk about ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ from God, it really is a metaphor at most, as Elijah’s hearing Him in silence or the breeze makes clear.
Which raises the question: how would I know God was calling me? How do I let His mind so inspire mine and His will so penetrate mine that I can hear and respond to His still small voice? What if I’m tone-deaf to the quiet promptings of the Holy Spirit? How do I release myself from the noises that distract me from hearing God’s mind and the anxieties that stop me from embracing God’s will?
There is a path to this, along which God draws us. It is a lifelong work that can be described as the four stages of:
- annunciation; and
I would like to explore those with you this afternoon, with the aid of the Word of God.
Though God’s voice is insistent it can be drowned out by our own passions, fears and prejudices; or by alternative voices saying things like: ‘this religion stuff doesn’t really matter, not enough to give your life to’ or ‘is any of it really true anyway?’ or ‘sure, it’s true, but you’re not worthy, you’re not the sort’ or ‘you’re not really certain enough, postpone, take your time, no need to rush’ or ‘try other things first, try this apple instead …’.
Just as conversation is near impossible in a loud bar or beside a jack-hammer and we need to move to a quieter place to hear each other, so a still small voice will not be heard if there are too many powerful distractions, too many outer or inner voices, temptations, obstacles.
When Elijah finally heard God’s voice he was sent on the road to Damascus: that immediately evokes for us Christians thoughts of St Paul. Paul, as we know, needed a really loud voice to penetrate his resistance: the voice of Christ Himself charging him, ‘Saul, why do you persecute me?’ A voice powerful enough to turn Saul the persecutor into Paul the Apostle.
As St Paul reflected on own life and sought to teach others, he realised how deaf he had been at times and we all can be to God’s promptings. He told the Jews that though they had the gifts of the Covenant, the Law and the Prophets they had missed the point; he told the pagans that though they had the gifts of philosophy and law and road-building and the rest, they were fools. Here is what he wrote to the Romans:
God’s wrath is being revealed against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth … For much about God is evident enough: ever since the creation of the world, His existence and attributes could be seen in what He has made. So unbelievers have no excuse: though they should have known God, they did not accord Him glory and thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning and their minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools … So God left them to their impure lusts and mutual degradation. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator … They exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and did shameful things with people of their own sex … They pursued every kind of wickedness, greed and malice; full of envy, violence, treachery and spite; gossips, scandalmongers and blasphemers; boastful, sly, disobedient; they behaved as if they were senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. What’s worse, they encouraged others to do the same. (Rom ch 1)
St Paul could have been describing aspects of the modern youth culture or university life! The point here is that even in the most sophisticated places in world, private passion and corrupt culture can block our ability to hear God.
For just this reason, prophets like Elijah and Paul denounced institutions, practices and people that put anything before God. They wanted us to understand that God must come first in our lives if we are to be truly happy. Jesus, too, though often gentler, could be a fiery prophet at times: He cursed Scribes and Pharisees and Lawyers and the Moneychangers and the Rich and Powerful who pursued their own agenda rather than God’s.
If we are to hear God, we have to let the prophetic Word of the Lord denounce us, convict us of any resistance we’ve built up to God’s Word, to His promptings in our heart, His quiet nudges. Unless we surrender to being in God our own defences or the noise of others will keep us from hearing and responding to His call.
So we must be ready for uncomfortable truths about ourselves, not just affirmation. If whenever you go to Mass and hear the Scriptures read and the faith preached, or whenever you read the Bible for yourself, if you always feel consoled and encouraged to just stay the same, then you are not really hearing. The Word of the Lord is alive and active, it cuts more sharply than a double-edged razor. When God speaks He doesn’t whistle our tune: He calls us to join in the symphony of His tune, playing in harmony with His saints.
The Truth held out clearly before us by God’s prophetic word denounces whatever is ungodly about us and so is resisted; as Elijah and Paul complained, they killed the prophets and even the Lord God Jesus Christ. But if we are willing to hear the sharp Word of God, ready for a life of re-formation, then the Divine Sculptor will gradually chip away at the dross to get to the artwork within each one of us.
Jesus told them this parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure which a man finds buried in a field ... Full of excitement he goes and sells all that he has to buy that field. Or, again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great value, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.’ (Mt 13:44-46)
To be called to be a priest is to be called to something so exciting that like a treasure-hunter, like a pearl merchant, you would willingly give up everything else.
In my own case I had had a fairly ordinary Catholic upbringing, in a loving home (the domestic Church) with a family who got me into the habit of Mass and taught me God comes first. I had a great-aunt who was a nun, I went to Catholic schools and was an altar boy, so serving Christ was not unthinkable. From about age 15, priesthood was in the back of my head, but I went ahead with my university studies, employment and social life.
Now, we’ve all got shameful things in our past and one of mine is that I was a lawyer! In fact I loved the law. My big city firm donated me for some weeks to the Legal Aid office in Kings Cross, where I helped some disadvantaged people, often with mental health or drug issues. It was a clash of cultures with the firm’s international corporate finance section to which I was attached. We were big boys – even the girls – working for the bigger boys, and we billed out our time at fabulous rates in five-minute blocks.
I enjoyed the intellectual puzzles, the self-confidence and energy, and occasional sense of getting someone justice.
Then one night we worked through the night on a big corporate contract. The others on my team were really ‘pumped’ the next day when we’d done it in the nick of time and were rewarded with the rest of the morning off. I remember thinking: hold on, what if you had a family, or a prayer life, or any other life? This profession, like many others, demands your soul, all of you, ontologically, as it were.
Soon after that I took leave and went backpacking around the Holy Land and Europe to make up my mind about my vocation. I did a lot of praying, thinking, imagining, feeling and weighing up, as I suppose I’d done on and off for years, and finally decided I must take the plunge. So when I came back I tried postulancy in the Dominican Order. I loved singing my prayers in choir with the brothers, hearing them preach, studying with them, nutting out the three great mysteries of God, creation and ourselves, and at last I could do that fully, that is, theologically.
Within a week of my joining the Dominicans I knew it was the place for me. It took the Order a little longer – six years in fact – to be sure about me, but eventually we agreed I should make solemn profession. Soon after that I was ordained a deacon and then a priest. At times I lived the Dominican thing quite well; at other times less so. There are conversions and reversions even within such a school of perfection. But at least I now knew I would eek out the rest of my earthly existence in a Dominican community – or so I thought ... In due course I found that every time I think I’ve got God’s plan for me figured out, He delights in upsetting it. You see, a perfect sense of humour is amongst the divine perfections, along with omnipotence, omniscience and infinity. He is, as they say, a God of surprises and He asks us to let go of our plans and securities even as He is revealing His plans and securities to us. It’s not just vices of Roman university students, but many good things too that we have to let go of.
St Thérèse – when she was asked whether she wanted to be a nun or a soldier or a priest or an apostle or a doctor or a martyr she famously said she wanted it all, which was her common response when given options. Remarkably, though herself an enclosed contemplative nun, she did get to become a patron of missionaries. But the fact was being an enclosed nun precluded being an actual missionary, let alone a soldier or doctor or whatever.
That’s because every choice involves what economists call opportunity costs, other things we forgo: there is no such thing as a free lunch, not just because those who offer it to us will one day ask something in return, but also because when we are at lunch we are not doing umpteen other things we could be doing, and, perhaps, would like to be doing. In everything we do in life we pay, at least, the price of the alternatives we forgo.
People sometimes say celibacy is a terrible price to pay for priesthood; but even the married man must learn chastity and chastity for a married man will include abstaining from sex, sometimes for the time being, as when he gets the urge at work or in the shopping centre or at church, and sometimes for more extended periods, even for years, if his wife is sick or hostile or away. When a man chooses Mrs X he is renouncing three billion other women many of whose charms might interest him, sometimes even more than his wife’s. Choosing Mrs X for life means choosing not to choose anyone else, it means embracing the uncertain future of his own changing feelings and her changing looks and moods and the rest … So marriage, like priesthood, comes with an opportunity cost, a price tag; it calls a man to renounce his own will in a thousand different ways.
Consecrated religious life also involves renunciations, as told in the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. But even diocesan priests, who do not take these vows, must live simply, chastely and obediently if their preaching and sanctifying and leading are to be effective.
That presents each of us in the process of discerning our vocation with the question: am I willing to let go of some of the control, comfort and intimacies of my present life or of my various possible future lives, in order to give myself totally to the service of God and His kingdom? In appreciating and hoping to possess so great a treasure we have found ‘the pearl of great price’ and must be ready to sell up to get it.
The paradox of Christianity is that we recover our life by giving it up; we find our freedom by renouncing our wilfulness; we discover our treasure by renouncing possessiveness; we find our intimacy in the quiet solitude that frees us to be close to many others and to God.
Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, we have given up everything to follow you.’ Jesus replied, ‘Honestly, I tell you: no one who has given up his family or wealth for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will go without receiving houses, siblings, parents, children and lands a hundred times more in this life, though not without persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.’ (Mk 10)
Jesus obviously was not against family (in fact He was big on family), or houses or lands or a fishing businesses … but He was against anything that got in the way of throwing ourselves headlong into the Kingdom of God. It is better to be blinded or lame, He said, than to miss out on God’s kingdom and enter hell whole. We must renounce whatever holds us back from throwing ourselves headlong into the adventure of God’s kingdom: it might be our love of possessions, or our desire for security, or our anxiety about being a success and not being humiliated by getting it wrong, or our craving for intimacy or whatever. Only by conquering such fears and longings are we free to embrace a life of virtue and service.
In essence, we must be brought into the kenosis – the self-emptying – of the Son, who gave it all up for our sake. We must be ready to be heroes; in the language of popes we must be afraid of nothing, except mediocrity. At WYD11 in Madrid Pope Benedict said to your generation:
If you abide in the love of Christ, rooted in the Faith, then even amid setbacks and suffering you will encounter the source of true happiness and joy. Faith does not run counter to your highest ideals; on the contrary, it elevates and perfects them. So do not be satisfied with anything less than Truth and Love, do not be content with anything less than Christ ... May no adversity paralyse you. Be afraid neither of the world, nor of the future, nor of your own weakness. The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history so that, by your faith, His name will continue to resound throughout the world.
The Virgin Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child. Now Joseph, a righteous man, did not want to expose her to shame, so he resolved to divorce her quietly. But behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son whom you must name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him. (Mt 1)
The annunciation to Joseph is one of several in the Bible: that to Mary is the most famous (we call it THE annunciation), but the Word of the Lord or the angel of the Lord called many people to a new mission, such as Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Jeremiah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the magi, the shepherds, the apostles, Paul …
The annunciation to Joseph is interesting I think. He was not the obvious choice, the way Mary was. Mary was the finest flower of our race and had been readied from her conception, by being preserved from original sin. As far as we know Joseph was a fairly ordinary bloke, a good man to be sure, and in due course a good husband and father, but not a stand out like Mary and some of the others. He must have thought himself totally unworthy to be step-father to the Son of God and husband-protector for the Mother of God. He must have been bamboozled by God’s choice.
Perhaps you know the story of St Turibius. He was a layman, a law professor at Salamanca University in Spain. One day he got a letter informing him that the Pope had appointed him Archbishop of Lima in Peru. He was astonished. He wrote back to the Nuncio saying there must be a mistake, presumably they’d got the wrong Turibius; after all, he was only a layman and, worse than that, he was a lawyer. He did have some experience as an ecclesiastical judge and presumably that’s how they’d heard of him. The Pope doesn’t make mistakes, was the Nuncio’s response; if the Pope thinks you are the best man for the job, then you are. So he had to get himself ordained deacon, priest and bishop, pack up, and move to the other side of the world.
Three times he traversed the 450,000 square kilometers of his diocese on foot, frequently defenceless and often alone. He was exposed to storms, deserts, wild beasts, tropical heat, fevers and hostile natives. He preached and taught and baptised and confirmed nearly half a million souls, among them the Dominican saints http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Rose_of_Lima Rose of Lima and Martin de Porres. He built roads, schoolhouses, churches, schools, convents and at Lima, in 1591, founded the first seminary in the Western Hemisphere. He championed the rights of the natives against the conquistadors. In due course he was a saint. God does, indeed, delight in surprising us.
St Joseph probably thought, like Turibius, that the angels had got the postal address wrong. Yet in trust he handed himself over to providence and let God make of him the servant he wanted him to be.
Having allowed the Word of God and our own growing self-knowledge to identify and denounce whatever blockages there are in our hearing, having renounced, in turn, whatever might stop us responding, we are free to hear God’s call, that ‘still small voice’, and we dispose ourselves to serve Him. So is God speaking right now? What is He saying? Do we yet mean what we say when we pray ‘Thy will be done’ or does its real meaning frighten us?
This much is clear: Jesus has many ways of speaking to us about His plans for us: the gentle attraction of the things of a priest, of a life of closeness to God and the things of God, of a life of closeness to people and the needs of people, of a life of bringing those two together. As we come to know ourselves better, we come to know our suitability or not for such a task.
As you search your own soul and exercise your imagination, you might be attracted more by one or another aspect of the priest’s roles as pastor, leader, sanctifier, preacher, teacher. But this much is clear: God does not ask us to enter into chaos, into something to which we are totally unsuited and unattracted; God doesn’t make a mess and He doesn’t want to mess us up, or for us to mess up ourselves and others. God calls us to order and beauty and goodness.
Yet, what He might be calling me to can seem so big – as it must have seemed to Joseph and Mary and Turibius and Paul and so many others. As he said to them, so the Word of God constantly says to us: ‘Do not be afraid ... Put out into the deep ... Take the plunge ... I am with you.’
All friendships are built on trust and communication and so the time spent in quiet prayer alone with God builds and maintains our friendship with Him. If Joseph was dreaming with God, if Mary was reading her Bible, when the angels appeared to them, it was this presence to God that allowed them to say ‘Fiat, Yes, let it be done’, when ordinary worldly wisdom would have said ‘run a mile’!
The annunciation, a calling to something new, greater, to commitment, even unto death: this calls for trust, that God is the Master of the Universe and, so, of my life; that He has great plans for me, weak as I am; that He can do great things in me and through me, because of His greatness, not mine. And that means that I don’t have to have it all worked out already; I only need to say: ‘Yes Lord, I’ll give it my best shot.’
Jesus said: ‘Don’t worry about what you are to eat and drink and wear... your Father knows what you need. Seek first His kingdom and all these other things will be given you. Do not be afraid any longer, little ones, for your Father is pleased to give you His kingdom. Sell all you have and give alms. Get wallets that don’t wear out and credit that will not run out. Get treasure in heaven, for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be... You, then, will be the faithful and wise steward whom the Master puts in charge of his household, to provide his servants’ needs at the proper time!’ (Lk 12:29-42)
This brings me, last of all, to the question of whether Jesus is calling ME in particular and how I would know and how I should respond; am I one of those He wants to appoint as a steward over His household?
Essential to finding out is spending time with Him, such as this afternoon and others like it; such as time spent in prayer and solitude with the Blessed Sacrament; such as time spent in worship at the Eucharist and Confession; such as time spent with wise friends who know us and objective counsellors such as Father Warren. It is in those situations that we can best reflect upon who I am, what I’m good at, what I’m attracted to, what great thing I could do with God’s help, what would really make my life make sense, what would make the most of me, not a mediocrity but a hero, the greatest man I can be under grace.
The matter is simple enough: do I love God and trust him completely? Does the life of a priest appeal to me and would it make sense of who I am and what I’m made for? Do I have courage, the be-not-afraidness, to give it a go, to give myself time for discernment and formation in the seminary so that the Church and I can work this out together? Am I set on the path of putting God first in all aspects of my life, on the path of discipleship?
The discernment of God’s call is different for each person. Though the Spirit enables us to transcend our limitations, we must be aware of them and not discount them, not imagine we are perfect and that God and His Church would be lucky to have me. That is just vanity. But so is a lot of “I’m not worthy’ thinking, as if it all depended on me. My simple message for you today is this: be ready for denunciation by the Word of the Lord, purifying your heart and ears so you will be able to hear God’s still small voice; be ready for renunciation, too, as you let go of everything from your vices to various good things, so that there is no obstacle to your responding to God’s call; be ready, then, for annunciation, as God calls you, in various ways, to join him in the great adventure of preaching the Gospel and sanctifying and leading His household; and finally, be ready, for Me-nunciation, your personal response in humility and courage.Perhaps a still small voice is calling you to be a priest: let’s listen hard today, listen in trust and openness to God’s plan for me.
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