One of the enduring legacies of the 1960s is a crisis in priestly vocations. Every year, more priests retire and pass away in our country than can be replaced by a young generation. There are parishes across the country that are left without a parish priest or, if there is a priest, he is in charge of several different parishes in the same area. In my own diocese, it’s not a surprise to see a parish priest in charge of two parishes. In rural areas, some serve two or three parishes at the same time. In any case, the need for priests is dire.
In my own discernment process, I have often thought about this need and what it takes to be a priest. When I was a kid, I used to watch the priest at my Orthodox parish during the Divine Liturgy. Although he said many words that I didn’t understand at the time, I felt that he was doing something wonderful. I wanted to be like him and told my parents so. My mother told me that I was being too idealistic. The work of a priest is never finished. It is something that is interminable and almost infinite. Until the priest is called home by Our Lord, he is constantly at work. However, I didn’t mind that. I wanted to work for souls and help them. I felt a thirst to do what the priest was doing at the altar every Sunday and holy day.
As I got older, the idea of a vocation to the priesthood still occurred to me. During the course of my senior year in high school, I met a retired Jesuit priest that changed my outlook completely. If my parish priest had planted the seed, then he watered it and allowed it to grow. Fr. Harrington was a man who overcame great adversity to become a priest. Orphaned during the great influenza epidemic of 1918, he was raised by an uncle and aunt in a farming community in southern Idaho. Eventually, he attended the local Jesuit college and studied sociology. It was while completing his bachelor’s degree that one of his teachers, a priest that he greatly respected, stopped him on the stairs and asked the young man if he had ever considered a vocation to the priesthood. For the rest of his life, Fr. Harrington would work as a priest in a number of capacities across the Inland Northwest. When I met him, he was in declining and yet I learned a great deal from him about life and the Catholic faith. I’m sure that it was his prayers that effected my conversion as well as the sisters that taught me in high school.
As I grew older, I must admit that I drifted from Orthodoxy for a number of reasons. It was around this time that I lost interest in my vocation. Shortly after I returned from Los Angeles, however, I acquired a book about St. Aloysius Gonzaga. I read it out of curiosity more than anything else. I figured that I would learn about the Jesuit scholastic with the unpronounceable first name. As I read his life, however, I felt a voice calling me as it called him. I understood that if St. Aloysius had been so single-minded in his desire to become a priest that he did not resist the beatings of his own father, then who was I to throw away something that God had given me? After reading that book, I decided that I would seriously discern my vocation and that is what I have continued doing to this very day.
Yet the thing about discernment is that it is not a linear process. Discernment takes time and energy. It requires a great deal of listening and silence. Several times, I went down paths believing that God wanted me to be a member of a certain Order or group only to find out that it was my desire to belong to that group and not God’s. Several times, I thought that God had spoken to me when He hadn’t. I thought that I was discerning when I wasn’t. I thought that I was in the passenger seat, while I was actually revving the engine and spinning down the road at 120 miles per hour.
There came a point, however, when I consciously decide to let God take charge. When He got in the driver’s seat, my direction became clearer. Although I know the general direction that my discernment is taking, I am always ready for the unexpected bumps in the road and those detours that God loves so much. Yet I am also learning a great deal about myself in this process as well. I am learning about my proclivities to vice and how to avoid the occasions of sin. I am acquiring a knowledge of how to conquer my own self and become more Christ-like. While there are day and weeks when I feel that I am not making progress, I also understand that God is in charge and that I need to go through these experiences in order to become a better lay brother or priest.
I’m sure that some of you may be surprised by that last point, but it doesn’t surprise me. I really don’t know what I will be when I enter the monastery or the novitiate. If it is God’s will that I become a priest or brother, then I will be happy with either. Even if I don’t make it in the novitiate and live in the world as a layman, then I will also be happy no matter how disappointed I might feel at the time. It truly doesn’t matter what happens as long as I am doing God’s will and, at the end of the day, this is my only wish.
Yet I wonder about all of those other guys my age that are thinking about vocations to the priesthood. I wonder what is holding them back and what they are thinking. I wonder if they are going through the same struggles that I am in realizing this wonderful and tremendous call fr om God. Indeed, I hope that some seminarians will step up and tell me about their experiences. It would be a wonderful conversation. What are they waiting for?