THE PRIESTHOOD AS VOCATION
“. . . the priesthood unites all of the callings to which man may respond and cannot be thought of as just one of them. ”
Since it is the divine grace that elevates a man, through the laying-on-of hands, to be a priest, it is clear that the priesthood is unlike any other vocation open to men. Even to use the term “vocation” can be misleading, since there are other vocations and since the priesthood is not on the same level as those other vocations. In a very important sense, the priesthood unites all of the callings to which man may respond and cannot be thought of as just one of them.
According to the rite of ordination, the priest is specifically ordained to “stand in innocence before God’s holy altar, to proclaim the Gospel of His truth, to offer unto Him spiritual gifts and sacrifices, and to renew His people through the laver of regeneration.” The ordaining hierarch prays that “he may be wholly God’s servant, in all things acceptable unto Him.” In the Liturgy during which he is ordained, he is given the portion XC of the Holy Bread to hold until the elevation. On giving it, the bishop says to him: “Receive thou this pledge, and preserve it whole and unharmed until thy last breath, because thou shalt be held to an accounting therefor in the second and terrible coming of our great Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.” This act and these words are an indication that it is when the priest presides at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the fullness of his priesthood and his responsibility are both realized and made evident.
The priesthood is a calling or a life, not simply one occupation among many that a man might choose. This means that the priest has been called by God and given the gift of God, that is, the grace to accomplish his work. “That thou stir up the gift of God which is in thee by the putting on of my hands . . . [God] hath saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace” (II Timothy 1:6,9). The calling is holy, high (Philippians 3:14), heavenly (Hebrews 3:1), and therefore, the response to this calling and the acceptance of it and the ways of carrying it out are different from the choice and fulfillment of any other occupation. The priest must give account for all those committed to his charge. Of course, all Christians shall give account of themselves to God and they must be especially careful not to put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in their brother’s way (Romans 14:12-13). If this is said of all of Christ’s followers, how much more does it apply to the priest, whose responsibility is to lead men to their salvation? When the people are exhorted to obey them that have the rule and submit themselves, it is because those rulers “watch for their souls, as they that must give account” (Hebrews 13:17).
THE SACRAMENTAL PRIESTHOOD
The whole body of the faithful, the people of God, is a holy and royal priesthood, constituted “to offer spiritual sacrifices, showing forth the praises of Him who hath called them out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:5,9). And within this priesthood of all believers, there is a special, sacramental priesthood, the bishops and priests, with their helpers, the deacons. That this has been so from the beginning, we have the testimony of Saint Paul: “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administration, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all…. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body…. That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another…. Now ye are the body of Christ and members in particular. And God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? . . .” (I Corinthians 12:4-29). And later he reminds Titus of the reason for having left him in Crete: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders [presbyters] in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus I:5).
The priest is the member of the body that has the charge and the responsibility to unite all together and sacramentally to manifest the presence of Christ in the Church. He does not do this through his own special talents, knowledge, or abilities, although there are specific qualifications for the office he holds (II Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-16). “His priestly character testifies to the fact that all human being and life must be offered to God” (Father Thomas Hopko, On the Male Character of the Christian Priesthood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 3).
In practice the priest’s own life is wholly dedicated to the service of God and God’s people, all day, every day. Every part of his personal life reflects his calling and his responsibility. Even if, because of certain circumstances, he must have secular employment to sustain his life and his family’s, his priesthood remains his only vocation and can never be a “part-time job.”
In carrying out his duties, the priest must, first of all, preach the word, in accordance with one of the qualifications enumerated by Saint Paul, “apt to teach,” and in obedience to the same Apostle’s instruction to Saint Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, [and] out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine” (II Timothy 4:2). He must never miss the opportunity to teach the saving truths revealed by our Lord Jesus Christ, not only in sermons in the church and in classes, but also when he visits his people, and when he encounters people willing to listen no matter where he finds them.
He must live a life consistent with what he teaches. It is inconceivable for the priest to teach and exhort to holiness and himself to live a life dedicated to pleasures and entertainments, greed and personal ambition. “Great may be the teacher’s boldness, when he can instruct his disciples from his own good deeds” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily V, on II Thessalonians). As the Lord himself says: “Physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23). Saint Paul says: “Thou that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? Thou that preachest that a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? Thou that abhorest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God?” (Romans 2:21-23).
MINISTERING THE SACRAMENTS
Priests are, in Saint Paul’s words, “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:1). The awesome responsibility for administering the mysteries (or sacraments) of God cannot be over emphasized. It is appropriate here to recall the words of the prayer at the beginning of the Rite of Holy Baptism: “And sanctify me wholly by thine all-perfect, invisible might, and by thy spiritual right hand; lest, while I proclaim liberty unto others, and administer this rite with perfect faith in thine unutterable love towards mankind, I myself may become the base slave of sin.” He must understand and teach the meaning of the mysteries to those who are to receive them. He must not administer any sacrament to unbelievers or heretics. He must faithfully administer the mysteries, having first cleansed himself by repentance. He must not alter, because of laziness or haste, the form prescribed for the administration of the mysteries. He must not charge or name a price for any sacramental ministration. Finally, if “he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself” (I Corinthians 11:29), what could be said of those who administer the same unworthily?
Following the example of the Apostles, the priest must give himself “continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Saint Paul exhorts his disciple, Timothy, “that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men” (I Timothy 2:1). And the Thessalonians: “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer must necessarily be the basis for the fulfilling of all the priest’s duties. The priest, then, is a man of prayer in the church’s services, in the home with the family, with other members of his flock, and privately. It is useless for a priest who neglects prayer himself to urge his people to pray, because his neglect will be evident to them.
It is with all the above in view, of the awesome responsibility of that man who responds in the fullest possible way to the call of Christ to follow Him, that we have felt it necessary to initiate an in-depth study of some the problems faced by the priest in our contemporary society. The first of these studies will have to do with “Marriage and the Priesthood.”
Is God Calling Me to be a Priest?
How do I know if God is calling me to be a Priest?
Should we look for signs?
The Lord does send signs, but we have to be careful! When we use the word ‘sign’ it may make us think of visions and voices. It is true that sometimes something clear and dramatic helps us, but usually God speaks to us in ordinary ways, guiding us through the events and experiences of our daily lives; through the ‘ordinary’ experience of our Christian faith (which of course is not at all ordinary). Deep down, it is not about signs, but about an ever-deepening personal relationship with the Lord – his love and care for me, his call, what he has created me for; and how I respond to that with the gift of my whole life. But he uses certain signs to call out to us, just as we use words and gestures when we communicate with other people.
Below is a list of some of the initial ‘signs’ that God may be calling you to the priesthood:
The desire to be a priest. Perhaps you can’t explain why, but you feel you would love to do what a priest does – to celebrate Mass, or preach, to baptise or visit the sick. Maybe you can’t explain why you have this desire – you just imagine yourself as a priest and it seems to fit, even if it makes you afraid or you think it would be impossible. And this desire is different from just an ambition. We can be ambitious for the priesthood – we can turn it into a possession or an achievement: ‘wouldn’t it be great if…’ But this is not the same as a vocation. Ambition in this sense turns the priesthood into an external possession; but a vocation is more like a deep personal desire to become what you feel you should be. There is a joy and excitement when you think about it, a sense that this is the right path, and it will lead to the place you are meant to be.
The desire may be long-term or gradual or recent.
There are different kinds of desire – let me list four:
(i) Some people have always wanted to be a priest: they cannot remember a time when they did not have this desire; they pretended to be priests when they were a child; it seems to be a part of them.
(ii) Some people have gradually wanted to be priests: it has grown over time, perhaps as their faith has grown; or it has come and gone, but now seems to be a bit stronger and a bit more enduring.
(iii) Some people have always wanted NOT to be a priest: this might sound strange, but there are people who have always been fighting it, resisting, walking away, giving excuses why not; and this is because deep down they have always known it is a part of them; and at some point they realise that, in fact, people without vocations do not normally go around thinking about why they don’t have a vocation!
(iv) And some people suddenly want to be priests: they have gone through a life-changing spiritual experience; it has never occurred to them before but now it does; the priesthood is something new, sudden and unexpected, but very real and almost overpowering. This is why the Church asks new converts to have time to settle into their new Catholic life for a few years before seeking ordination.
The idea of the priesthood keeps coming back.
In your prayer, your daydreaming, your imagination; in your reading of the gospels – you find yourself coming back to ideas about the priesthood. Some scripture passage seems to be directed at you – about the priesthood, or the call of the disciples, or service. These passages seem to stand out for you and have a kind of clarity. You hear a sermon about the priesthood, or read something, and it seems personal; as if a light comes on, or it warms your heart; or as if someone is pointing at you.
Admiration for priests you know.
You admire certain priests you have met and know. There is a goodness and holiness in their lives. You have an attraction to something they have or represent. They seem to be living a life worth living, in a way that speaks to you. You are drawn to them.
Sense of being pulled or pushed toward the priesthood.
This can be true even if you do not seem to have any real personal desire. It is a nagging feeling that you should or could become a priest, which seems to come from nowhere, uninvited; an idea you can’t get out of your mind. It might leave you cold, or even repel you – in the sense that your instincts and gut fight against it. It’s as if part of you knows you should; there is an inner sense of duty, or call – even if it is reluctant.
Attraction to things associated with the priesthood.
Perhaps you do not have any explicit desires to be a priest, but you are attracted to many of the things that are involved in the life of a priest. You have a desire to serve people in different ways, or to pass on the faith, or to pray with and for others. Maybe you find less satisfaction in your work, not because it is wrong, but you feel it is not enough. You find yourself becoming more involved in the life of the parish as a reader or Eucharistic minister or catechist etc… You are giving your life in service more, in the SVP, or helping the poor or the young. Lay people and religious also feel these pulls, but perhaps for you they are pulls to something priestly.
Inner desire to pray more
To take the faith more seriously. You just find that you want to pray more and to learn more about your Catholic faith. The Mass seems to mean more to you. You have become more honest about your faults and failings, and desire to go to confession more often than in the past. You are reading more about the faith, or the priesthood – it inspires you; your interest grows. Your love for Christ is growing, and your love for the Church.
Basic desire to give your life to God completely.
Of course this is true for many holy lay-people! But it can often be the beginning of a priestly vocation, even when there is no idea of the priesthood at the beginning. You are not sure why, but you have a feeling that you can’t hold anything back. It is not enough for you just to work and plod along and say a few prayers and be nice to people – you want to give your whole heart, and you are not sure how or why. For some people the idea of celibacy comes to mind even before the explicit idea of priesthood, and before the Church explains how important it is – not because they dislike marriage, but because they feel called to give their life wholeheartedly to serve God and others, in a way that would be difficult within the commitments of marriage and family life. There can be a feeling that for me I couldn’t be free to serve the Lord if I were married with children.
Other people affirm your vocation.
When you talk to people about the possibility of the priesthood, especially committed Catholics, they don’t look as if you are mad. They affirm it, and say, ‘Of course, I could have told you that years ago!’ They encourage you. In other words, in the eyes of others this vocation also seems to make sense – it is not just a subjective sign for you, but it is beginning to be a more objective sign to others too.
Support from your ‘spiritual director’.
You may not have a formal spiritual director, but perhaps there is someone wise and trustworthy that you have chatted to about your vocation over a period of time; you have talked things through with them and they know you quite well. If they affirm what you have said, and it seems to them that you may have a vocation, then this is another more public sign that it may be true. At least it is a sign to take things further forward.
A feeling that you are not up to being a priest, that you are not worthy to be a priest.
This might seem like a paradox, but it can be true. Sometimes, of course, the priesthood is not right for someone, and they know this, and accept it happily. But at other times, someone may have a deep feeling that the priesthood is too much of an ideal for them, that they are not worthy, or not good enough (morally), or not capable enough. These feelings can be a sign of humility, an indication that someone has a healthy sense of their own limitations, and a high sense of the dignity of the priesthood. The feeling of unworthiness may, strangely, be a sign that someone has a true appreciation for the priesthood, and that they will be open to asking for God’s help and the help of the Church. It would be worrying if someone thought the priesthood was easy; or if they thought they could achieve it through their own efforts.
Certain essential things. There are certain basics that we normally ‘need’ if God is really calling us, and if these are lacking then a priestly vocation is probably not for us at this time in our lives – although it may show itself later on. If something concerns you here, do not just panic and rule yourself out, as we often judge our situation too quickly or too harshly, and there may be other factors which are greatly in your favour. But the basic things that we ‘need’ include:
- a commitment to one’s Catholic faith – a love for Christ, for the Sacraments, for the People of God.
- a love and respect for the Catholic Church and for her teachings, and a desire to share that faith with others (even if we find some things more difficult to believe than others).
- a commitment to the commandments and to living a moral life (even if we are weak and still struggle); you are trying to live a chaste life.
- basic physical and mental health (serious medical conditions will make it difficult for us to live and work as a priest).
- a reasonable academic ability (we may not have many qualifications, but we need to have a basic ability to study).
- a personal and emotional maturity (it will be very difficult for us to live in seminary, and to engage in pastoral work, if we have some deep and unresolved psychological issues; if we can’t get on comfortably with different people; if we are really struggling with some kind of addiction or anything else that is dominating our life at this moment).
- you have not been married; you do not have any big responsibilities that would take away your freedom to become a priest (children; huge debts; seriously ill dependent relative etc…).
How to ‘Interpret the Signs’
The overarching sign of a vocation will be an enduring attraction to the idea of the priesthood, accompanied by a deep sense of peace and joy in reflecting on this attraction. This does not mean the attraction will be without fears and anxieties. However, if the idea of the priesthood comes with a deep sense of panic, fear or anxiety (this is different from the natural humility and reluctance we feel) it may mean it is not right for us, and we would be much happier somewhere else! Usually, God gives us enough to go on – he does not play games with us. If we listen and look carefully, over a period of time, patiently, then usually a pattern will form, and things will become clearer. In this sense we do not need to ask for supernatural signs, visions, dreams… We should certainly pray for help and guidance, but usually God will guide us in these ordinary ways.
What to do next
If these signs grow stronger and come together, then we should take the next step – talk to someone we trust; talk to our parish priest; talk to the Vocations Director of the Diocese (for Westminster, contact Fr Richard Nesbitt at firstname.lastname@example.org). When we do this, we move to a new stage in our discernment, which is trusting in the discernment of the Church. This is more objective and ‘public’ – it involves other people and ultimately the Bishop, who is the one with the final responsibility of calling people to the priesthood on behalf of Christ. It can be hard to take this step and approach the Church and involve others; but it will also give us great peace – because it is no longer just us trying to find what is right, we have the support and advice of others.
At the end of the day, we can trust the Church to help us discern. If the Vocations Director encourages us to apply to the Diocese; and then if the Selection Conference supports us and our bishop accepts us, then this is the surest sign possible that the Lord is inviting us at least to take the next step into seminary. It still leaves 6 years to discern and become sure – but we can have the assurance that we are doing the right thing for the moment. If the Vocations Director suggests we hold back for a bit, or if the Bishop decides not to accept us for priesthood at this point, this is not a rejection or a negative thing – it is the way that God is leading us to something else, something that is more right for us, a different way of life where we can be holy and live out a different vocation. It may be that we come back to priesthood later; it may be that we become clearer about another direction. In all of this, it is essential to listen to the wisdom of the Church and not only our own subjective ‘signs’. The Church is not looking for volunteers to the priesthood – she is looking for those who are being called by God to this extraordinary vocation and this needs to be discerned by both the candidate and by the Church.
This article is adapted from the CTS booklet “How to Discover your Vocation” by Fr Stephen Wang
Where Do I Start? Visit St Athanasius Orthodox Theology Seminary to apply by clicking here