“So have you thought about becoming a priest?” As an altar server in my parish, many a priest (and well-meaning parishioner) would ask me this question as we were preparing for the celebration of Holy Mass. Even though this would stem from a casual conversation about my life, I was always somewhat taken aback by the harmless question put to me in that sacristy before I would automatically answer back to the smiling celebrant, “If God wills it!” To be honest, however, I felt lost. Some days I would think that being a priest was my calling, others that having a family was. In my life I would see hints of my calling everywhere— a Bible verse (i.e. Matthew 9:37) would tell me to be a priest while a smiling baby (and the occasional girl) would inspire me to be a dad. These mixed signals distressed me: despite my prayers, it seemed as if I would never get a firm answer to the life-changing question of what God wanted of me.
While I consider Saint Joseph my go-to-man for guidance on paternity, I look to Saint John Vianney, the patron of priests, for all matters concerning the Roman collar. The so-called “Curé of Ars” is an especially good model of strong will for both those preparing for the priesthood and anyone discerning God’s calling. From his youth he was filled with a great desire to “win souls for the good of God” by being a priest, though the turmoil of the French Revolution, having difficulty learning and memorizing in school, his father’s reluctance to not having him assist in the fields, being drafted into the military, suffering sickness, living amidst the government’s anti-Catholic persecution, and even being dismissed from the seminary in Lyon all stood in between the French man and his calling. At the age of 29, however, John Vianney was finally ordained, and he began to tend to the priestly and pastoral work in his parish. The same perseverance that enabled him to become a priest was now applied to the preparation of sermons, reflection on the works of spiritual writers and theologians, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Philomena, self-mortification, and ministering through Eucharistic Adoration and the sacrament of Reconciliation. What an example of courage for those who today experience the grace of being called to the priesthood!
With my own discernment process ongoing, I must remember that, despite the mixed signals I’m receiving as to what I am being called for, my vocation is not a problem to be solved! Rather, it is a personal call to holiness, one of joy and love. To worry excessively over this is to not allow God to work freely in my life nor trust that He will never lead me down the wrong path! Of course, the priesthood is not for everyone— fervent discernment will help determine if God is in fact calling a man to be consecrated in this way. Entering into a seminary is itself not a final decision but the best way to discover the authenticity of one’s vocation. Of course, the discernment process can also be started by simply conversing with a priest!
In the Catholic Church, the role of the priest is vital. Tasked with the spiritual welfare of his flock, a priest is responsible for, but not limited to, celebrating daily Mass, administering the sacraments, offering counsel and comfort, leading retreats, catechizing, volunteering, and helping to run the parish community. He must be sensitive to the needs of his assignment while remaining obedient to the Church hierarchy. In addition, being a priest requires a 24/7 commitment with very little financial compensation;however, the reward for doing so— which is similarly offered to us all— is infinitely more fulfilling than a paycheck.
In short, the priest is the mediator between God and His people. Just as Christ was sent by the Father, He in turn sent the Apostles into the world, so that “through them and their successors, the Bishops, He might continue to exercise His office of Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd… they are called to the service of the people of God” (Pope Francis’ homily given on Good Shepherd Sunday 2013, c.f. John 20:21-23). John Vianney similarly recognized the significant of the priesthood: “Oh, how great is a priest! The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in Heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love.” Through the priest, we can glimpse the immense Love and grandeur of God: it is through him that Christ forgives our sins and through him that we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.
As I continue to discern my calling, I am reminded of all the priests God has placed in my life. These brave, holy, good, and faithful men of God have inspired me greatly with their joy, goodwill, patience, humility, and generosity in passing on the teachings of the Faith and caring for others. Like their patron, they trust in God to help them persevere through times of hardship and distress. They have readily answered God’s call of “Whom shall I send?” (Isaiah 6:8) and dedicated themselves to serving us through the example of Christ. They continuously pray for us; we must do the same for them! We are here today thanks to them.
Thomas Wong is an undergraduate at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.