Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 9, 2004
The Adventure of a call from Jesus
Priestly vocation a matter of faith, hope and charity
By ARCHBISHOP THOMAS COLLINS
Special to the WCR
Most of my years as a priest, before I was called to be a bishop, were spent preparing candidates for the priesthood. Following both common sense and the instructions of the Holy See, I and my colleagues at the seminary diligently sought to be sure that the seminarians were aware of the "burdens of the priesthood," that is, the many duties of the office, and also the struggles and problems that a person who undertook the office might face.
In fact, part of the process for approaching the priesthood is that at several points the candidate asserts that he is aware of and freely accepts the various responsibilities of the priestly office.
All of this makes sense, but even as I was making sure seminarians were aware of potential pitfalls, I realized that undue emphasis on this dimension of a vocation misses the central point: a call from the Lord is an invitation to the joyful adventure of a consecrated life.
Jesus said: "Come, follow me," and the apostles left everything and gave their life to the Master, to follow him on a path whose exact direction they could not foresee. As they gradually became more deeply engaged in their mission, they found both personal purification and a joyful purpose in life. The great example of this is Peter, so frail in his faith, and yet a man who gave his all to the Lord. "Do you love me, Peter?" "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep."
A vocation to the priesthood (and the same is true for the mission of a religious sister or brother) is not a question of choosing a career and duly becoming qualified for it through a process of education and training. The priesthood is not a job or a profession.
Although we do expect candidates to go through an extensive program of human, intellectual, pastoral and spiritual formation, and in a spirit of due diligence establish so thorough a discernment process that we sometimes joke that the apostles would have trouble handling it, we all know that a priestly vocation really is a call from God which no one can merit or predict. God chooses the weak, like Peter, and calls them to be instruments of his grace.
The priesthood is a permanent commitment, and that scares off some who are called. That is as sad now as it was when the young man called by Jesus walked away. How can I give my whole life in the priesthood? How can I know what the future holds? Only when I give my life totally, not dipping my toe in the pool but diving in, can I experience the awesome joy of a life governed by a purpose beyond myself.
If I am afraid that I cannot be faithful for the whole of life, then I need only realize that although I cannot see the future I do know with certainty that God is with me every step of the way. To be faithful to a permanent commitment, and so to discover the deepest joy of life, I make a daily commitment, and renew it every day until I die.
A priestly vocation really is a matter of faith, hope and charity. Both the formation of seminarians, and the life of the priest, must be grounded in those virtues. A priest must be a man of faith, for he is called to proclaim the Gospel, and to be a minister of the sacraments, in which the unseen Lord is made manifest in our lives.
He must be a man of hope, and the joyful energy of a truly priestly life comes from a hope rooted in faith. A priest may be humanly discouraged by the challenges of the mission, for "the sea is so great and my boat is so small." This is normal, and from a human point of view shallow optimism is often unwarranted when we see the enormity of the task of evangelizing.
But Jesus, in the storm, is in the boat with us, and that is the cause of energizing hope. It is also why every priest every day should spend extensive time in prayer, preferably in adoration before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, to draw new strength from the source of our hope.
And the priest must be a man of charity, in the imitation of Jesus, our compassionate high priest. Whatever his human talents or lack of them may be, a priest will be effective in his mission only if his whole life is governed by his love of Jesus and his love of the people he is sent to serve. At the ordination of a priest may there be tears of joy; at his funeral may there be tears of love in the eyes of those for whom he has given his life.
God chooses the weak, like Peter, and calls them to be instruments of his grace.
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