When I was growing up, becoming a priest was always within the realm of possibility. It would always appear somewhere on the list of "what I might be when I grow up." Sometimes it was near the top of the list and, at other times, it dropped down towards the bottom of the list. But, for a kid who grew up Catholic, was involved in parish life, and lived in a Catholic culture, priesthood just seemed like a natural consideration. I've always been grateful that I grew up in a situation where it was natural to include priesthood somewhere on the "what I want to be" list.
Although it always appeared on the list of possibilities, as I look back upon my life, I realize that I needed something more than just a mild interest in priesthood. I needed something more than a list of positives and negatives. I needed something more than my altar boy mastering of obscure liturgical facts and nomenclature. Honestly, for me, all of the external things probably would have been enough for me to go to seminary. If we were talking about the law, you might say that there was plenty of circumstantial evidence that I had a vocation. But, in retrospect, I realize that I needed something more. And, I am grateful that I received that "something more."
I needed a call. I needed to hear Jesus speak to me and to say, "Come, follow me." The fact is, Jesus does speak to us through our circumstances. Throughout my life, the persons who surrounded me, the opportunities that presented themselves to me, the gifts that were given to me, and the desires of my heart, were all indications of a priestly vocation. But, I needed to be able to hear his voice. I needed, in a sense, for all of these circumstantial evidences to be united in a singular voice.
Although at the time, it simply felt like a good thing to do, as I look back now, I realize just how blessed I was as a high school student. My high school afforded me the opportunity to attend daily Mass. And, my local parish had a Eucharistic chapel where I would go quite frequently to pray. While some may be able to hear God's voice in the midst of the world's noise, most of us need a place of quiet. That chapel was an oasis. Located on the main street in the city where I grew up, each time someone would enter or leave the chapel, the noise of the traffic outside would intrude and then recede as the door once again closed. In some ways, I actually enjoyed the interruption because when the silence again returned, it was a reminder of just how great it is to spend time in quiet prayer.
It was there, in that chapel, praying before the monstrance, that I heard the voice of the Master. It was there, in that beautiful chapel that Jesus called me to be a priest. I've often told people that the experience was so real that I had to get up and leave! It was too real. It filled me with joy, but it also filled me with that kind of fear that you hear throughout the Bible when people encounter God. In the Scriptures, we read various accounts of people becoming fearful when they encounter the Face of God or when they encounter the angel of the Lord. That's how I felt that day! I wanted to say, "Okay, that's close enough, Lord."
This morning, I watched an excellent video put out by the Knights of Columbus. I encourage you to watch it HERE Listening to this man share his vocation story, reminded me again of my own call. What struck me is that his call also came while praying before the Blessed Sacrament. And this made me want to write and encourage any man who thinks that the Lord may possibly want him to be a priest to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament.
All of the "plus and minus" lists that you draw up, all of the books that you read, all of the Internet searches that you perform, all of the benchmarks that you set for yourself, or all of the conditions that you set (like, "If I get this promotion then I won't go to the seminary, but if I don't get it, then I will go) . . . all of these things may contain valuable circumstantial evidence that is worth weighing. But, I propose the absolute necessity and priority of prayer. It is in prayer that the voice of the Master is most clearly heard. It is in silence that he speaks to our hearts. It is also in prayer that we discover that there is something greater than our lists, our ideas, and our self-will. In prayer, we discover that God looks upon us, loves us, and calls us. Our vocation does not arise from what we want, but from his call. Certainly, what we truly desire and what he calls us to be are not in conflict. But, in prayer we discover that the true joy of a vocation is that we did not give it to ourselves. "It was I who chose you and appointed you . . . "(John 15:16).
There are many things that parishes and dioceses can do to promote priestly vocations. But perhaps the most important is often the one most overlooked. One thing that every Catholic parish has is a church. And in every Catholic church is a tabernacle. I would propose to any Catholic parish that is trying to promote vocations to the priesthood that a critical element to their plan is simply to find ways to make access to the Blessed Sacrament more readily available. And then, encourage people to come and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Encourage through preaching, announcements, and catechesis the habit of making visits to the Blessed Sacrament.
I know that there are many difficulties associated with keeping a church open. Safety issues, building issues etc. But, I think it is worth trying to find ways to overcome these obstacles. In establishing goals of promoting vocations to the priesthood, I think every parish ought to have as number one on their list: Unlock the church. Unlocking our churches may well unlock a wellspring of priestly vocations.