People have asked me on several occasions why I want to be a priest. They want to know how I know it’s right for me. Well, I don’t know that it’s right for me. I read once that various Bishops have said that “No man knows he’s called to be a priest until I place my hands on his head.” So, for now, I can’t truly say that I’m 100% on this, but I’m confident that it’s where I need to follow next.
I’ve said several times that I wish that God would just be clearer about things. I’m a proponent of God getting an email address or taking out a classified ad to let us know what we are supposed to do in life. Unfortunately, clarity does not necessarily breed action.
I was born and raised a Catholic. I wish I could say that means that I’d been a good Catholic all that time, but I can’t. Here’s the story.
When I was about 13 (that means about 15 years ago), I was at St. Leo Abbey, a local Benedictine monastery, on a youth retreat. A custom had grown among the youth there for us to take some quiet time at the base of the crucifix in the Abbey Church in silent prayer after mass. At the time, the mass for the retreat was separate from the monk mass, and we held it on Saturday night in the Abbey Church. I spent over an hour under the crucifix that night, staying long after everyone else was gone. It was that night that I first realized to what I was being called in life; that hour was spent earnestly arguing the case that God had picked the wrong guy and trying to weasel my way out of it. Lets be perfectly clear about this when a 13 year old gets word from God that his reason for existence is to become a priest, which means, among other things, that girls will be out of the question for the rest of his life, it is NOT what he wants to hear.
After I realized that I was not going to win the fight to get out of the call, I began my long flight from it (like I said, 15 years). During that time, Ive returned to St. Leo many times on retreats and helping with retreats and just going to pray and find some solitude time. Ive been very clear to myself that I was NOT becoming a priest; of course, even though I make that claim, I knew full well that eventually, I would give in.
Dont get me wrong, God never forgot what he told me to do (and he made sure I didnt either). There were jokes from friends and family often about me doing this even though I had never mentioned it. There was even an occasion when my family visited the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, and, after mass, one of the old men of the church came up to me and offered to send me to seminary. I was probably 13 or 14 at the time. I joked in high school (when I took a trip to, among other destinations, Rome and Vatican City) that if the Pope told me to become a priest, Id do it. Im not sure if I that would have worked since I already was fighting against God on the issue, though. I like to think I would have listened (in the unbelievably highly unlikely event of such a thing happening) because of the soft spot in my heart that I held for Pope John Paul II, both then and now.
Finally, toward the end of last year, I was at St. Leo yet again. We were in the upstairs chapel reciting the Chaplet of Divine Mercy I often like some of the repetitive prayers of the Church, because they let me meditate on something other than reading or reciting complicated formulas, or even thinking about what I’m saying — to put it simply, I’m a BIG FAN of meditative prayer. I was still reciting the chaplet, but my mind had moved away from the words that I was reciting, and, again, the call came clear as day to me Only, not so clear that I could handle it fully. I misunderstood where I was being drawn, but a major change had come over me regarding the call. I decided to give up the argument lets be realistic; what chance did I really have to win an argument against God? It made for a difficult day for me. I was on the fence; I was not fighting it anymore, and I was pretty sure that I was going to finally take steps to follow that call, but I was, now, more than anything, afraid of it. Heres the next problem with any calling of this magnitude what if I fail? I was at that point when I was willing to do what I was told, but petrified of not living up to the expectations that it would entail. The final straw came that night after the closing prayer of the retreat that I was there helping on; one of the Peer Ministers (high school and college students who help with the high school retreats) in the group came up to me out of nowhere and said, I dont know what this means, but I need to tell you to stop running away. How can I refuse when someone I have know for less than a day comes up to me out of the blue and says something like that?
It was then that I made the decision to do what I’m told. The only problem remaining was that the special place that St. Leo held (and will likely always hold in my heart) confused me a bit. I thought that the calling that I was to finally follow was to the monastic life at St. Leo Abbey. I will always find a certain peace there from both familiarity and spirituality that the place breeds for me; it is a place that, for me, time slows down. There was an important feature in my answer that I finally gave to my call, though. It wasnt ok, Ill become a monk. Instead, it was, ok, Ill do what Im told. This made course corrections and adjustments for misunderstood calls/directions far easier.
I made my intentions, at the time to become a monk, known to Br. Mukasa, and we spoke on several occasions, and I became close to several members of the community. I took a job there as the chef with the primary goal of finding a replacement for me and then joining the monastic community. At some point, things started to go less smoothly there. At the time, I saw it as the challenges that I had to face to move forward on the path that I was set.
A turning point came, however, when I was up in Ocala for spiritual direction and confession (Ive used the same old friend/priest for both since I was 8 years old, so he knows me well). Fr. ODoherty asked me why I was taking the monastic route rather than entering diocesan priesthood. For the record, when I first started fighting the call when I was 13, I did talk to him about it, so he did know what my original intentions had been all those years ago. I gave him the proper answer for someone joining a monastery, but a seed was planted that I had to contemplate and continue discerning.
The simple fact is that (I believe) I was/am called to be a priest. Entering monastic life must not be a means to an end. It would not have been honest to either myself or the community at St. Leo to join so that I could become a priest. A priest within a monastic community is called from the community to fill a need in the community, not to complete a goal from a community member. Also, part of my calling is to continue to work with youth more directly, and that would, again, not be my major focus within a monastic community (I did give some thought to becoming a Salesian, but that is a different story). So, I started talking to the Diocese about starting seminary and I sat down with Br. Mukasa and some of my friends at the abbey and let them know of my course correction.
The nice thing is, I am still just trying to do what I am told. More course corrections have and probably will continue to come my way. I commented before that I’m no longer on the inquirer roll for this diocese, but there are other dioceses and religious orders that may be where I am meant to be. For now, I guess the biggest lesson is to follow God’s timeline and stop trying to force God into mine. That doesn’t seem to work well.
I can honestly say that once I stopped fighting God and at least tried to follow directions, life started to happen far more smoothly and peacefully. That is not to say that it became easy – life doesn’t do that – but rather, life became filled with a peace that only accepting one’s role in God’s plan can give.
The following was added to this reflection on February 1, 2011.
It seem appropriate to append to this reflection the continuation of the story. As of the middle of last year, I was accepted into formation by Bishop David Choby, the Bishop of Nashville. Beginning last month, January, 2011, I have begun formation to, God-willing, enter the priesthood in the service of that diocese. It’s a long road, though; the process from now until the possibility of ordination is 6 1/2 years.