How do you know you are called to the priesthood?
For more than 35 years I have been involved in educating future priests and giving them spiritual guidance. I know therefore, not only from my own experience, but from that of many others that it is not always easy to determine whether one has a priestly vocation or not.
I will here briefly outline some signs of a genuine vocation.
- First sign. The inner call
- Second sign. The Motivation to Serve
- Third Sign. Fitness for the Pastoral Ministry
- Fourth sign. Affirmation by Others
But I have to begin with a preliminary observation.
Distinguish the original occasion from your genuine vocation
Gods call does not come through mysterious visions at night or through a quiet whisper in the ear. As in so many other areas of life and faith, God works through secondary causes. His call is awakened in us by the example of other priests, by our reading a book or by someone, like a teacher at school or a close friend, saying: Have you ever thought of becoming a priest? Some casual event may be the spark that sets our imagination going.
Now it is important to distinguish these original sparks from our real calling. I have known a number of persons who were initially attracted to the priesthood by quite trivial causes. One was impressed by the priests magnificent vestments at Mass (God help us!). Another confessed to joining the seminary not to be outdone by his cousin who was an archrival. These are obviously quite inadequate reasons for becoming a priest, and they may later trouble a person who is seriously testing his or her vocation.
But God works in mysterious ways. Having been set on the track towards the priesthood through some foolishness, we may well be drawn to continue on the strength of good reasons. The Samaritan woman got involved with Jesus through a casual talk at the well and eventually became the first apostle of her village.
What then are the real signs of a genuine vocation?
This is a gradual process in which we move from thinking and feeling to a conviction that we would please God by accepting the challenge of the priesthood. It is a struggle in prayer which leads to us being ready to take decisions on it.
You may be aware at times of something within yourself (in your heart so to speak), which attracts you to God, and draws you into relationship with him, even in spite of yourself.
Do you have a desire for the life of a priest? Are you inclined, are you drawn towards it? Does it give you a certain amount of satisfaction to think about it, - - a certain amount of enthusiasm or joy or some kind of positive feeling, in spite of your natural fears or instincts against it?
Are you entering a stage where you feel, in your prayer and reflection, that God is inviting you personally, is holding out a challenge to you as an individual, that God is asking you to choose?
These things are difficult to describe, but their reality will be recognised by anyone who has experienced it.
See also: Does Vocation come from God?
We may first have to come to terms with unworthy motives that could attract us to the priesthood:
- The esteem and praise it would win us from our family;
- a position of status and respect in the community;
- escape from the responsibility of marriage and other family relationships (until the Church makes celibacy optional); and so on.
These and other unworthy motives need to be unmasked, if they are present. They are countersigns of the true priestly vocation.
The only sufficient motive for accepting the priestly mystery is the desire to serve others. A priest is ordained for others, not for himself/herself. Ones happiness as a priest is commensurate with the happiness we give to others.
To be a priest is not about having a career in the normal sense of the word. It is not about prestige and status and gathering things. It is about love for God and for people, and how one can best respond to Gods love in service to others (Fr Edzel).
In a study by Eugene Kennedy called The Catholic Priest; Psychological Investigations (1972), priests were asked to identify some motivating factors that contribute to their decision to remain active in priestly ministry. Among the factors were the following:
- I am making a significant contribution to the mission of the Church.
- I experience a great deal of satisfaction in what I am doing for people.
- I am making an impact on the lives of individuals in a very special way. I believe that people see me as a special sign of Gods presence in the world.
Fitness means that you have the charisms and the gifts required in the priestly ministry. In practical terms it means being able to master theological studies and being able to inspire and guide others. The priesthood is a caring profession and we will only be of use if by temperament and acquired skills we are good with people.
Fitness means the ability to live a priestly life comfortably, cheerfully and generously, without going to pieces or without a constant drain on your inner resources or energies or without a lot of tensions. Somehow the life itself must suit you and you must suit the life and you are not paying a horribly high price just to stay in. Somehow there must be a matching of your interests and ability and competence with those already in the priestly life.
It is not always easy to judge our own motivations and abilities. But we are not alone. People who know us: friends, relatives, members of our parish communities, colleagues at college or at work, help us to judge the validity of our call. If many of them can see a potential priest in us, it is an important affirmation from within the Church.
A spiritual guide will also be helpful here. A spiritual director/mentor is someone who you can trust and who can be objective with you. A spiritual director will not be your best friend and will not make a decision for you. He or she will help you to reflect on what you are considering and how God is moving your process. A spiritual director will walk with you as you make your journey of discernment.
Whenever a candidate is being presented for ordination the bishop, even in todays ritual, first inquires whether the person is judged suitable and fit by the community of God. The answer is usually given by the Rector of the Seminary where the candidate has been trained, but he gives the answer as representative of the people. People know who would make a good priest and who not.
The affirmation by others is therefore a valuable sign that will indicate to you whether you have a vocation or not.
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