General Rambling on Vocation
The summer before I entered first grade, I recall having a crush on a neighborhood girl named Tammy who I was convinced I was going to marry one day.
At my Catholic grade school, an elderly Franciscan priest named Father Pius used to come in the mornings once or twice a week, and we all got on our knees to receive a blessing.
One day, Father Pius asked the class how many young boys wanted to be a priest. I don't remember how many of us raised our hands, but I was one of them.
In first grade, I developed quite a crush on a girl named Sally, and that crush would last until about eighth grade. Tammy moved away and became a distant memory.
I went through much of grade school not really reflecting much on how there might be a contradiction between being a priest and being married, and somehow, I wanted to do both.
Thoughts of priesthood were not exactly constant, but they did prevail.
One day, I'd want to be a priest. The next, I'd want to be a fireman. The day after that, I'd want to be a priest. Then a doctor,..., then a priest,..., then a astronaut,..., then a priest, etc....
I used to take a sheet and wrap it around me in the style of a chasible sometimes. I would crush a piece of white Wonder bread and cut it into a circle and fill a wine glass with grape juice and play Mass - using the missals to get the words right.
I joined the altar servers (who were all boys) in sixth grade.
In sixth grade, the year being about 1976, we were invited to do vocation retreats at a Franciscan high school seminary. My best friend and I decided to "come and see".
I went to those retreats again in 7th and 8th grade, and my parents were supportive of the general idea that I might have a vocation to priesthood.
Prior to confirmation in eighth grade, I spoke with a Franciscan priest named Father Rock. We were supposed to do some sort of interview as part of our confirmation preparation.
Father Rock was one of those people who always seemed to have a smile and a twinkle in his eye.
During the interview, I asked him if he were happy as a priest, and he responded with a wink and said that if he had to live his life over, he'd do everything exactly the same.
I found this inspiring, and wanted to live my life where I would do it exactly the same all over again.
So, when I went on that eighth grade vocation retreat, I was seriously considering high school seminary. The year was now 1978 (and John Paul was elected pope in that year).
But I could not get over the fact that I felt I was supposed to marry Sally!
Nevermind that Sally had absolutely no interest in me.
Anyway, I told my mom and dad that I would not go to high school seminary because I felt like I probably needed to have some dating experience, because I might be called to marriage.
My dad then breathed a big sigh of relief and explained that he never intended to let me go to high school seminary anyway. He only let me go on the retreats because he did not want to stand in the way of a vocation if I truly have a calling.
Had I decided I did want to go to the high school seminary, he explained that he was not going to let me, but he would have encouraged me to try again when I was ready for college. He explained that if I do have a calling, it will still be there when I am 18.
It would not have mattered anyway. The high school seminary closed in 1979.
In high school, I met a couple of times with Franciscan and diocesan priests to talk about possibly going to seminary college. I even had my standardized test scores and transcripts sent to a seminary.
Yet, I still felt this strong pull towards marriage as a senior in high school. I was considering the possibility of maybe doing married deaconate.
Unfortunately, I did not date much in high school due to a combination of shyness around girls, thoughts of priesthood, and I was just generally a very short, skinny kid with acne who did not have girls knocking down the door to go out with me.
I wound up going to a state university consciously thinking that maybe the best way to discern if I truly have a calling would be to try to completely ignore the idea for a few years.
I chose chemistry as a major, because I figured it would be very cool if I ever did become a priest to have a background in the hard sciences under my belt. Also, my dad is a chemist. I don't recall ever really having a love of chemistry per se.
The acne cleared up and I filled out a little bit and started dating quite a bit my freshman and sophomore year in college. I also started to go to college parties and was not living the most sinless life.
While I enjoyed dating, I sort of bottomed out on partying much faster than most young people. I also was doing very poorly at my chemistry major.
For some reason, I thought that this year or two of college life made me unworthy of seminary life. So, I decided to change my major try to find a nice girl to marry.
I remember speaking to my dad about how I loved philosophy and maybe I could major in that.
He advised that I major in English instead, so that I could at least get a job, and if I wanted to read philosophy, so long as it was written in English, it would fall in my major.
That seemed like good advice, so I did. It wasn't that I had any idea how to translate an English major to a job, but I knew he was right that it looked better than philosophy on a resume.
I practically had to start college over again and I met a girl named Beth about this time, and fell in love. I was 21 when I met her, and within about 2 years, I asked her to marry me. I was now 23.
But almost as soon as I asked her to marry me, the thoughts of priesthood grew stronger than ever.
At first, I thought it simply could not be the case that God would want me to hurt Beth by ending an engagement.
I began to idealize poverty and hoped that maybe by living simply and in prayer as a married man, and being open to the possibility of deaconate in the future, I could make this feeling go away.
Yet, I continued to feel called to priesthood.
I started reading the Scriptures more frequently and the writings of the saints trying to discern why I felt this way.
The example of Saint Augustine leaving the mother of his child shocked me. So did Thomas Merton's similar story.
Gospel passages such as we heard in Yesterday's Gospel about leaving family to follow Christ haunted me.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
In 1989, at about 24 years old, I broke off my engagement and sought to enter a formation program.
Once I was in formation, my initial reaction was shock. I was surrounded by a large number of men who were either still in the college partying mind-set, or gay men who never felt called to heterosexual marriage.
As I continued through formation, I began to understand how God's love is an incarnational love that expresses itself in self-emptying into the human condition.
Love is committed. Jesus loved to the point of death. His love expressed itself for others in simple acts of sharing bread. The other part of yesterday's Gospel started making sense:
And whoever gives only a cup of cold water
to one of these little ones to drink
because the little one is a disciple--
amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.
I began to realize in seminary that the love between husband and wife does not compete with the love of God. Rather, Christian spouses love one another because of God's grace working in them.
We pick up our cross when we are willing to love another to the point where it involves some sacrifice. Parents know the cross intuitively - perhaps better than some celibates.
Listening to yesterday's Gospel, it struck me that I do not
love my wife more than God anymore than I love my wife more than my daughter or my mom and dad. I love my wife, my daughter, and my mom and dad equally but in different ways.
And the love I have for each of them is not more than my love for God, but is instead grounded in my love for God whom I love because God first loved me.
When I left formation in 1995, with the coursework for a Master's in theology complete.
I left because though I could not shake the feeling that I am called to priesthood, I also could not shake the feeling that I am called to marriage - to a ministry of building a domestic church - to the ministry of small acts of love on a day by day basis that equate to laying down my life for another.
As a married man, I am generally happier than I was while trying to live celibately.
Yet, there is a piece that is missing.
I still feel the call to sacramental ministry: to presiding at Mass, hearing confessions, anointing the sick, preaching the Word, presiding at weddings, funerals, baptisms and confirmations.
I still feel called to spiritual direction and teaching and community building and fostering a healthy devotional life which would include such things as the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, Bible study, Holy Hours, the stations of the cross, and prayers to the saints, as well as an openess to newer forms of devotion such as centering prayer or the charismatic renewal.
I still feel called to spending whatever time is not involved in such "religious" or "pious" practices in the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, healing the sick, freeing those in prison and burying the dead.
I still feel called to perform these works of mercy on two levels of direct service for those in need, and in analyzing and changing structures of evil that place people in dehumanizing conditions.
I still feel called to live simply and occasionally engage in acts of asceticism such as fasting to enter into solidarity with those who hunger physically and spiritually.
But I cannot really live what I feel called to do - at least not exactly.
Instead, I must secure work in the paying world where specialization requires that I can really only do one of the many of things I might feel called to do at a time.
My desire to do all of these various sacramental works and spiritual and corporal works of mercy does not mean I am holier than thou. All honest labor contributes in some way to the works of mercy.
For example, I currently work in an information technology company that provides services to clients so that our clients can ultimately help people back on their feet who are homeless due to natural disasters.
It's meaningful work - accomplishing one of the corporal works of mercy.
And, as a manager, I hope that the way I lead my team and develop my people has a spiritual component, and that the way I conduct business is ethical and moral and gives an example.
Most people probably seek meaning in their work and many people rightly find some sense meaning in their work.
Whether you are a real estate agent or a brick-layer, if you like your job, you likely have some intuitive sense of how it is the best use of your talents for some higher purpose.
Money alone is not the primary motivation for many workers. We all seek a sense of vocation, and many people find it in their specialized field.
Yet, my current work is not really what I feel called to do.
I still feel called primarily to sacramental ministry, and secondarily to spiritual works of mercy with time to participate in all of the corporal works of mercy in some fashion.
I suppose that those who have never felt called to priesthood may have some difficulty understanding this sort of "jack of all trades" sense of vocation.
When I was with the Friars, there was a friar who was a nurse in his former life.
Though he became ordained and does sacramental ministry day in and day out, he also continues to heal the sick with work at a clinic. As a priest, he is also a community organizer in his inner-city parish.
Another Friar was once a lawyer. Again, he does sacramental ministry day in and day out, but also puts his legal talent to use to advocate for those in substandard housing or help a young kid stay out of jail.
Just about every priest in the Roman Catholic Church, by simple virtue of the office, is involved in some sort of community building and spiritual direction on top of their sacramental ministry.
Just about every priest in a parish exercises the skills of a business or operations manager and professional fund raiser and part time accountant.
Of course, those priests called to contemplative life might not relate to some of what I am saying.
And some married people may think it impossible that a married man could perform this sort of multi-tasking.
However, I did not ever get the impression that the priests I lived with or observed in formation were working more hours than a doctor or lawyer. They were working less focused hours - but not longer hours.
As proof, consider that Jewish rabbis have always been married, and the Eastern Orthodox as well as Eastern Rite Catholics have always had married priests. The Protestants do it too.
Doctors and lawyers and business executives and computer programmers and farmers and small business owners and teachers all work long hours - as long or longer than any priest.
But unlike any other profession, the priest and many religious have more flexibility to stretch themselves beyond a particular area of expertise.
I think that is why I still, to this day, feel called to priesthood and always have felt called to it.
I don't really like working at the same thing for eight to twelve hours per day every working day for years at a time.
I've been working on the same account for the same company for nine years, though I've held five different jobs.
Yet, even with job progression, I don't get quite the same thrill as a minister who might do a funeral mass and a wedding on the same day.
It's a bit hard to describe - but think of it like being a part time business manager, part time wedding planner, part time funeral director, part time psychologist, part time inspirational speaker, part time community activist, etc....
I want the variety of experience that priesthood offers.
I've been searching over the years for a different job than I currently do that might come closer to what I felt called to do as a priest. It's difficult.
For one thing, the non-profit world often does not pay enough to support a family, even if the family lives simply.
But even where there are non-profit jobs that pay enough for a family living simply to get by, the work isn't always exactly what I am looking to do.
And no job, not even such noble professions as a doctor or a social worker, has quite the same meaning to me as the sacramental ministry component of priesthood - which is the most important element of priesthood and the foundation for his involvement in so many other types of work.
I'm not saying that other vocations and jobs are not graced, holy, and good. They are.
Indeed, there is an old saying that the jack of all trades is the master of none. Perhaps specialization makes a doctor a better doctor and a plumber a better plumber and a short order cook a better cook.
Perhaps most people would find the life-style of a priest with the juggling of so many taks that are so different from each other maddenning.
But that's still what I
feel called to do.
I don't know if I am making any sense to anyone but myself here.
If I am, I am wondering if others feel this and if anyone has found a way to live "the life" as a Roman Catholic who is not vowed to celibacy.