Reflections on Vocation to the Priesthood
Recently several priests and others have been writing critiques and their solutions to seminary admission policies in light of the current crisis in the Church. However, in some cases the solution is actually part of the problem. They call for being highly selective of candidates (which is good) but the focus is too attenuated. I would think to an American sensibility this makes sense on the surface, but that is what is wrong, the issue is much deeper than what appears on the surface.
These writers focus on making sure the selection process is weeding out those who are open specifically to homosexual sin, but they are not asking if the remainder are seeking holiness as the primary criteria. I would not want a candidate who is not seeking holiness.
If you are in the seminary, considering to enter the seminary, or a priest already, may I invite you to reflect on what is below:
For reasons having to do with the history of Catholicism in our country, some popular teaching can be somewhat pelagian. Therefore, there is a strong note of being good enough to get to Heaven. If you read the truly holy saints, you will understand that this is impossible. From St. Paul to St. Mother Teresa all would tell you that they were the worst of all sinners. So if you are trying to be good enough to get to Heaven you will find that the more you grow closer to Christ, the more you are aware of your sins that you were not aware of previously.
For example: just because a man is no longer living with someone and decided to live a celibate life, does not mean that he is without sin. As he draws closer to Christ, he will become more aware of his sinfulness that was always there, but he did not recognize it. This is a grace, it is God’s grace helping him understand what needs to change in his life so he can see Him better. It is a constant process. So obviously, as we grow closer to Christ we will want to turn from sin as we did before, but our sense of sin and repentance will deepen. In fact, one of the greatest dangers in the Church today is a loss of a sense of sin. This means that holiness is defined not only by avoiding established sins alone, but also in acting on the mandate to love God and neighbor.
It is like the person whose vision is out of focus, he has problems seeing near and far. He can only see objects well that are exactly ten feet in front of him. A doctor gives him reading glasses, now he can read, but he still cannot drive because he can only see well what is in front of him when it is exactly ten feet away, except the book on his desk. So his vision improved, but there is more to go. He may need bi and tri focals.
This is what bothers me about this pelagian line of thinking. Holiness is actually a life long process. No one reaches the point called holiness. We seek to draw closer to Christ daily. So no one reaches a point where they can officially call themselves holy. Dorothy Day, when labeled a saint by others around her would retort,"Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily" (h/t: Brainy Quote https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/dorothy_day_316224.) There is no saint in Heaven that would disagree with me. People grow in holiness by choosing to do what is necessary to love Christ more and to love neighbor more. Their growth in holiness is marked by a growth in humility, virtue and a greater reliance on God’s grace. As they grow closer to Christ they learn where they did not love and commit to repent of those faults. This means choosing to do what is necessary to avoid sin, all sin, not just sexual sins.
Would you betray your friend in order to win one million dollars? If you say yes then you have put a price on your friendship—one million dollars. If you say that no amount of money could get you to betray your friend, then you have valued that friendship as priceless.
What is the value of your life with Christ? What would you do in order that Christ would say to you: “Well done my good and faithful servant,” at the end of your life? What would you do to ensure that those you meet every day would be in Heaven too? The answer to these questions is key in your discernment. However, it is just as important for all Catholics of all vocations to think this way.
Are you able to live the teachings of the Church to the best of your ability? Are you willing to preach the teachings of the Church to the best of your ability? These are questions you need to bring to your discernment. Also that means you understand the teachings. Have you ever read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially what it says about an issue about which you are struggling? Know what the Church says fully and investigate it and what you dispute. You may be surprised that what people say the Church teaches, she actually does not. But, I am sure that when you understand the teaching fully, you will realize that you are no match for the wisdom you encounter.
For example, do you know that the Catechism takes thirteen sections to teach on the subject of chastity? If you do not understand every word of those thirteen sections, then you do not understand the call to chastity. It is much deeper than “no sex outside of a sacramental marriage.” Many of the above mentioned writers say they want candidates who are chaste. Obviously, that is essential, chastity is a call to a Christ centered way of living, not just a form of abstention. They mentioned not even a syllable of the meaning of chastity.
These are some of the criteria that you really need to look upon in your question of entering the seminary and that includes teaching there. Finally, one suggestion is that men should be focused on living a continent life for a year before entering the seminary. But by even mentioning a goal that is setting them up to fail. The issue is not the length of time one has not sinned, but what habits one uses in order not to sin. If you are interested in the priesthood, then you do not visit pornographic websites or read pornography of any type.
Fr. Paulo Ricardo Azevedo, Jr., in his homily for this past weekend (Sorry, it is in Portuguese), says that the concept of giving up a certain sin for Lent or a period of time does not make sense. The point is to give up sin for all time, not just a specific length, again that brings us to strategy.
No one can successfully resolve to give up sin forever, as proverbs says, the just man sins seven times daily, but you can give up serious sin for today. Live the goal of continence for today, turn from other sin today, making sure you pray today. If you are going to seek to live the Gospel, Jesus himself says take it one day at a time. (Matthew 6:34) If you set a goal for the rest of your life or even for a year, you are setting yourself up to discouragement and failure for your are counting the days. What do you do when you reach that goal? One day at a time is all the focus you need.
Something that the above mentioned people who teach about qualifications for the seminary do not bring up, and this is where I get frustrated the most, they do not bring up prayer. If you are a seminarian or priest reading this or planning to enter the seminary and are serious then please begin the habit of praying one hour before the tabernacle. That hour, even on a day off, is essential to your work as a priest. Do the breviary, spiritual reading and mental prayer, rosary or a combination of some or all. Allow your prayer life with Christ to grow. Make that your habit every day. Remember, Archbishop Fulton Sheen taught that a priest who committed to a daily holy hour would not be lost. I began that habit in my sophomore year of seminary college and now over 25 years ordained, I still practice that habit, oh by the way, one day at a time.
In your prayer, bring up your questions, your worries, your plans, your angers, your sins—everything that is you—bring it up to the Lord and listen to His response. St. Alphonsus Liguori says we should speak to God as we do a friend. Definitely do some regular Bible reading during this time. (Please see my videos on Monsignor Jonas Abib’s method of Bible reading and adoration.) Find good spiritual reading, I would suggest the writings by the saints, and the writings that the saints cite. If you have questions about this make sure you have an association with a good spiritual advisor who can help you.
I know there are some tough issues happening about bishops and seminaries in light of the revelations about Archbishop McCarrick. Many are addressing them in various ways, but the bottom line from this point forward as it should have been all along: discernment must be related to committing to holiness of life and living by that commitment. As for the fallen former Cardinal? Heed the warning of none other than St. Jerome who reminded his readers: "Not all bishops are bishops indeed. You consider Peter; mark Judas as well. You notice Stephen; look also on Nicolas, sentenced in the Apocalypse by the Lord’s own lips, whose shameful imaginations gave rise to the heresy of the Nicolaitans." (St Jerome Letter XIV)
But if you want a focus on which to direct your vocation, then read the collect (opening prayer) for August 14, the memorial of St Maximilian Mary Kolbe:
O God, who filled the Priest and Martyr Saint Maximilian Kolbe with a burning love for the Immaculate Virgin Mary and with zeal for souls and love of neighbor, graciously grant, through his intercession, that, striving for your glory by eagerly serving others, we may be conformed, even until death, to your Son. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
If you decide that priesthood is not for you, remember you are not leaving the Church, you are just seeking your proper vocation, feel free to continue using all the tools you see above.
May the Lord say to you at the end of your life regardless of your choice: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”