My vocation story: Beginnings

Some time ago I was asked to respond to a set of interview questions regarding my vocation to the priesthood (a number of priests in the diocese are being interviewed in this fashion). The purpose is to help find ways to encourage priestly vocations in general. I thought I might share my answers here — perhaps it will help someone else discern how God is calling them. These first two points are in a section of the questionnaire entitled “Beginnings”.

What first awakened in you the realization that God might be calling you to the priesthood?

As I look back on my vocation, I have to say that I see a continuity in my life. As long as I can remember, the vocational call to priesthood has been present, even from when I was very little. I was a fairly philosophical kid, and I remember asking myself (as many kids do) why I was born a boy instead of a girl. The answer that immediately arose in my heart was that it was so I could become a priest. I realise now that this innocent question was about more than just wondering (like every other kid does) about the difference between boys and girls. What was at stake, at least in part, was the question of my identity as a man and as a human being. And the idea of being a priest was present even in that very early and very fundamental questioning.

This does not mean, however, that everything was perfectly crystal clear from day 1. My vocational call, present as it was, needed to mature. When I was small, I wanted to be a priest, but I also wanted to be an astronaut, or a cowboy, or a fireman. Priesthood was there, but it was little more than a dream.

A shift in my thought process occurred as I got a bit older. In my later years of high school, we were (for the first time) given a limited choice of which courses we would take. I remember this being a time of great stess among my classmates, as these courses needed to be chosen as a function of something, and that “something” was the famous “what you wanted to do with your life”. This does not mean, of course, that we needed to have the answer in grade 10, but it was the beginning of serious vocational reflection for many. For myself, cowboy and astronaut and fireman had disappeared a long time ago, but on the other hand I discovered new fields that I enjoyed (like business). And the call to priesthood was still present. It had not gone the way of the cowboy and astronaut, but at the same time it was not 100% clear either that it was the path to which I was called. I retained it as a possible option, but not much more than that.

My major shift into serious discernment came when I was working in the business world. I had a good job and worked with excellent people, but on some level it was not enough. Because I was enrolled in the management training program of this huge multinational, I not only knew that I all kinds of possibilities were open to me, I could even “see down the road” in front of me to know what my life would likely be like. And I knew it would never be enough. Oh, it would be full on plenty of “stuff” — money, prestige, etc. — but it would never be enough. And when I was in university I had promised myself that I never settle for a mediocre life — with only one life to live, I needed to know it was always possible for me to reach for excellence no matter where I was. Now I am not saying that people in professional careers cannot live this excellence — indeed they can — but I knew, for me, it would be compromising with the world. So I had to change. And the only vocational call that was left, that held out that challenge and possibility of an excellent life, was priesthood. Within a few months I had resigned my position, cancelled the lease on my apartment, and enrolled in the seminary for the next academic year.

What were your initial excitements and hopes as you began to think more deeply about your vocation?

I am not sure “hopes and excitements” are what come to mind first — probably more like “fear and trembling”. There was a time when the idea of being a priest scared me a bit. I distinctly remember a time in high school when I told God to “leave me alone” with regards to this vocational call. I wanted to be just like everybody else — have a girlfriend/wife, be professionally successful, and so on. I tried to push aside the idea of being a priest.

Curiously, however, while I didn’t want to actually be a priest, I had a strong desire to live things in my life that priests lived. I always felt called to some sort of leadership vocation, such that in high school we used to say that Tom’s career goal was to become Prime Minister. I liked to get up in front of people to speak, and I was good at explaining things (a physics teacher even once let me take over his class to explain how to solve a particular problem). I knew my way around the liturgy and liked going to Mass, and deep down I knew that this simple ceremony had the potential to change the world. Later I would learn that these three things were, in fact the triple charge of “priest, prophet and king” that every Christian receives, except that the best fit for the way I saw myself living it was in the priesthood.

So I found myself, eventually, living a contradiction. I didn’t want to be a priest, I just wanted to do and live everything a priest did. I began to see that part of what I was rejecting was the idea of having to live the label of being a priest, as I knew there was a stereotype associated with being a priest (including the stereotype in my own mind). I also wondered about the reactions of those closest to me, my friends and family.

With regards to my family, I am very proud to say that my parents were extremely supportive — I had shared this element of my interior life with them some time before I ever entered the seminary, and they let me know that they would support me in my process of discernment without putting any pressure on me to choose either way. When I eventually did decide to enter the seminary and told my siblings, they were delighted (I remember my sister charge-hugging me such that we fell back on a piece of furniture). I was truly blessed in this way. And with regards to my friends, the Lord offered me a special blessing.

As I was in my final stage of discernment while in the workplace, friends of mine would spontaneously offer the comment “You’d make a good priest”. It was really odd, as it wasn’t as though the conversations were especially about this topic. We would simply be chatting about what was going on in the world, and somehow the line would make its way in there. I remember chatting with a friend at work, about why she didn’t go to church. She had all kinds of objections, from the mundane (the homilies are boring) to the serious (like the abuses perpetrated by some priests), and yet she suddenly concluded “But if you were a priest it would be a different story”. Huh? Where did that come from? And she was not the only one. The point was arising spontaneously from many sources. These people didn’t know it at the time, but I think they were actually being prophets for my benefit.

Despite all this, I still only baby-stepped my way into the seminary. I recall saying to myself, “Well, I guess I should make an appointment with the diocesan vocation director. Making the appointment does not mean I am going to be a priest, but if I don’t make the appointment I’m definitely *not* going to be a priest, so I guess I should make the appointment.” Then, after meeting the vocations director, I said to myself, “Well, I I’m now asked to fill out the application form. Filling it out does not mean I’m going to be a priest, but if I don’t fill it out I’m definitely *not* going to be a priest, so I guess I should fill it out.” Then I had to hand it in, then I had to go for an interview, etc. etc. etc. The first real big step for me was when it came time to cancel or renew my lease. Again, it did not mean that I was going to become a priest, but it did imply that I was now really investing myself in this process. A similarly big step was quitting my job. It was not the end of the world, to be sure, but as I still couldn’t really say for certain I was called to the priesthood it was a leap into the unknown, and it meant (even to myself) that my discernment had reached a new level of seriousness.

The excitements and hopes arose mainly in the process of my seminary education itself. I think they were there even before, but they were more dreamlike and vague, because I really didn’t know priesthood “from the inside” yet. The best analogy I can think of is the attitude of a little child towards marriage. Many kids dream of marriage and what that would be like, and from that they desire to be married. It is still a fantasy view of marriage, however: it becomes much more concrete when they actually meet someone whom they want to court. The process of dating someone helps transform the dream to “excitements and hopes” that are much more concrete. For me, my period of seminary was my “dating” the idea of priesthood. Going to the seminary involved fidelity to this chosen “partner”, but for the purpose of discovering whether or not we were really meant for each other. In the process of growing in my spiritual life I also got to know the content of this call to “priesthood” much better, and almost without know it what was once a vague but definite attraction to priesthood turned into my “falling in love” with God’s action in and through the priesthood.

So what, in the end, were my excitements and hopes? All were rooted in my discovery that, in and through a relationship with the Trinity, the whole meaning of what it meant to be human could be realised. Every happiness, every joy, could be found rooted somewhere in the Gospel of Christ alive and active in the Holy Spirit. God gave me a taste of this himself through a number of experiences I had that can only be described as “mystical”, and I found myself surging with a zeal for love of God and neighbour that made me want to work and live my life just to be able to contribute to some small part of that perfection of existence. My hope was that it was possible, and my excitement was that I had found *how* it was possible. And God gave me profound insight into the special role of the priesthood figured in the unfolding of that plan of love. I came to see how truly *privileged* I was to be invited by Him to be a priest, and I knew that I wanted to return that gesture of love with my whole life. And so priesthood was now no longer simply an option for life, but it was a divine necessity — not because I was being forced into it, but because I desired to give everything to the one who loved me first.