The Path to Priesthood
The First Indications
A “STILL, SMALL VOICE”
And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. - 1st Kings 19:11-13
“My earliest recollection of wanting to become a priest dates back to my middle school years. I recall listening to a missionary who had come to our school to speak on his experience working with the poor in missions. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember Jesus placing into my heart a desire to become a missionary. Although this desire waned for years, it never really left my heart.” – Fr. David Raymond, pastor of the Parish of the Precious Blood, Caribou
“I began lecturing in high school. I first thought about the priesthood at around 13 years of age. The feeling would come and go, but never truly went away.” - Kevin Upham, parochial vicar of the Portland Peninsula & Island Parishes.
SOME SIGNS OF CHRIST’S CALL TO PRIESTHOOD
While every priest has a unique vocation that is specific to him alone, there are common signs and indications that are shared by most men who are called to serve at the altar. And there are some obstacles that would indicate that Christ is not calling a man to priestly ministry.
The best way to discern these signs and indications is with a capable priest spiritual director, who can discuss what is going on at length and help the discerner to determine whether he should more seriously pursue discernment of the priesthood by contacting the vocation director and discussing the possibility of entering the seminary.
It can be difficult to find a spiritual director in Maine, because priests are often stretched thin. If you would like help or guidance in finding a priest who would be able to meet with you and help you to work through your discernment, please contact the vocation director, Father Greg Dube, and he would be happy to try to help you find someone.
In general, however, there are some basic signs and indications that would help indicate whether a man take the possibility of his call to the priesthood more seriously. Some of these general signs might include the following:
- A desire to explore the deeper questions of life and to get to the heart of the matter, rather than living superficially.
- A nagging sense when at Mass or praying, a kind of spiritual hunger that seeks to give more, to live the faith in a more radical way.
- A sense of being fully alive and excited when speaking about Jesus, the Church, or the lives of the saints.
- An awareness of many flaws and sinfulness, but a desire to seek holiness despite these limitations.
- An energy and joy when leading groups or collaborating with others on projects, particularly in service to God and neighbor.
- A desire to be of service when thinking about the great spiritual and temporal needs of the many families that live in the state of Maine.
It is important to address some of the mistaken signs many men think indicate that they are not called to be priests:
“I like women and want to be a father.” – Great! It is important that a priest is healthy and balanced. Liking women and being drawn to the family are important qualities for priests. Parishes are full of women and families. If our priests did not value them, they would be miserable. To appreciate and value something does not mean that you need to possess it for yourself. The celibate priest appreciates and values marriage and the family; it is precisely this appreciation that allows him to joyfully spend his life serving the marriages and families entrusted to his care.
“I’m not holy enough.” – No one is. That is why priests go to confession too. Certainly, if a man is struggling with serious sins, he needs to work on addressing those issues before entering the seminary. But a sinful past does not keep a man from being ordained and becoming a wonderful priest. Many of the greatest priests, such as St. Paul, St. Augustine, or St. Ignatius, have proven that!
“I’m too young. I need to experience life first.” This is a little more complicated. It is important for a man entering the seminary to be at peace and not feel that he is ‘missing out’ on something important. On the other hand, if a young man has a strong desire to serve the Church and a healthy maturity, postponing entering the seminary until after he has ‘experienced life’ can do great harm to him. Experiences with sin and evil can become wounds or scars that will have to be healed later in life. If a man desires to explore other possible pathways to holiness – to explore dating or a career, for example – this can be an important part of his discernment process. However, postponing making a serious commitment to discernment simply out of a desire for pleasure, comfort, esteem, or wealth – Christ warns us that such a choice will not help us to follow his will, but will enslave and distract us, making it impossible for us to follow him in the end. We postpone seeking holiness to the peril of our salvation. The time to follow Christ is now.
“I have gifts and talents that will go to waste.” A capable spiritual director will be able to help a man to answer the question of whether his gifts and abilities are incompatible with priestly service. It is important not to overly restrict our idea of what the life of a priest is like. While certainly priestly ministry is centered on the sacraments and pastoral ministry, many times a priest’s talents, areas of interest and hobbies become very fruitful parts of his ministry too.
Priests in our diocese are artists, musicians, outdoorsmen, and bakers and many other things. They experience in the fields of medicine, finance, engineering, teaching, politics, and law enforcement. All of these interests and experiences enrich our presbyterate and help our priests to connect with those they serve in ways that they would not be able to if they only had experience and interest in the sacristy. If a man is being called by Christ to serve as a priest, he can rest assured that none of his gifts or experiences will go to waste. In mysterious and beautiful ways, God makes it possible for every part of a priest’s life and experience to bear fruit.
How to Discern
LIFE OF PRAYER AND SACRAMENTS
Perseverance in Prayer
Pope Francis once said, "Vocations are born in prayer and from prayer." Without an active life of prayer, it is impossible to make any progress in discernment. The Catechism chapter dealing with prayer is titled "The Battle of Prayer," indicating the challenge that prayer presents to every Christian, and certainly in a particular way to the discerner. With the support and guidance of a spiritual director, a daily prayer routine provides an essential foundation to the spiritual life. Elements of this prayer routine for the discerner should gradually work to the include the Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic Adoration, the Rosary, and mental prayer, including prayer with the Scriptures (lectio divina). These forms of prayer, together with daily Mass, form the part of diocesan priestly spirituality.
The Eucharist is what sustains and gives life to the Church, and in a particular way, to the priesthood. When a man is discerning a call to the priesthood, the Eucharist must therefore play a central role in his spiritual life. Though academic or work-related commitments can present practical challenges, when possible, it is highly recommended that those who are seriously discerning a call to the priesthood attend daily Mass. Daily Mass is particularly fruitful to a man discerning the priesthood because it gives him access to a daily outpouring of the Lord's grace in the sacrament, draws him more deeply into the sacred scriptures and liturgical life of the Church, and connects him more personally with local priests and to the local Catholic community. If possible, regular prayer before the Blessed Sacrament at a local perpetual adoration chapel or during regularly scheduled eucharistic adoration in a local parish is also highly recommended.
The sacrament of penance, or confession, is also a critical help to a man seeking to discern the Lord's voice in his life. In the first place, it helps him to be free of any serious sin that would cloud his judgement or hamper his freedom. Secondly, confession promotes a transparency and honesty in our prayer and in our relationship to the Church that is critical when discerning. Regularly confessing our serious sins - at least monthly, but sometimes with greater frequency as required - adds an accountability that promotes fortitude and trust in the penitent and also helps him to make greater moral and spiritual progress.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION AND GUIDANCE
A Helpful Priest Spiritual Director
For most Catholics, much progress can be made in discernment through the regular reception of the sacraments, a disciplined prayer life, and healthy relationships with other faith-filled family and friends in the community. For those discerning the priesthood, however, progress will be limited without the assistance and support of a dedicated and capable priest spiritual director. For whereas insight into the reality of the vocation to marriage is naturally a part of life and of our experience, many times even devout Catholics do not have a very clear understanding of the priesthood and the process of becoming a priest. A spiritual director can assist a discerner in coming to a more mature understanding of priestly identity and life and can also provide encouragement and assistance along the various steps of discernment.
Choosing a holy, capable, and compatible spiritual director is very important. For guidance regarding the choice of a spiritual director and various other considerations regarding spiritual direction, please see this article by Fr. Seamus Griesbach: What Should Happen, and Not Happen, In Spiritual Direction.
Your Pastor and Other Priests
In addition to a spiritual director, a man who is discerning the priesthood should work to get to know his local pastor and area priests. While sometimes this may be difficult - if the pastor is quite busy or shows little interest - most of the time pastors are excited to learn that one of their parishioners is considering the priesthood and are happy to assist in any way they can. Even if a connection to the pastor is not easy to make, there are usually other priests who are ministering in the area and would be happy to get to know a man in the area who is discerning. Getting to know priests in person - spending time with them and having conversations with them in informal settings - will help someone who is discerning to get a better understanding of what the life of a priest is like. Local priests can also be an invaluable source of support for a man who is discerning the priesthood, particularly if he applies to enter the seminary and when he is away for seminary studies.
THE FOUR PILLARS OF PRIESTLY FORMATION
After being accepted as a candidate for the priesthood, a man begins a process of priestly formation that will last for anywhere between five and nine years. Priestly formation has the twofold goal of assisting the candidate and his formators in discerning the authenticity of his call and in preparing him to be a faithful, capable and joyful priest. Formation for the priesthood is not a matter of taking on a holy persona or becoming a kind of cookie cutter of some kind of envisioned ideal priest. Instead, it is a process that assists a man in authentically and freely allowing the totality of who he is to be lived out in service to Christ and his Church as a priest. The Church has identified four “pillars” or areas where this formation for ministry occurs:
Human formation is the process of through which a man gains the natural virtue, self-knowledge and depth of character required in the exercise of priestly ministry. A candidate must be a disciplined, well-rounded, and capable man in order to be a fruitful and healthy priest. Human formation is the foundation that all other aspects of priestly formation build upon and is a process that begins from birth. In seminary, formators help candidates for the priesthood to build upon the foundation of virtue and human excellence they have received so as to be capable and effective ministers of the Gospel.
Spiritual formation involves a deepening commitment to and experience of union with Jesus Christ through prayer and the sacraments. Seminarians meet regularly with a spiritual director who helps them to recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives, obstacles to that spirit, and the habits and choices that allow us to cooperate more fully with the movement of grace. Seminary life is structured so as to be conducive to a deepening of the spiritual life through regular communal prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, daily celebration of the Eucharist, regular holy hours, and regular times of retreat.
Seminarians spend much of their time and effort in theological study, where they are immersed in the truths of the faith and trained in bringing the Gospel to others. Theological formation begins with the sacred scriptures and continues under the guidance of the Church's magisterial teaching and traditions as handed on through the centuries. Since a teacher can only hand on what he or she has first received, this formation in the knowledge of God is critical for those who will be entrusted with proclaiming the faith accurately and in its entirety over the course of their ministry.
Pastoral formation begins in the seminary and continues throughout the summers of priestly preparation and throughout the years of priestly ministry. Pastoral formation occurs through the experience of bringing Christ to others and serving those who are in need. During seminary years, candidates for the priesthood are given pastorally formative experiences to prepare them for future ministry. These experiences can range from prison ministry to work with children in a summer catechetical program to ministry in hospitals. While the seminarian is not able to experience the full breadth of the pastoral experience he will have, God willing, when carrying out priestly ministry, these areas of service help him to learn the basics of caring for others.
STAGES OF SEMINARY LIFE
Summer Assignments and Pastoral Years