The Call of a Priestly Vocation

  Rev. Mr.  Jonathan Romanoski, FSSP

 

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My dearest brethren in Christ, priest_04.jpg

Today the Church celebrates the Epiphany, a Greek word which means manifestation, for on this day the glory of God is revealed to the Gentiles, as the 3 kings come from the East, to adore Christ the King of Kings. They received the call from afar, and made the long journey, not knowing exactly when or where they would arrive. They simply followed the light given by God through the night, wherever it led them. They did not fear to suffer suspicion and risk their lives under Herod. Falling down, they adored Christ our God as every human authority must. And they offered him their greatest treasures, of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They then returned to the East, bearing the light of Christ in their hearts and on their lips, preparing the way for the coming of the Apostles, a generation later. 

As I reflect on this gospel tradition, I cannot help but think of the parallels it has with my 6-½ yrs. of priestly formation in seminary just completed. The 3 kings, serve as a great model for the call to the priestly vocation, both in their calling, and in their response.

So let us look at these in turn.

Their calling was received from above, like the priestly calling as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Hebrews, “Neither doth any man take the honor to himself, but he that is called by God, as Aaron was.”

Now there is a priesthood according to nature, which before the Levites, the father of the family, and elders of the tribes would have exercised, and which in some way remains as the natural law remains, which dictates that the father is the spiritual head of the family, and the political ruler is to lead the goods of the state subordinate to the supernatural end of the populous, for which they will be accountable to God.

But the priesthood of Christ is absolutely gratuitous. Why so? Because it is an office so thoroughly divine, both in its end and in its means.

In its end for it is the calling to be no less than another Christ. For God Himself obeys the command of the priest, when he leans over the altar and utters a few words over bread, calling down the Incarnation again, as it were, for the salvation of the human race, saying this is my body.

At whose command the blood of Christ is mystically shed anew, with the words this is the Chalice of my blood, one drop of which is powerful enough to save the entire universe.

At the words of the priest, “I absolve you from your sins” sinners, slaves of Satan, condemned to hell for all eternity for one mortal sin, are set free, and what’s more, made the very friends of God, becoming tabernacles of the most High, who truly dwells in their soul by sanctifying grace.

So wondrous is the divine mystery of the priesthood, that it surpasses all wonder, says St. John Chrysostom. Thus, who could ascend to such a state unless God calls Him, as “who can forgive sins but God alone?”

It is a vocation which is divine in its means as well, as it can only be recognized like the star in the night, towards which the Magi were drawn, not only by an inner longing, a captivation of the heart to leave all and follow it, but also by the objective signs by which they discerned the call of God.

And so what are the signs of this divine calling?
The vocation to the priesthood is seen in 3 principle signs, St. Alphonsus tells us.

1st, Purity of Intention– the intention above all to serve God and save souls for the glory of God, and not to please men, or gain the esteem of others, for “God hath scattered the bones of them that please men: they have been confounded, because God hath despised them.” (Ps. 52:6), that is, who pleased men apart from or contrary to God’s good pleasure.

Secondly, there is need of the necessary talent and learning, a talent and learning so as to understand and communicate the faith, “For,” Holy Writ declares, “the lips of the priest shall teach knowledge, and they shall seek the law at his mouth.” (Mal 2:7). A teaching ordered toward the love of God, which aims not only at enlightening with truth but which is truly pastoral as well, exposing and condemning error, which is the ruin of souls. As Pope Pius XI said: “The first and obvious duty the priest owes to the world about him, is service to the truth, the unmasking and refutation of error in whatever form of disguise it conceals itself.

Lastly, yet most importantly there is needed goodness of character, both due to the fact that the priest must become the guide of others in the way of holiness, and, most of all, because he stands in the very Holy of Holies and holds the Body of Christ in his very hands, consecrated for this sole purpose. Thus not only his hands but his whole soul must be consecrated and set apart for god, which the Church sums up in a most beautiful phrase in the ordination rite, “Imitamini quod tractatis” Imitate what you handle; that is Sacrifice yourself as Christ sacrifices himself for the glory of God and salvation of souls. Live the Mass!

Now please don’t misunderstand. These are the qualities needed to be ordained. Yet in he who has only begun to discern, these qualities will be present in a true but seminal  undeveloped fashion. For it takes many, many years in the seminary to form a priest. In the one just discerning, these qualities will be seen in the desire to give oneself to God, in the desire to know and teach the faith, in the desire to be holy, even despite one’s past and present failings, which may serve well to humble the soul with true repentance.

But note as well, that the Magi did not simply trust in their own discernment of the call, but rather consulted the priests. This is a very important point, for no man is a good judge of himself and we often deceive ourselves through an excessive or deficient estimation of what talents the Lord has given us, when we would simply do better to ask a priest of many years experience what is needed and to open our soul to him, and let him judge. For in the end, the call to the priesthood is one of the Church through her appointed pastors, a call which takes place even in the ordination rite itself, to which the “priest-to-be” can only respond like Samuel, “Adsum” Here I am O Lord.

It is very important that the person discerning, trust the guidance of another, as the sanctity of the office can be overwhelming to consider, which sanctity the Fathers and Doctors say in sum, should be greater than that of the upright man’s as heaven is greater than earth. Yet if you find yourself humbled and filled with holy fear of the sacerdotal office, this is exactly what God wants, and those whom he wishes to choose. As St. Pius X, says “Do we imagine that God is influenced by any inborn or acquired excellence of ours, to make use of our help for the extension of his glory? By no means; for it is written: God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world God has chosen to confound the strong… the humble and contemptible things of the world God has chosen…” For by ourselves we can do nothing. But with Christ all things are possible. And thus St. Thomas says “God does not destine men to such or such a vocation without favoring them with gifts at the same time, and preparing them in such a way as to render them capable of fulfilling the duties of their vocation; for as St. Paul says, ‘Our sufficiency is from God who also hath made us fit ministers of the New Testament‘ ” (2 Cor. 3:5; p. 3, q.27 a.4).”

It is when we are weak that we are strong, for only then will we truly rely on God, as St. Augustine put it, “God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou art able, and to pray for what thou are not able (to do), and aids thee that thou mayest be able.” (St. Augustine; Council of Trent sess. 6 cap. 2).

We must like the Magi, simply set out in faith, following the star in the midst of the dark night, uncertain where it will lead, yet confident that it is God who guides who cannot lead astray. And we must have great generosity toward God, and a prompt obedience to his calling, especially in our day for as St. Pius X said “to bring about the reign of Jesus Christ in the world, nothing is more essential than a saintly clergy who, by their example, their preaching and their learning will be the guides of the faithful; an old proverb says that the people will always be like their priests: Sicut sacerdos, sic populus.” For how they shall hear unless one is sent, as the Magi return today with the good news of salvation.

Since holy priestly vocations are the life of the Church, and salvation of the world it falls to each one of us to do what we can to promote them, and for young men to be generous in discerning this call. It behooves parents, especially the father, in the holiness with which they live, as one can notably observe the great benefit in formation that seminarians have received who enter the seminary from holy families. The priestly vocation must be something held in great esteem as well, and seen as the greatest honor for a family. And to the contrary, it is my obligation to inform you, that if parents discourage a priestly vocation in their son (or a religious vocation in their daughter), when they appear truly interested in it, it is a mortal sin, according to St. Alphonsus and the common teaching. St. Bernard goes so far as to call such parents murderers. The Council of Trent also condemned the opinion of Luther, who held that one should obey parents who object to their religious calling, as we must always obey God before men. Yet I know that this does not apply to most of you. May you rather be inspired by the very moving tradition in which a newly ordained priest gives to his mother the cloth with which his anointed hands were wrapped, and to his Father the stole of his first confession, which are placed on them at their death, that they may appear before God as the blessed parents of a priest for all eternity.

Lastly it behooves the young man to be generous in discerning this call, and the Church recommends above all else for this discernment the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, which are profitably done on retreat, or even amidst one’s daily life if they set aside some time for prayer each day to consider them. They simply focus the mind on what reality truly is: that you have been created for the praise and service of God alone, and by this means to save your soul. Everything else passes away, and only has value with reference to this. St. Ignatius converted his roommate Francis Xavier, by awakening him every morning with this consideration- “what would it profit you if you gained the whole world, but lost your own soul.” You then consider all of your sins in their true horror as a rebellion against the good God, who has freely created you and sustains you so as to serve Him and to be happy with Him for ever, and how an eternity in hell, will not compare with the dishonor shown to the infinitely good God by sin, in which we prefer created goods to eternal goodness itself. In short, these considerations and those which follow, put everything into perspective, so that you may then make a choice about your vocation in life, according to what is simply most reasonable, for the attainment of your end- the service of God and the salvation of your soul. Whatever choice a man makes in this state, it will be a supernatural one, and if it is to marry it will be for supernatural motives as well, to manifest the love between Christ and the Church, and not based on attractions to fading beauty, money, power, etc., which will all pass away and may well be the greatest obstacles to growing in sanctity and saving your soul, as they are truly good things. But the good is the enemy of the best, when it is sought as an end and not a means towards it.

The great example of the generosity of the three Kings is placed before you today. A generosity, which is simply a response to the generosity of God, who freely chooses to save man, and to choose men to participate in his own work. “AS the Father sent me (the Son of God!) so I send you,” for the salvation of the world, the ONLY end, which matters after this so-called life, which lasts but for the blink of an eye. Christ came down from heaven and died the most shameful death for love of you. What have you done for Christ, what are you doing for Christ, what will you do for Christ.

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 AMDG

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