As we continue our examination here at Life At 25 of vocations in the Church today, it is right that our attention should now turn to the Sacred Priesthood, because priests are absolutely vital to the mission of the Church, so much so that without priests there is no Eucharist, there is no Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, there is really no apostolic succession, because there would be no bishops to hand on the faith. People seem to have developed a mindset about the priesthood that men who become good priests are always going to be “more holy” than you or I, and that somehow they are “more perfect” than we are-they aren’t “regular guys.” Priests should be different then many in the world, certainly different than those who don’t live a Christian life, but priests are not perfect, sinless, or without fault, and they aren’t because they are regular people.
While priests are vital to the work of the Church because without them we cannot have Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, no man is born a priest. We are all baptized into the priesthood of all believers in Christ. Some men are called to the presbyterate not because they came qualified or worthy, but because Christ has invited them to serve the People of God. Every priest (or for that matter, every deacon) begins his life as a layman, and it is out of a desire to serve the People of God and bring Jesus Christ to them that God calls men to the priesthood. Without priests, there can be no Mass, but without the People of God there can be no priests. If you don’t think priests can be “regular guys,” I’m not sure how much more regular someone can get than our bishop, who may be the supreme Pastor in the Diocese of Knoxville, but he also likes St. Louis Cardinals baseball, cold beer, and White Castle hamburgers.
A man doesn’t just get up one morning and decide that he is going to be a priest, because no man makes himself a priest, but God calls a man to the priesthood just as he calls a man or a woman to marry, or calls us to grow in faith through the sacrament of Confirmation. If God calls a man to the priesthood and that man willingly accepts that call, then that same man will be open to following Jesus Christ wherever he might lead him, and that means that he’s ready for the life of continuing conversion in Christ into which we are all called, and which is necessary for the ordained man. The very first priests might give us some idea of what we mean when we talk about a life of continuing conversion. One of them was so afraid of getting in trouble that he denied the Lord three times, after telling him he would never deny him and begging him to wash his hands and head, he would go on to lead the infant Church. Another of them was probably around 14 years old when he started following Jesus around, he called himself “the disciple who Jesus loved.” He was just a teenager, very likely, and was the only one at the Cross. Jesus left his mother in the care of that kid, and he went on to become the Church’s first great theologian. Still another of those first priests who would be bishops and apostles came late to the faith, after the others and after the Resurrection of Our Lord, when the Lord came to him on the road to Damascus and asked him why he kept kicking against the goad. This was after he encouraged the stoning of a deacon called Stephen, he held the cloaks of the men who threw the stones at the first martyr. He would be the early Church’s most prolific letter-writer and disciplinarian who would help establish the Church all over the ancient world. We know these men as Sts. Peter, John, and Paul. They were not perfect, and when Jesus found them they were, respectively, a fisherman, a young boy, and a tent maker. They didn’t have the qualifications by this world’s standards, but God called and qualified them for the mission and ministry he had set before them.
The priesthood is about a life of self-sacrifice. The whole Church is the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus, but the hands of a priest are the hands which bring us Jesus in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The hands of a priest are the hands which anoint us when we are sick or dying. A priest’s hands are the hands that extend over us in forgiveness and blessing in persona Christi and in the name of Christ’s Church. The sacramental ministry of the Church cannot be carried out in its fullness without our priests.
The life of a priest today isn’t an easy one, and it would be something of an injustice to glamorize it. Priests are often ostracized in today’s culture, and it certainly isn’t easy to be seen in a Roman collar in many places (that is certainly true in some parts of our own diocese!). I don’t think we have to get into all of the many details as to why that is, except to say that they have been written about before in this space. However, the rewards (both the spiritual rewards and yes, blessings even in this life of various sorts) of seeking and following God’s will for your life are enormous. Not to mention the fact that in being ordained, a man receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and he gets to be a part of that fraternity of men in the ordained ministry of the Church who have given their lives over to the service of others “for the Glory of God and the Good of Souls.”
In many dioceses there is a severe shortage of priests today. Often, the secular world has their own idea of why that shortage exists, and there are even some folks within the Church who have their own ideas as to why the shortage exists, but most of these ideas fall short of the mark. Oftentimes, the reasons are as simple as a man not considering whether he might have a call to the priesthood, having a call and choosing to go his own way instead, or never being asked when others might consider that he could have a call to the priesthood. We don’t have a priest shortage in the Diocese of Knoxville, in fact we have one of the highest priest-per-parishioner rates in the United States, and there are more priests to come. Part of the reason for this is that we have a bishop who is not shy about promoting vocations, and he doesn’t want men who might feel called to the priesthood to feel that money is something that would prevent them from pursuing that call, and our previous bishops have also had that same attitude. There are currently 22 seminarians in the Diocese of Knoxville who need your prayers and support. In addition to those 22 men, however, our diocese is committed to creating an accessible and comfortable climate in which a man might be able to discern whether or not he might have a priestly vocation, that’s why we have an active Melchizedek Project Vocation Discernment Group right here in our diocese.
Could God be calling you to a priestly vocation? Are you willing to discern that call? If today you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your heart.
This post is part of a continuing series on vocations in the Church.