The Catholic Church in the United States designates this Sunday as “Priesthood Sunday,” a day on which we thank God for the gift of the ministerial priesthood. We are rightly concerned about the declining number of priests, and need to devote ourselves to encouraging those we think might be called to the priesthood.
But it is also helpful to look underneath the surface a bit, at a few deeper issues that dramatically influence how all of us respond to God’s call. Like Christ’s first band of apostles and disciples, we are each called to some particular mission in the Church, and so we need to know what it takes to hear that call and say “yes” to it.
The first thing we must remember is that we should never rush to say, “It can’t be me!” “God can’t be calling me to do that! He can’t be calling me to be a priest. He can’t be calling me to be a sister. He can’t be calling me to get married, to be a mother or a father. He can’t be calling me to be a missionary, or to make this sacrifice, or to be that holy.” Yes He can! God might not be calling you to do such-and-such a thing, but we’re not allowed to eliminate ourselves from consideration, just because we don’t think we have what it takes, as if we were nominated for some office and could accept or decline the nomination at will.
The truth is that God chooses all kinds of unlikely people to carry out His missions. The Bible is full of such unlikely heroes. Take, for example, the prophet Amos, who declares to the priest Amaziah (Amos 7:14-15), “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”
God might not be calling you to do such-and-such a thing, but we’re not allowed to eliminate ourselves from consideration, just because we don’t think we have what it takes, as if we were nominated for some office and could accept or decline the nomination at will. The truth is that God chooses all kinds of unlikely people to carry out His missions.
Amos is not the only such case by any means. Abraham became an extremely old man before having any children, yet he was called to be the father of descendants beyond numbering. Moses was the adopted grandson of Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt, and yet was called to lead the people out of Egypt. And Moses described himself as “slow of speech,” yet became the leader of the entire nation of Israel. David was the youngest of the children of Jesse, yet was chosen by the Lord as king of Israel. Isaiah confessed that he was a man of unclean lips, among a people of unclean lips, and yet God’s angel purified his lips and God made Him one of Israel’s greatest prophets. Jeremiah protested that he was too young and ignorant to act as a prophet, and yet he, too, became a great prophet.
In the New Testament, practically every follower of Jesus is easily recognizable as an unlikely hero, from the fishermen Peter, James and John, to Matthew the tax collector, to St. Paul the former persecutor of the Church.
Today, God is still calling those who might seem “unlikely” in the eyes of the world to do His work. For example, at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where I serve, many of the men preparing there for the priesthood could easily tell stories like that of Amos. I don’t think we have any former shepherds or dressers of sycamore trees at Sacred Heart right now, but in recent years we’ve have had former engineers, former doctors, former businessmen, and even former husbands and fathers who are now widowers. I myself was a former journalist when I entered the seminary.
None of us can be sure of doing God’s will — saying “yes” to His call — if we eliminate possibilities on our own initiative.
We need to be open to whatever God calls us to do with our lives. And it is critical that we recognize that God’s call is multi-faceted. First, there is a basic call or claim God makes upon us. God has chosen us, as St. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:4, “before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.”
God’s choice of us is made formal and permanent in the sacrament of baptism. In the Rite of Baptism, one of the first things the priest or deacon does (in the case of infant baptism) is to trace the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead and declare that in the name of the Christian community he “claim(s) you for Christ our savior.” So each of us is chosen and claimed by God as His own.
Second, God has a specific mission for each of us. On a daily basis we are called to do many smaller things for God, but here we’re talking about God’s “big” call to us, the fundamental call that gives shape to the rest of our lives, as priests, members of religious communities, as married people or those who consecrate themselves totally to the Lord’s service outside of the priesthood or religious community life. All of these paths are meant to be godly paths, paths to holiness, paths that allow us to lead others to holiness. God has a plan and a mission for each of us, and it is our obligation and our joy to follow that plan, to carry out that mission faithfully.
The third point we need to consider about our call from God is that we must depend upon Him completely. In the Gospels, when Jesus sends the Twelve to preach and cast out demons and heal the sick, He told them “to take nothing for their journey” except a walking stick, sandals and a tunic.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, wrote once about a visit he made to the rectory of a Dominican priest, where he marveled at the simplicity of the priest’s living quarters. When he said something about how simple the priest’s room was, the priest replied, “Well, if I walk down to your room, all you’ve got is your suitcase.” Dolan replied, “Well, sure, but, after all, I’m just passing through,” to which the Dominican priest replied, “Aren’t we all.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a lot more stuff than that in my rooms at the seminary. Yet we are called to depend upon God completely when we take on whatever mission He gives us. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, wrote once about a visit he made to the rectory of a Dominican priest, where he marveled at the simplicity of the priest’s living quarters. When he said something about how simple the priest’s room was, the priest replied, “Well, if I walk down to your room, all you’ve got is your suitcase.” Dolan replied, “Well, sure, but, after all, I’m just passing through,” to which the Dominican priest replied, “Aren’t we all.”
That’s the attitude we all should have. We need more and more Catholics to take on the attitude that we are we are all just “passing through,” that heaven is our true home and that we are here on earth on a mission from God. We need to know that the same God Who calls us will give us the strength to faithfully carry out the mission He has entrusted to us, when we make ourselves available to Him, recognize the many ways He calls us, and respond positively and with total dependence upon Him. Then we can be confident that the shortage of priests — and a whole bunch of other difficulties we face — will get a whole lot better.
At every celebration of Holy Mass, the Lord Jesus comes to us — in power, certainly — but also in poverty, in simplicity, and in total obedience to His Father’s will. We ought to pray that the Eucharist will strengthen us so that we might hear God’s call and say “yes” to Him with all our hearts, no matter what the cost. And we ought to commit ourselves to helping others, helping clear away the noise and clutter of the world, paying attention to what God is doing in the lives of those around us, and encouraging in them a “yes” to God that holds nothing back from Him Who has given us everything.
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.