During the Fall of 2000 when I felt certain God was leading me to become Catholic, I thought of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the few saints I knew anything about, and suddently realized that if the Catholic Church were true, then that meant there was an entirely new vocation that he could be calling me to: consecrated celibacy for the sake of his kingdom as a priest or religious brother.
Amazingly, in my few years as an Evangelical Protestant, I never heard anything about a “vocation” (that word was not used), and certainly nothing about God calling someone to consecrate himself to God as a celibate man, even though the Biblical evidence for such a practice is evident and the history of the Church proves that this vocation is not only valid but also very commendable. (Cf. St. Paul’s exhortations in 1 Corinthians 7 and Jesus’ crystal clear words in Matthew 19:11,12). As an Evangelical Protestant, marriage was assumed to be the only “vocation” that God would call you to. As an atheist I wanted to be married one day, and when I converted to Christianity, I was even more excited to be married because I had discovered its sacred beauty.
Nonetheless, in becoming Catholic, I knew that in order to be honest with God, I had to learn about this new vocation and figure out whether it might be possible that God was calling me to it. I had come a long way from atheism to Christianity, and God had taught me on this journey that I must seek the truth, even when it contradicted that which I had long believed or assumed to be true.
So I started with learning about St. Francis of Assisi. I quickly discovered there was much more to this man than the animal-hugging nature-lover that the secular world had turned him into. I also learned that in religious life you tooks vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Immediately I was repulsed as I imagined myself starving on the streets with rags for clothes, never getting to have a wife and share in the marital embrace, and having to obey a superior whenever he told me to go hither or thither every few years. Even with this natural repulsion, I felt drawn to this radical way that I could give my life to God. He had pulled me from the wreckage of my foolish life and given me new life; I knew I owed him everything and wanted to give him my best.
The other scary thing about religious life was that God may then lead me to go across the ocean to Africa or some other “primitive” place. By primitive I mean no washing machines, microwaves, or laptop computers with internet connections, as well as no enormous grocery stores to buy ten pound blocks of cheese in. As an Evangelical, my friends taught me a humorous “hymn” that began “Lord, please don’t send me to Africa…”.
I was going through RCIA at the time, and somewhere along the way I realized that canon law said I couldn’t enter a religious community nor the seminary until I had been a Catholic for two years. I was okay with that and saw the wisdom in making new converts wait and grow for a little while in their faith before taking such an important step.
I also learned that religious life was quite varied, as well as the priesthood. For example, you can either be a diocesan priest or a religious priest. Diocesan (or “secular”) priests serve under the local diocesan bishop for a particular geographical area (like, central Texas) and are typically assigned to a specific parish. Religious priests are priests who are also members of a religious community, like the Franciscans. They are obedient to their religious superiors, often called “provincials”, and they serve in a particular province that may span a large geographical area (several countries even). Religious priests are drawn to the particular religious community by its charism. A community’s charism is their spirituality, the special way they live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity, helping the poor is their charism. For the Dominicans, preaching and teaching is their charism. For Benedictine monks, praying and working are their charisms.
The “vows” that the two types of priests take are different as well. Diocesan priests don’t actually make “vows” but rather “promises” to live celibately, simply, and in obedience to their bishop. Religious priests (and brothers) make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as well as additional vows depending on the community’s charism (the Sisters of Life take an additional vow to protect life, for example). In practice, these vows and promises are very similar. All priests receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which, like the Sacrament of Marriage, comes with God’s grace to enable the recipient to live out their vocation.
So what do priests do? Well, they bring Christ to the people by being like him. God gives his wonderful sacraments to the world through them: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Holy Orders, Marriage, Confession, and Anointing of the Sick. On a daily basis priests celebrate Mass, pray, and administer their parish. I had to ask myself: Can I see myself doing these things?
To be honest, since I had been afflicted heavily with an anxiety disorder and as a result feared being the center of attention, the thought of speaking in public everyday and constantly being in the spotlight, as priests are, scared me to death and made the thought of the priesthood quite distasteful to me. Nevertheless, I realized that these anxieties were disordered, and that as God healed me of them, I would not be controlled by fear and the way I saw the priesthood would change. I had to keep giving this vocation a chance.
So I kept praying and learning about the priesthood. I went on my first “vocations retreat”, where I spent a weekend with other people considering religious life and the priesthood and with priests, brothers, and sisters (nuns). I also started reading about all the different religious communities and sent off for more information from some of them. No sooner had I done this that I started getting flooded with brochures, prayer cards, pamphlets, etc. from all kinds of different communities. I didn’t realize that there were several major branches of the Franciscan order, and many more smaller ones (TOR, OFM, Capuchin, Friars of the Renewal…). I read most of the stuff I got and began talking with several priests on the phone and through email.
Eventually, I decided to visit some communities. I went to the Claretians house in San Antonio, to the Norbertines in New Mexico, and to the Carmelites in Houston. I also met with the diocese of Austin vocation director many times and went to regular meetings at the vocations house with other young men considering the priesthood. These visits showed me the practical side of religious life in our modern day. I had been learning about the theoretical basis for religious life and the priesthood and the ideals on which it was founded, but I needed to see the nitty-gritty reality of it. The reality is that communities are made up of regular men like me–not saints yet, but striving to become saints, men with particular (sometimes annoying) personalities and ideas. During one of my above visits, Mass was celebrated in the living room (don’t know if that is wrong or not, but it struck me as a bit odd, sitting on a couch during Mass). On another visit, most of the priests were quite elderly, and there didn’t seem to be much “young blood” coming. Finally, at one of the communities, the young men in formation wanted to go out on the town during the retreat and visit a nightclub, and during dinner when I mentioned that we should all strive to be like Jesus, I was met with bewildered looks and some argument.
It was good to get a glimpse into the reality of religious life. There were lots of good things about my visits, too, like when we prayed the Liturgy of the Hours together and one particularly touching Mass celebrated by a Norbertine priest named Father Fran at a Canosian sisters’ convent, where he was so moved by God as he spoke of Jesus’ love for us that tears began to well up in his eyes. This priest was an elderly man, and it struck me that God’s love to him was still both ever new and ever present.
I entered the Catholic Church in 2001 and continued to discern this call to consecrated life. I had been discerning it for a year and a half and continued to feel that God could be calling me to this life. I went on another vocations retreat and met a nun who argued for women’s ordination to the priesthood. I was taken aback by this view as I had read a bit about the Church’s belief on this matter, especially in listening to Fr. John Corapi’s tape. I briefly stated my understanding of the Church’s position to the nun as about four other men and women at the retreat sat near. She looked at me with what I guess I would call bemused condescension and then gave her refutation. I felt very uncomfortable to openly argue with her for a number of reasons: 1) she was a nun and so to be respected, 2) she was an older woman and therefore my elder and I believe deference should be shown to our elders, and 3) I am not a Church scholar, so my limited knowledge on the subject, though I believe it to be true because the Church teaches it, could probably be “answered” with clever arguments. So I ended the discussion shortly and went off to another activity. Now that I have had a bit more experience in the Church, I realize there are some people, even nuns, who hold heterodox positions on such matters. May God bless that nun and all nuns with a correct faith.
After two years of discerning this call, I still didn’t feel ready to enter the seminary or become a postulant in a particular community. I began to feel my deepest desires change. Marriage began to attract me again, and so, over the course of several months, I ended my inquiries into consecrated life and began to learn more about marriage. I thought I knew all there was to know about it, but I did not. There was a treasure trove of heavenly wisdom about marriage that I had never been exposed to. But that’s, another story.
Looking back, I see how God led me along this path to discern the call to consecrated life in order to learn more about him and myself at the same time. I needed to see the value of all of his vocations before choosing one, before finding the one he was already calling me to. Still being single, I have not ruled out the possibility that God is still calling me to be a priest, but my deepest desires at this time are to be a husband and father. I pray that if God wants me to be a priest, he change these desires, and I know he will if that is his will.
May God bless you in your search for his perfect will for you! Remember these three things as you discern:
1. God wants you to be happy and fulfilled.
2. God knows best how you will be happy and fulfilled.
3. God loves you more than you love yourself.
Peace in Christ! I leave you with the prayer to St. Joseph to know your vocation:
O Great Saint Joseph, you were completely obedient to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Obtain for me the grace to know the state of life that God in his providence has chosen for me. Since my happiness on earth, and perhaps even my final happiness in heaven, depends on this choice, let me not be deceived in making it.
Obtain for me the light to know God’s Will, to carry it out faithfully, and to choose the vocation which will lead me to a happy eternity.