|Chambers of Her Heart,
Madonna House & Priestly Formation
CHAPTER 11: IS HE CALLING ME?
While this final Chapter, and indeed the whole book, mostly concerns men trying to discern a vocation to the priesthood, the principles involved would be helpful to any one of our guests, or anyone reading this book, who is seeking to hear the Lord’s voice in his or her regard. The “world” they come from is the same; and many of the obstacles are the same.
So you are wondering if Jesus is saying to you, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:18); wondering if he is calling you to be one of his priests in the third Millennium. In the world of the Spirit, the odds are in your favor that the Lord may really be calling you. He is surely calling many more men than are responding. It is inconceivable that he is not tending his flock, calling forth the number of priests necessary for his people. The Lord never leaves his flock untended.
However, in the actual world of today, the odds are against your ability to hear and respond to his voice. This may strike you as pessimistic. I would call it Christian realism for today! There has always been a certain amount of refusal of the grace of a vocation, due to a lack of generosity and spiritual deafness; there is always a gap between those called and those who respond. The accent in this book has been on opening your spiritual ears and senses so you can hear the Word of God.
I believe that the noises preventing you from clearly hearing his voice today are much more strident and enchanting than ever before. As the Vatican document put it, we live in a world “in which inner recollection is almost impossible because of the continuous overexcitement of the senses and the overabundance of concepts.” There is an extreme cacophony of sounds, a shrill Babel of confusion today, blocking out the voice of the Lord. Basically, these blocking voices are the same three as in the early years of Christianity: “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”
Having said that, and for your overall encouragement, this ability to hear and respond to the Lord’s voice depends very much on where you are. In many countries south of the border- in Africa, the Philippines, South America, India – and in some of the countries formerly in the soviet block, - the seminaries are full. Also, in many of the new communities, and in the dioceses where fidelity to the Holy Father is very prominent, many men are able to hear the Good Shepherd calling. So, these days, it does depend on the spiritual atmosphere in which men are living and seeking to know God’s will. In Madonna House, the odds of your hearing could be greatly increased!
“The world” is not primarily a geographical place, although this is a factor (as I just mentioned.) “The world,” in a negative sense, is whatever is not in conformity with the Father’s will, with sacred order. The basic elements of culture – family, education, cities, art, friendship, and so on – are good, but they can all be distorted and be poor media for grace. We are, at least in the West, in a time of the super-exaltation of this world. The Holy Father has called the world of our time a meta-temptation, that is, a situation beyond ordinary temptation. These are strong words.
And how fascinating is the modern world. So many opportunities, so much excitement, so much freedom! The world of the computer and Internet and videos and DVDs. How enticing it all is!
And “the flesh.” Our senses, our sexuality, are all good, part of God’s creation. The love of a woman, and the desire to have a family, are desires from God. (God himself called Isaiah’s wife “the delight of your eyes.”) But this human spousal love has been so exalted and exaggerated that the voice of the Lord, calling some men to a celibate love of him and his spouse, the Church, seems unreal, unnatural, and very unappealing. Human love has taken the place of divine love in the order of affections. It seems, at times, that we don’t even have an adequate language to speak to the objections raised by modern people against our Christian values.
In our sensate culture, sexuality has become enormously distorted. (C.S. Lewis has said that even sex has become boring.) So many pleasures for the eyes and ears and touch. The blaring of these sensual voices surely is blocking out the voice of the Shepherd in the ears of many young men.
The word “flesh” as used by St. Paul has at least five or six meanings. In a negative, worldly sense, it means much more than a distorted sensuality. Here is St. Paul’s list of the flesh from Gal 5:19-21:
“The acts of sinful nature [flesh] are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred; discord, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” He says that those who live like this “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” I may add, "will not either be able to hear and respond to God’s call."
As he did with Paul, God can give you a powerful grace, breaking through your deafness and sinful practices. But if, like Paul, you do not go into the Arabian desert for a few years and work on some of your “flesh,” you will not be able to respond to God’s call. (We sometimes think that after Paul heard Christ’s call on the Damascus road, he took a couple of weekends to recover, and then started preaching to the Gentiles in the marketplaces of the world. Not so. He went into the desert for a number of years to prepare himself for his worldwide ministry. Was this not his Nazareth time?)
And the devil? You believe in him, don’t you? The Lord tells us in the parable of the sower that he snatches graces away from the hearts of people. St. John Chrysostom says that he “ever stands watchful with his own battle array, watching for our indolence, and laboring more zealously for our destruction than we for our salvation.” He is never quiet; he is always working to destroy God’s work. If you were the devil, wouldn’t you first of all go after those whom the Lord is calling to the priesthood, to be the leaders of his people? They would certainly be high on his diabolical priority list.
He knows very well the importance of the priesthood. As a master tactician, if he can divert young men into any other vocation than priesthood, it will make his task much easier. The devil hates priests. (A priest told me once that, during a deliverance session, just before a devil left, he said, in the most hateful tone, “You priests.” That is, “I hate you so.”) The devil will do all he can to intensify the screaming of the world and the flesh to block out the Master’s voice.
He will keep reminding you of your deficiencies, especially your “pride” in thinking you could be called to the priesthood. He will dazzle your imagination with how delightful it would be to give up all this altruism and just settle down and be content with a normal existence. Why take on all these burdens of being a priest today! Why not just live a normal and peaceful life like most people!
And he will play on your idealism: “You are idealistic, and want to do something for the world. Of course. But there are now so many other avenues available for doing that. The priesthood is no longer the best way, or even the most important way. The modern world has opened up numerous, and really more effective ways, to do good. Why not become a lawyer, or social worker, or university teacher, or a psychiatrist? People no longer see the priest as being an instrument in effecting real change in the world or in peoples’ lives. Become truly relevant in these important times. Priests are for saying Mass, hearing the confessions of old ladies, and baby-sitting parishes that are dying anyhow. If you are really serious about wanting to change the world, well, stop wasting your time in pursuing the priesthood!”
The counter forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil are many and powerful. What I am saying is that it is certainly possible for you to receive a call from God, but if you are not willing to be generous, you may let the call fall on rocky soil and wither away.
I described above the divine milieu of Madonna House. The modern western world is, by and large, a secular milieu. I wouldn’t call it an atheistic milieu. It doesn’t so much deny God explicitly as simply assume his irrelevance. He just doesn’t “figure in” in any meaningful way. He is not important. Whether he exists or not doesn’t really change anything.
It will take you a number of years to recognize in your own mind many secular attitudes about a vocation in life that you have imbibed without even knowing it. I will mention here just a few that, unconsciously, may be affecting your ability to hear and answer God’s call.
First, a vocation, in the Christian view, is something very personal, a matter between you and God. God does not extend “group calls,” as if he needs two thousand vocations this year for North America so he issues a general appeal. He approaches his children one by one. Your journey, and your call, will be very personal and intimate, unlike that of any other person. You may not even be able to explain it to anyone. (Can anyone really explain why he is marrying this particular woman!)
Although individualism is very much emphasized in our culture, there is also, paradoxically, in the business world, a kind of collectivism: a company needs fifty engineers, so you call in hundreds of people, interview them, and make a selection.
God doesn’t work like that. Recall in the Gospel how he called his disciples individually, very personally. His call doesn’t even depend on you having great qualities. Again, think of the apostles. He is sovereign in his choice. You don’t have to be the most intelligent, or the most obvious, choice. Peter might have said to the Lord, “Really, I’m only a fisherman. Why don’t you ask one of the leading Pharisees, who is much smarter than I and knows our tradition much better. And he preaches better too.” But the Lord chooses whom he wishes. With his choice he gives the grace.
Existentialism pervades much of modern thought, even if people are unaware of what the term means. In its extreme form it is a frame of mind that says there are no essences of things; that is to say, no definite sacred order to creation. There is only your existence and the present now. This means that you yourself create your own essence, goals, destiny, moment by moment. You create your own un-sacred order. Just read the newspapers: there are no more boundaries between men and women, father and mother, religions, churches. Everything is relative. The sacred order has been replaced by our own subjective order.
This is totally contrary to our view of the world, and especially contrary to our understanding of God’s relationship to us, and his will for us. Everything does have its own nature and essence, its own form and laws. Within nature itself there are goals which God has decreed.
So too with our vocations. God can and does give us a call that can determine our whole future. We are free to cooperate with his choice. And our basic vocation is not subject to day to day revision and change. Enter here our understanding of permanency, final vows, “to death do us part.” We believe, with God’s help, one can say “forever” to our call.
Our Madonna House way of life is very conducive for discerning one’s vocation. Many young people, besides the pre-sems, have found God’s call during their stay with us. When you come you may think you already know God’s call. However, you discover that your motives have much to be desired. You may discover some motives too much conditioned by the world, the flesh and the devil.
When we first begin searching for our vocation, it would be the rare person whose motives are entirely pure and selfless. Doubtless some of the motives of the Apostles were not 100% pure. Were they not arguing among themselves who would be the greatest in the kingdom? Still, Jesus chose them. Through their fidelity, and what they had to suffer for him, their hearts were eventually purified. And probably every priest today –I include myself – could say that their intentions were not perfect when ascending the altar for the first time. But Jesus purifies us on the way.
In the past, parents were often pushing their sons to become priests. This doesn’t seem to be much of a problem these days! One factor in the decline of vocations is that Catholic parents, having smaller families, are less inclined to desire their only son to become a priest. Traditionally, vocations have come from large families. Large families equal generous parents. Generous parents equal faith. Such parents see a priest in the family as a great gift from God. They will be more inclined to see a priestly vocation as blessing, something to be prayed for, desired, welcomed, rather than as a loss of grandchildren. We hear many stories from candidates to the priesthood about the lack of enthusiasm on the part of parents for priestly vocations in the family. Sad.
The media’s sensationalizing of the problems in the priesthood is another block. You rarely hear from the media about the glories of the priesthood, or about the countless good and faithful priests who are in the majority. All you hear about in the media concerns the “crisis” in the priesthood. And yet, there is not objective evidence that such a crisis actually exists, at least to the extent played up by the media. In fact, three fairly recent studies show just the opposite:
An NCEA study of priests ordained five to nine years, conducted in 1990, found that more than 80 percent would choose the priesthood again; about 90 percent said they were `very’ or `pretty’ happy; and four in five said that they encourage new vocations.
A survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times in early 1994 found that 87 percent of priests said that they would renew their vows. While 59 percent of priests said that the Church should ordain married men, only 15 percent said they would marry if they could.
A study conducted for the National Federation of Priests’ Councils in 1994 found that priests had the same level of emotional well being as married men of the same age and income levels. Eighty-seven percent said they were very unlikely to leave the priesthood. (Grace Under Pressure, NCEA Publications, 2-3)
And in a feature issue on the Catholic priesthood in Time magazine several years ago, there was an interview with Andrew Greeley, the famous priest sociologist in Chicago. He simply said, in a fairly matter-of-fact way, that “well, according to our statistics, the Catholic priests in America are among the most well-balanced and happiest professional men.”
Other priests have inspired most vocations. If you ask almost any priest where the inspiration came for his vocation, nine out of ten will say another priest. I asked a retired bishop recently what was the main inspiration for his vocation. He said “the kindness of the parish priest in visiting my sick mother.” No vocational programs can substitute for the good example of other priests, or for their enthusiasm in encouraging young men to the priestly vocation.
The negative cultural/media factors plug into your own insecurities and doubts about your worthiness and abilities. While such factors are certainly obstacles to be overcome, ultimately you yourself must take responsibility for your refusal or acceptance. The priestly vocation has always demanded generosity. It can always be refused through a failure to respond to grace. Even to wonder if God is calling you to be a priest is a precious grace. It is true to say that a fair number of men are simply refusing this grace through a lack of courage and generosity, plain and simple.
See what I mean when I say the odds are against you!
To be a priest of Jesus Christ is the greatest vocation on earth. In this age of the laity and multiple ministries, this statement sounds almost heretical, or at least a theological aberration. But it is still the mind and teaching of the Church. In one sense (as the Pope has wryly noted) motherhood and fatherhood are more important: without them none of us would be here. But our parents gave us natural life. What good would it have been for us to have been born (sings the Easter liturgy) if we had not been redeemed.
For the more important nourishment of our spirits, we cannot live without the Eucharist, forgiveness of our sins, and the Word of God. We cannot live our new life in Christ without the priesthood. Priests can’t either. Ultimately the future of the Church, the spread of the Gospel, and the implementation of Vatican II, depends mostly on priests.
This statement, too, may sound almost heretical. Are priests that important! History is witness to this. Zealous and holy laity have often been responsible for renewal and growth in the Church, but for good or ill, the people follow behind their shepherds, and frequently just one step behind. It is a traditional adage that if the priest is a saint, the people will be fervent; if the priest is fervent, the people will be pious; if the priest is only decent, the people will be godless. The spiritual generation is always one degree less intense in its life that those who beget it in Christ.
In a negative sense, probably most of the heresies and schisms in the Church have come from the errors and sins of priests. Arianism, Pelagianism, Montanism – these are all names derived from priests. The major heresies of the early centuries, the tragic separation of East and West – no laity really responsible here. If the clergy had not erred, the laity would not have been separated or been led stray. It was the poet and novelist George MacDonald who said, “it is the half-Christian clergy of every denomination that are the cause of the so-called failure of the Church.” History is on his side.
If you have not read much about the priesthood, you may have found some new ideas in this book, but they are not really new. They’ve all been proposed before. What is new is a presentation of how, through our community experience, we try to foster the seeds of what the priesthood for the Third Millennium requires, what the Council taught, and especially what our present holy father has taught in his innumerable writings and talks on the priesthood.
So, if you’re thinking of the priesthood, what practical steps should you take? Contact your parish priest, or your diocesan vocational director, or a priest friend. They will know how to proceed.
Or, come to Madonna House in Combermere, or visit one of our houses closest to you. (www.madonnahouse.org) You do not necessarily have to be sponsored by a bishop. In fact, the majority of men coming are not so sponsored. We find that many young men are at very preliminary stages of their attraction to the priesthood. They are not even sure enough to approach a bishop. You might say they are on the lowest rung of the discernment ladder. They are not yet ready to knock on the bishop’s door. Our Madonna House program meets men at this basic stage of early discernment.
At Madonna House you would not only receive discernment about your personal vocation. You may discover a religious order, or one of the new ecclesial communities in the Church, which appeals to you. Madonna House is like a crossroads of people involved in many communities. Of course, our program is open to men sent here by their bishops, and we do all we can to foster the choice the candidate has made, the present direction in which he is moving. That, too, may require discernment.
The point is that we are discovering a great deal of uncertainty in the young men about the direction in which they should go. Before they approach a bishop they are desirous of getting discernment at a more basic level. The Voice they hear calling them to the priesthood is still too faint for them to make a definite decision, or choose a definite path.
All that is really required for our program is that you have heard this still, small Voice in your heart, and you’re wondering if it’s the Voice of the Lord. We want to help you with that discernment.
Often men who come here are on the first rung of the spiritual ladder as well. This means that we consider our formation program to be very, very basic. It by no means pretends to offer a taste of every aspect of formation. (For example, no emphasis is put on pastoral work outside the community.) Catherine sometimes used the word “kindergarten” about certain aspects of our community life. It’s a rather pleasant word – “a garden for [God’s] children.”
Before you can play a musical instrument it has to be tuned, or fixed if it is broken. So, much tuning and fixing is often necessary before we are able to be good instruments of the Lord. There is a great deal of “unlearning” to be done as well as learning. “Basics” are all we have to offer, but one must start at the beginning. There will be plenty of time for you to work in the Lord’s vineyard, play in his symphony. But first one must get ready.
How will you know, eventually, if you are being called? In a homily to his own seminarians, Cardinal Lustiger of Paris told them this:
We believe we can help you to recognize God’s Voice at this stage of your journey.
You could also write or call us. We would begin a “getting to know you” process, send you some forms to fill out, ask for some recommendations from people who know you. Please God, you would be accepted. (It’s always an added advantage if you can actually come and visit for a few days, but it’s not necessary.) The community will be very aware of your presence among us. Not only are they trying to be good instruments in your formation in the ways I have described. They will be supporting you by their prayers and example. What will they be praying for? One of our beloved priests, Fr. Emile Marie Briere, recently gone home to God, said, “the tenderness of God.” Communicating the tenderness, goodness, and the love of God is one of the graces of Madonna House. The following story will help to convey what I mean.
Our beloved Archbishop Raya, who is a member of our community, was celebrating his fiftieth anniversary here as a priest. There was much singing and rejoicing. Some of his Lebanese relatives performed traditional folk dances for us. During the celebration one of the recently arrived women guests said, “you have a good God.”
Yes, this is one of the graces we pray you receive: May you come to know, if you don’t know already, that you have a good God, a good Saviour, a good Mother in our Lady, a good Mother Church; that you are good! These are the truths God’s people need to hear most of all.
A fairly strong desire to be a priest should be a quality of soul for entering a major seminary. It is not required for our program! A “wondering desire” to be a priest is all we require. As I’ve mentioned, we take men who have perhaps only a glimmer of desire, and are seeking God’s will in regard to that faint whisper to the heart. At this stage you’re only in the vestibule of the house of vocation.
Vocational graces grow and develop. We have to do our part to nourish them. If we fail to keep them alive, they may crumble away. (Sometimes it takes many years before a person responds to a vocational grace.) We are available to be part of this journey. We try to help men see if it is really the Lord calling them. If it is, what are the challenges and obstacles?
Well, this is something of what our spiritual formation program is all about. We consider it a great privilege to be involved in some small way in this very holy matter of helping to form priests for this Third Millennium. Most of the men reading this book may not come to Madonna House. Know that we pray for your openness to the Voice of the Good Shepherd who is seeking generous hearts to serve in the greatest vocation on earth.
A final word to all readers.
Very few people can actually come to Madonna House. And of those who come, very few choose it as a vocation. We believe that Catherine’s vision of the Christian life, the divine milieu I’ve tried to describe here, can be used as a pattern for the Christian life anywhere, especially in the home. Our homes are the last outposts of freedom. You can take the vision presented here and try and implement it in your own home. At the heart of Catherine’s teaching is her belief that this vision is capable of being lived anywhere. You can turn your home into Nazareth. The home is and always has been the real seedbed of vocations.
THE LAST WORD
I give the last word to Catherine. Her two books, Dear Seminarian and Dear Father will provide many insights for you about her vision of the priesthood. What follows is this vision in a brief, profound, poetic form.
You may be interested in the origin of this statement. Her husband, Eddie Doherty, was a prolific writer. One day he was writing about the priesthood and he thought he’d ask Catherine. At the time she was sunbathing out by the river, dictating letters. When he came outside and asked, “Catherine, what is a priest,” the person taking her dictation said some profound feeling came over her. She thought for a moment, and then, from the depths of her heart, came this vision of the priesthood:
A priest is a miracle of God’s love to us; a man who, through His Sacrament of Ordination, becomes another Christ with powers that beggar human imagination, a man who brings to us God daily, who will lead us eventually to the Beatific Vision, the ultimate and only goal of life.
Nothing can be greater in this world of ours than a priest. Nothing except God Himself.
. . . o o o . . .
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author, Robert Wild, was ordained for the diocese of Buffalo, N.Y, in 1967. After parish work he joined the Madonna House community in 1972. In 1993 he became the director of the spiritual formation program described in this book. He has edited a number of books by Catherine, and has written a trilogy on her spirituality, now in one volume, Journey to the Heart of Christ. He is the postulator for Catherine’s cause for canonization. All Madonna House books, as well as much information about the community and Catherine’s Cause for canonization, are available at: www.madonnahouse.org.