Discernment: Is God Calling You to be a Priest?

By Fr. Nilo A. Lardizabal, OP

An old priest once told me, “The discernment of a religious vocation is not difficult – the choosing is.”

When I asked myself whether the religious life is the one for me, I hesitated a lot. I tried to make rationalizations and practical excuses to prevent me from entering the religious life.

Yet, who or what can hinder a person if God calls? Vocation is a story about a calling. It can be derived from the word “vocare,” which means “to call”. Now, this doesn’t mean that when we speak of vocation, we talk only of the priesthood or religious life. Any call to a life of service is a response to a vocation. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts Marriage and Holy Orders – both beautiful sacraments – as some of several responses to a calling.

Quite uniquely however, there are some men and women who are called in a very special way to follow and serve Christ through others. But in order for one to respond to this special calling, a person must first learn to discern. To discern in a religious sense generally implies a prayerful thinking so that a person can have knowledge or an answer to something. This ought to be done when, say, a person will make a big decision in life.

This process cannot be done haphazardly or at the spur of the moment. One has to think about it a lot, pray fervently, ask some trusted people, and then decide. How many wrong decisions have we made by making quick and un-meditated judgments? It is then all the more that the discernment process becomes necessary.

Now, this article is focused on those who are contemplating a call to the priesthood. Again, the Catechism states that this is a very exalted calling. Yet a young man who wishes to be so must be both humbled and honored by it. Holy Orders “is the sacrament of apostolic ministry through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time.” (CCC # 1949)

There are a few very significant points here, and let’s discern it together.

First of all, a young man discerning the priesthood must be aware that it is Christ himself who calls. And when Christ calls, there are some sacrifices to be made. Here is where the process of discerning comes in. Am I ready to follow Christ more fully by forsaking marriage and abandoning my personal careers?

For my part, I always wanted to be a teacher and a lawyer – such great careers! I too had some plans of getting married. But when I said “yes” to the Lord, I had to give all of those up. Was it worth it? It was. Here’s a personal realization: if married life and career are all beautiful plans, yet I gave it up for the priesthood, then maybe my choice was really special too, despite the many sacrifices. And why shouldn’t it be? It was Jesus himself who called.

Secondly, from the definition of Holy Orders we can understand that in the priesthood, a man is never alone. Of course besides the company of Christ and His mother Mary, there is always the presence of brother-priests. They have been through the same discernment, and the same sacrifices. They know what it means to fall in love, to be tempted and to overcome all the trials.

While discerning, get a priest whom you can talk to; someone you can trust and be open with. Any priest, for that matter, will understand, pray and guide the person in the midst of discernment. Soon, if God wills it, these priests will be your spiritual brothers who will take care of your spiritual needs.

I remember upon my profession to the Order, some of my relatives asked me: “How does it feel now that you are away from your family?” I said, “I am with my family. I did not lose them; in fact, I gained brothers.”

Thirdly, to respond to the call to be a priest involves a lifetime commitment. Unfortunately, it seems many relationships, especially among young couples, are failing because of a lack of commitment and responsibility. To be a priest is a calling until death. We discern then: Am I ready to be committed until death? Remember the passage which was re-echoed in Hebrews 5:6: “You are priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech.” This has its roots in the Old Testament priesthood. The response to the call of Christ is therefore not temporary, or on installment.

This is the reason why seminary formation is as long as studying to be a medical doctor. It is because a young man must have to discern all of these challenges. The late Pope John Paul II always said: "Be not afraid.” The priesthood is a project of God for the discerning young man. He will never forsake you.

Lastly, the young man is called to a “ministerial” priesthood. All believers, according to the Catechism, are priests – we share a common priesthood with Christ by reason of baptism and whenever we offer sacrifices, and others. But the ministerial priesthood is a life of humble service, just like what Christ did. Ministry can be derived from "ministrare” meaning "to serve”. This makes the first three points very meaningful. A man who will give up everything, enter into a brotherhood, and commit himself to death will do so because Christ Himself showed how it is to serve.

What kind of service is asked of us? Recall the story of the "Washing of the Feet” in John 13: 1-17. Jesus said:

You call me "Teacher" and "Lord", and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.

Priests re-enact this episode during Holy Thursday. The young man considering the priesthood should be ready to do the same. Of course this is not limited to a literal washing of the feet, but is symbolic of a life entirely devoted to service – wherever and whenever. You can see then why priests do not get married!

After a prayerful thinking and reflection on these realities, the choice then, which may be difficult, belongs to the young man himself. No one can ever decide for him. But if Jesus calls, why not decide for HIM? Do not be afraid; grab the opportunity while it is open. The path to service is waiting for us. Don’t wait until tomorrow before you respond. Respond NOW because the Lord calls you now.

How wonderful it is when a young man makes the final choice after careful discernment! I salute all those who are able to make a mature decision, difficult though it is. Then again, it is not me who initiates, but the Lord himself. 

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