Friday, July 01, 2005

Knowing Now What I Thought I Knew Then

I wrote the following article for the July edition of our Diocesan newspaper. I wanted to wait to post it on here until after the publication of the issue. The paper came out today, so here it is:
"I wasn't a bit surprised," said one friend of the family. "I always knew," said another. I had looked for people to be astonished by my announcement that I was entering the seminary; instead, I was the astonished one. The sequence of events had been dramatic enough. After three weeks of college, I'd unexpectedly dropped out. Then, after telling a handful of close acquaintances my intention, I left a few weeks later to serve in the Persian Gulf with the National Guard. I knew rumors would circulate. I imagined that when I got back in a couple of months, my inbox would be crammed with questions, people wondering whether what they had heard was true, or wanting to know why the decision had come so suddenly. But the reactions I received flabbergasted me. Annoyingly, no one seemed a bit surprised.

I've often joked that I seem to have been the last person to know about my vocation, and, like any good joke, this one has more than a bit of truth behind it. Teachers, family, and friends all seemed to think long before I did that the seminary was the right place for me. "I just wish someone had told me," I sometimes quip when telling my vocation story to students in schools around the Diocese; but again, there is much truth to this statement.

The invitation to a young man to consider a calling to the priesthood is a powerful and missing piece to the puzzle of priestly vocation shortages. Often enough while I was growing up, I would write off the idea of the priesthood with the excuse that "I wasn't that type of person." In fact, I knew nothing at all of what was "that type of person." That priests were real people like me, with friends and families of their own - with interests, hobbies, human frailties and quirks - never occurred to me. In a kind of naïve arrogance, I held such things as a girlfriend or my own ambitions to be incontrovertible proof that I was called to a different life. In a sense, I put myself "off limits" to God, limiting His will by the rules and standards that made sense to me. After all, I knew myself - and I was not the priestly type.

To "know oneself" is the lofty and ancient philosophical ideal which constituted a life's work for such great men as Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard. I would have been uncommonly bright to have had this mystery figured out at the age of eighteen. In truth, I knew little of myself, and depended as much on the advice, opinions, and observations of others as did the next impressionable teenager. Just as I sought affirmation from family and friends of things like my rugged handsomeness and clever wit, it also mattered greatly to me that they gave credence to my alibis for denying a priestly vocation - that this girl might be "the one," or that I would clearly make a fabulous English teacher one day. And I received all of these affirmations, despite being not nearly so handsome as I surmised, less witty than I would like, and called to seek fulfillment on a path quite different than the married life of an English professor.

Those who knew me better than I knew myself eventually helped me take the first step in pursuit of a priestly life. For one reason or another, I had begun doubting that a career as an English teacher and part-time Airman could make me happy, and the slump in my romantic life did little to reassure me. I decided to confide these feelings to the people closest to me, hoping I would receive the type of support I sought: to be told that these doubts were irrational, a passing phase. Of course I was meant to be a teacher. What else could there be? Well, there was this... "I think God might be calling me to the priesthood," I mused, bracing myself for the laughter. But the laughter never came. Instead, quiet support that this new idea might be the right one. And not every reaction I received was a joyful one. Some people seemed downright disappointed. Yet, they were never incredulous. Even if they hated the idea, they did not seem to doubt that it could be right.

I cannot regret that my decision to enter the seminary came later than for some people. God has led my life on a unique path, and I am grateful for each and every unexpected turn around which I have careened. However, I do take my own story as a lesson. Throughout much of my life, I carried an answer in my heart to a question that was never asked; I awaited an invitation that seemed lost in the mail. When I meet young men with doubts about their futures, I boldly suggest considering a vocation to the priesthood. Whether or not it is something that they want to hear, it might be something that God wants them to hear. Perhaps they are tottering on the same doubtful ledge where I sat so long, and all they need is a push. Perhaps they have figured that they "know themselves," and God wants to challenge that assumption. That I might be the means through which God does this work is a humbling reality that newly surprises me each day. The Holy Spirit operates simply enough. All it takes is an invitation - an invitation to a young man to consider that God, who knows each of us best, might help him to better know himself.


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