The Priestly Vocation
To teach, to rule, and to sanctify the members of His Church, Our Blessed Lord never ceases to summon young men to join the ranks of the priesthood. This call of Christ, Who said: "You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you" (]n. 15: 16), has received the name of 'vocation', from the Latin verb "vocare," to call. And indeed, no man should dare to present himself for this sacred office unless God has called him to it... unless he "has a vocation."
"Neither doth any man take the honor (of the priesthood) to himself," says St. Paul, "but he that is called by God, as Aaron was." (Hebrews 5: 4)
Unfortunately, certain erroneous theological tendencies, such as Quietism, have led in the last century or so to specious distortions of the notion of the vocation to the priesthood. Well-intentioned but misguided authors have erected certain merely accidental elements, rarely found, into the primary criteria for the discernment of vocations, with the result that their conclusions, and the resultant practical attitude, have without doubt discouraged numerous eligible young men from undertaking or continuing ecclesiastical studies.
To avoid these misconceptions and their regrettable consequences, let us examine the true notion of the vocation to the priesthood.
The Council of Trent declares: "Vocari a Deo dicuntur qui a legitimis Ecdesiae ministris vocantur." "Those men are said to be called by God who are called by the legitimate ministers of the Church."
The only genuine vocation to the priesthood, the vocation in the strict sense, is the summons by the Bishop or by his delegate to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, in other words, it is the acceptance of a candidate for the priesthood by the Bishop or his delegate, acting in the name of God. This important truth has equally important implications.
The repeated solemn proclamations of Popes and Councils exhort all Bishops to a meticulous effort to choose the most suitable candidates for the Holy Priesthood. In expectation of this summons of the Bishop to Holy Orders (the true "vocation") the role of the candidate is to prepare himself conscientiously by pursuing the several-year program for the intellectual and spiritual formation of future priests which the Church has gradually perfected, especially since the Council of Trent.
This long work of formation to render oneself suitable (idoneus) for the call to the priesthood, should be in all its elements the work of divine grace, and have as its soul the persevering intention on the candidate's part to become a priest, and a good priest.
But how am I to know whether I should undertake this lengthy program of formation, whether I should try to prepare myself for the summons by the Bishop which constitutes the true vocation?"
It is in this domain that an unbalanced emphasis on accidental elements has wrought much havoc. The young man's desire and intention to become a priest can result from one of the following causes:
1. A private revelation;
2. The sensible attraction of the Holy Ghost; or,
3. A prudent choice made with the aid of divine grace.
The error of many authors of a certain period, the influences of which still persist, consisted in seeking, to justify every vocation, the sensible attraction of the Holy Ghost, something actually experienced by a few young men, and which, in fact, the Bishop does not even consider in examining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood. A vocation requires no overpowering "feeling" that one is "called". Unfortunately, for several decades this misconception probably frightened many otherwise qualified young men (who "felt" nothing extraordinary) away from the seminary and from the priesthood.
In actual fact, the intention to become a priest most often takes the form of a decision calmly and prudently made by the candidate himself, usually after prayer, reading, reflection, discussion with his parents and with a priest, etc. This is indeed the very way in which the young man customarily formulates his developing desire within himself: "I think I want to become a priest." And finally: "I do want to become a priest."
After this decision, the candidate normally enters the seminary to begin his formal training for the priesthood. These years of formation seek to prepare him intellectually and spiritually for the demanding office of the priest, and will permit him one day, if he takes advantage of them and acquires the necessary learning and sanctity, humbly to solicit of the Bishop the summons to Holy Orders.
"If the decision to enter the priesthood is not a question of sensible attraction, but a decision that I must prudently make myself, what basic qualifications should I begin to look for in myself?"
The Church principally requires of the future priest the learning sufficient to accomplish fittingly his task as preacher, teacher, confessor, etc. (debita scientia) and a moral life as elevated as the sublime dignity which he desires (mores congruentes). Since the seminary exists specifically to develop these essential qualities in the candidate, we shall discuss them later when treating in greater detail of the future priest's education.
In general the candidate must have or develop the strength to bear the manifold and demanding responsibilities of a priest, "responsibilities," adds Pope Pius XI, "which have made fearful even the stoutest champions of the Christian priesthood."
Let us consider momentarily the fundamental qualities required of the future priest:
1. He must not have any physical handicap, or disease such as epilepsy, which would render difficult his celebration of Mass or the accomplishment of other rites of the Church or priestly duties; nor may he have any physical deformity which would subject him, and his priesthood, to derision.
2. Furthermore, at least before receiving any Order, the candidate must have received both the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.
"I think I want to become a priest, and I think I would be able to acquire the necessary intellectual and moral qualities. What should I do for the time being?"
READ. We cannot reasonably desire something which we do not truly know, and the decision to enter the priesthood must, obviously, be made in all possible seriousness. Study first of all the basic teaching of the Church on the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Re-read that part of our Catechism; read the decree of the Council of Trent, and the relevant section of that Council's authoritative Catechism. Then do some reading on the life of a priest.
You can still purchase, new, several traditional Catholic books on the priesthood, such as those of Dom Columba Marmion (Christ, the Ideal of the Priest), Saint Joseph Cafasso (The Priest, Man of God), and Saint Alphonsus Ligori (Selva, or the Dignity and Duties of the Priest); and you can still obtain the invaluable Papal encyclicals on the priesthood without undue difficulty, separately or in collected form. Other excellent books, such as that of Cardinal Manning (The Eternal Priesthood), may be discovered in Catholic libraries or obtained from certain used book dealers. You may also profit from a reading of the life of a saintly priest such as the Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney.
PRAY. Needless to say, no one should make the solemn decision to enter the service of God without the guidance of God Himself. Be regular in your daily prayers and in your efforts to conquer the sinful tendencies of our fallen nature; and offer special prayers to implore the guidance of the Holy Ghost and the intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Clergy, of the holy Curé of Ars, and of all the holy priests who surround the throne of God.
CONSULT. Speak with a faithful Catholic priest about the priesthood. Who could be more familiar with it? He will also be able to help you to determine whether you have the necessary aptitudes for this high calling.
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