Questions about Priesthood

Vocation to the Priesthood

Q : How can I tell if I have a Vocation to the Priesthood or Consecrated Life?

A: Here are some common signs and common ways of discerning a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life. You don’t need to tick every box here, but just pay attention to some of these areas and see if there are some recurring themes.
 
A desire to be a priest or consecrated person.
Maybe you can’t explain why you have this desire, it’s a part of you, like falling in love. You just know that this is what seems right. You imagine yourself as a priest or consecrated person and it seems to fit, even if it makes you afraid or you think it would be impossible. There is a joy and excitement when you think about it, a sense that this is the right path. The idea keeps coming back – in your prayer, your daydreaming, your imagination. Some scripture passage or sermon seems to be directed at you – about the priesthood, or the call of the disciples, or service. These passages seem to stand out for you and have a kind of clarity; as if a light comes on; or it warms your heart; or it feels as if someone is pointing at you.
 
The desire may be long-term or gradual or recent. There are different kinds of desire.

(i) Some people have always wanted to be a priest or consecrated person: they cannot remember a time when they did not have this desire; they pretended to be priests or consecrated persons when they were kids; it seems to be a part of them.

(ii) Some people have gradually wanted to be priests or consecrated persons: it has grown over time; or it has come and gone; but now seems to be a bit stronger and a bit more enduring.

(iii) Some people have always wanted NOT to be a priest or consecrated person. This might sound strange, but there are people who have always been fighting it, resisting, walking away, giving excuses why not; and this is because deep down they have always known it is a part of them; and at some point they realise that, in fact, people without vocations do not normally go around thinking about why they don’t have a vocation!

(iv) And some people suddenly want to be priests or consecrated persons: they have gone through a life changing spiritual experience; it has never occurred to them before but now it does; the priesthood or consecrated life is something new and sudden and unexpected, but very real and almost overpowering. This can happen, but these people need to be very cautious, because after a big adult conversion experience it is easy to confuse a desire to live a radical new Christian life (which is important for all people) with a desire to be a priest or consecrated person (which is only one way of responding to this new life, and perhaps not the right one). This is why the Church asks new converts to have time to settle into their new Catholic life for a few years before seeking ordination or consecrated life.
 
An admiration for priests or consecrated people you know.
You sense a goodness and holiness in their lives. You have an attraction to something they have or something they represent; even if you can’t imagine being one. They seem to be living a life worth living, in a way that speaks to you. You are drawn to them. Or perhaps you do not have any explicit desires to be a priest or consecrated person, but you are attracted to many of the things that are involved in their lives. You have a desire to serve people in different ways, or to pass on the faith, or to pray with and for others. Maybe you find less satisfaction in your work, not because it is wrong, but you feel it is not enough.
 
Sense of being pulled or pushed toward priesthood or consecrated life.
This can be true even if you do not seem to have any real personal desire. In fact it might seem like something you don’t want to do, something you are fighting against. The will of God and not your own will. It is a nagging feeling that you should or could become a priest or consecrated person, that seems to come from nowhere, uninvited; an idea you can’t get out of your mind. It might leave you cold, or even repel you – in the sense that your instincts and gut fight against it. You may find yourself making excuses to yourself (and even to others) about why you shouldn’t follow it, raising a list of objections, making clear all the signs that show you couldn’t possibly do this. Perhaps you couldn’t! But it is strange that you keep fighting and resisting it (when other people just don’t bother thinking about it). It’s as if part of you knows you should; there is an inner sense of duty, or call – even if it is reluctant.
 
An inner desire to pray more and to take the faith more seriously.
You just find that you want to pray more and to deepen your faith. Your love for Christ is growing, and your love for the Church. More and more you desire to give your life to God completely. Of course this is true for many holy lay-people! But it can often be the beginning of a vocation to priesthood or consecrated life. You are not sure why, but you have a feeling that you can’t hold anything back. For some people the idea of celibacy comes to mean more and more – not because they dislike marriage, but because they feel called to give their life wholeheartedly to serve God and others, in a way that would be difficult within the commitments of marriage and family life.
 
Other people affirm your vocation.
When you talk to people about the possibility of priesthood or consecrated life, especially committed Catholics, they don’t look as if you are mad. They affirm it, and say ‘Of course, I could have told you that years ago’. They encourage you. In other words, from the outside, this vocation also seems to make sense – it is not just a subjective sign for you, but it is beginning to be a more objective sign to others too. Perhaps people who don’t know you even come up and suggest the priesthood or consecrated life to you, out of the blue! The simple fact that someone unexpectedly suggests it to you, or jokes about it with you, may be the first sign of a call. They may see something you can’t see, or something you are not prepared to admit that you see. You shouldn’t assume that every person speaking to you is a messenger from God, and other people can sometimes get things wrong – but the suggestions others make might sometimes help you to reflect in a more open way.
 
Support from a wise person who knows you well.
You may not have a formal ‘spiritual director’ (someone you speak to regularly about your faith), but perhaps there is someone wise and trustworthy that you have chatted to about your vocation over a period of time; you have talked things through with them and they know you quite well. If they affirm what you have said, and it seems to them that you may have a vocation, then this is another more public sign that it may be true. It could be a sign to take things further forward.
 
A feeling that you are not worthy to be a priest or consecrated person.
This might seem like a paradox, but it can be true. Sometimes someone may have a deep feeling that the priesthood or consecrated life is too much of an ideal for them, that they are not worthy, or not good enough, or not capable enough. These feelings can be a sign of humility, an indication that someone has a healthy sense of their own limitations, and a high sense of the dignity of this calling. The feeling of unworthiness may, strangely, be a sign that someone has a true appreciation for what this vocation means, and that they will be open to asking for God’s help and the help of the Church. It would be worrying if someone thought any kind of Christian commitment was easy; or if they thought they could achieve it through their own efforts.
 
An attraction to marriage and family life.
This might seem a strange point. Obviously, an attraction to marriage and family life is not a sign that you should become a priest or consecrated person. But it is true that someone with a deep and strong pull towards marriage can be called by the Lord to become a priest or consecrated person. God is not playing games and asking you to do what is impossible – to be married and not married at the same time. Rather, you may have a very natural desire for marriage and family, it’s part of who you are as a man or woman, but the Lord might be calling you to let go of that so that you can discover another way of giving your life in love – as a priest or consecrated person. You need to look at all the other signs above; but this section is just to show you that an attraction to marriage does not necessarily mean you should rule out another vocation.
 
Women and the priesthood.
The priesthood is a sacrament that can only be conferred on men. This is not just a Catholic rule that might be changed in a few years, it is Christ’s own wish for the Church that has been confirmed by two thousand years of unbroken tradition. If you are a woman and you feel that there are strong signs of an attraction to the ministerial priesthood, these signs may indeed be God’s way of calling you to a radical life of service and mission and responsibility, in the Church or in the world – but not as an ordained priest. The Lord may be calling you to another vocation, that you can discover elsewhere in the Church, a place where you can live out your baptismal priesthood fully, and fulfil these deepest desires. He may even be calling you to a form of life and service that has not been lived before in the Church, something new for our times, a role for you personally or for women more generally that is yet to be discovered. Be brave, be adventurous, don’t lose heart. Be wise in your discerning. Follow the deepest calls in your heart, but be patient and humble too. Don’t be tempted to give in to anger or despair. A vocation is always an inner movement of the heart that is confirmed by an outer confirmation from the Church. So if that confirmation is not there, then there will be another meaning to that inner call. Trust the Church when she says that the ministerial priesthood will not be an authentic answer to your call, and pray that you will find another way of living this inner call fruitfully, which may not yet be clear to you or to the wider Church.

Fr Stephen Wang, How to Discover your Vocation, CTS

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Q: What is a Vocation?

A: In the simplest terms, “vocation” means a “call.” So, in general terms your vocation is what God calls you to do with your life.

Everybody is called by God to know, love and serve him. The difference is how each one does this.

Individual vocations vary between being single, married, consecrated, religious or a priest.
In the one life God gave you to live, you have one overriding purpose, to fulfill the will of God, because this is the key to your true destiny, eternal happiness.

God gives each one of us a particular mission in life. As we grow and life progresses, he makes it known to us, usually in indirect ways, more as an invitation than an imposition.

Discovering and ultimately following your vocation gives the greatest glory and praise to our Creator. It is what we were meant to do.

“Take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

God tells us an amazing thing: that even before he created us he knew us and called us. However, this does not mean that we always automatically know for sure what we are called to do in life. God reveals his will gradually, we can always make a mistake and we can even say no to him. Fortunately, God always takes us where we are and so our concern should be only where does he want me to go from here, and not anguish over the past. God is always with us as long as we keep close to Him through prayer and do our best to live up to His will in the present moment.

This website wants to help you and support you in discerning your vocation.

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Q: What is it like to be a diocesan priest?

A: Parish Life
The parish is where most people experience what it means to belong to the Church. Although there are various special ministries for priests outside of parish life, most priests spend their life moving from one parish to another.

No parish the same
A parish is a family, a living cell of the one family of God. No two parishes are the same, any more than two ordinary families. Each has its own special challenges, its own problems, needs and blessings. An inner city parish is very different to a rural one. Even in a single town or city there can be great variety: one parish may have a strong multi-ethnic dimension; while one may be in a relatively affluent suburb, another may have serious problems of poverty, unemployment and homelessness; another may have a sizeable student population, several major hospitals or a prison. One parish may have two or three Catholic schools, while another may have none at all. All parishes call for the same fundamental ministry of the priest, but each in its own distinctive way. The priest needs to be very flexible and adaptable in the way he lives and works.

A faith community
In any parish, the priest’s ministry is to build a community of faith, of truly faith-filled people. It is there that they encounter the living Jesus in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in the whole prayer-life of the community, and in their fellow parishioners. Parish unity is not meant to be just a cosy fellowship: it is to be a communion of faith and witness. The parish is supposed to be a servant community, a community for others. In other words, it is meant to be a small-scale version of all that the Church is called to be.

All together
One of the main tasks of priests in a parish is to help people to discover the part God has given them to play in his work, and the gifts he has bestowed on them. True pastoral leadership involves allowing people to be really adult and responsible members of the Church community, and creating a sense of participation and interdependence. This includes sharing decision-making with parishioners. Most parishes now have a Parish Council or similar body, but there are also many other levels of involving people in genuine team ministry. A priest today must be happy with this kind of leadership, and show signs of having the necessary gifts.

The parish family: a community of communities
We have also seen that small groups of one kind or another are increasingly important. These are not alternatives to parish life, but help to transform the parish itself into a real community. These groups vary from traditional ones (e.g. Catholic Women’s League, St Vincent de Paul, Legion of Mary, Catenians, Knights of St. Columba, Justice and Peace Group) to more recent neighbourhood groups or home groups. New models of parish life are developing and will continue to do so. The parish has always been a family of families. Whatever happens in the future, every parish will be in some way a network of smaller communities woven together by the ministry of the priest and centred on the celebration of the Eucharist.

Pastoral care
For the parish the priest is their shepherd, bringing them the care of the Good Shepherd. His ministry tries to create an atmosphere of prayer and of loving care, a community where people feel they belong, where they are valued and accepted. Every parishioner has a role in building such a caring family, but the priest has a central ministry here. He must be open, welcoming and friendly in his attitude to all.

On the other hand, a priest cannot do everything. He has his limitations, like anyone else. Jesus himself did not heal all the sick, feed all the hungry or touch the lives of everyone who came to him. Nor can the priest. He has to learn to leave some things undone. When Jesus chose to visit Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19. 1-10), he decided that this man needed him there and then. The others were left disappointed. In his pastoral care, the priest will have to make such decisions, and his priorities should be the same as those of Jesus. In the Gospel the good shepherd leaves the ninety nine to go in search of the sheep that was lost. It often seems more appropriate today to leave the one faithful sheep to go in search of the other ninety nine! He cannot possibly do this alone, nor should he, but the little he does manage to achieve will often bear more fruit than he could possibly imagine. The ‘five loaves and two fish’ he has to offer can nourish a multitude if blessed by the Lord.

Visiting the people
The priest can only make such decisions if he really knows his parishioners, as a good shepherd knows his flock. Visiting people in their homes is a vital part of his ministry. Jesus himself did a lot of visiting; St Luke in particular seems to highlight this (5. 29f; 7. 36f; 10. 38f; 11. 37f; 14. 1f; 19. 5f). He spent so much time with people of all kinds that he was seen as‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matthew 11. 19). He sent his disciples out ahead of him to places he himself was to visit (Luke 10. 1). He continues his visiting ministry today in many ways, but especially through priests who visit as his personal ambassadors. He says to priests today about their parishioners: ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’(Matthew 10. 40). Visiting is not always easy. A priest never knows what reception he will get. But it is a tremendously fruitful ministry, bringing the presence of the Good Shepherd into the lives of people and helping them to discover that he is already there with them. Through the visiting of his priest, Jesus himself knocks at the doors of their lives and waits to be invited in (cf Revelation 3. 20).

The rich variety of parish life
Most priests adopt some kind of routine once they get used to each parish, but their ministry remains very varied and unpredictable. The God of surprises never allows anyone to become too settled! The priest never knows what will be the next call on his time, who will be the next caller at the door or on the phone. People come for a chat about almost anything. They come for help with a problem, for prayer, for spiritual direction and for the sacrament of reconciliation. They come to invite the priest to supper, or to ask for money for food or for the fare home to Glasgow!

It is often difficult for the priest to be at home in the presbytery long enough to be available for callers. He has so much else to do! He visits the sick in their homes and in hospital, bringing them the healing touch of the Lord. He cares for the dying, leads the funeral Liturgy and comforts the bereaved; this is often a difficult ministry, but vital. The priest will also spend time in the local Catholic schools (where he may well be a governor). There are all kinds of ministries to young people to support and encourage, from Scouts and Guides to the youth club and more spiritual activities. There may be special institutions such as a prison or military base to serve. His teaching ministry will include many forms of preparation for the sacraments and of adult education. There are parish social events which call for his ministry of presence, as well as an increasing number of groups and committees as lay people take on more and more responsibilities in the parish. Besides all these things, and many more besides, there is parish administration to be done, especially by the parish priest.

If he tries to do all this alone, his ministry will be very brief! The pastoral care of a parish can only be truly effective if the ministry of caring and teaching is shared. This is not just a matter of ‘helping Father’, but parishioners exercising their own special forms of service. The priest gathers together a team of people who work in many ways to carry forward the work of the Lord. One of his own main tasks is to teach the teachers, to care for the carers, to lead the leaders, all in the name of Jesus himself. His whole ministry, with and for his parish team and all his parishioners, is centred always on the Eucharist - in other words, on Jesus himself, the centre of all ministry and life.

PAUSE FOR THOUGHT

  • What is your experience of parish life?
  • Have you been visited by a priest?
  • Perhaps invite your priest to visit you at home.
  • What experience do you have of caring for others?

CELEBRATING THE SACRAMENTS
At the very heart of the Catholic faith is the idea that God touches our lives through human signs and gestures, in a way suited to us as human beings. We use signs and symbols all the time to express our inner self to others, making the invisible (for example, our love for another) present through something visible (perhaps a gift, a letter or a touch). This is our natural human way of reaching out to others, flowing from the way God made us. God freely chooses to give himself to us in this truly human way: the invisible through the visible.

Sacraments are the deepest and richest signs of all. In them, the risen Jesus is personally present to us through his Church. They do not limit him in what he does, but they are central, visible ways in which he acts. The sacraments are the personal touch of Jesus at key moments of our lives. They are powerful instruments of the Good News, Jesus himself.

A week of sacraments
In a parish, the sacraments will provide the key moments in the weekly ministry of any priest. He celebrates Mass every day in the Church, as well as the occasional Mass in a school or hospital, or in people’s houses. Every Sunday is centred on several celebrations of the Eucharist, the high point of the life of the Catholic community. Often on a Sunday there are also infants to be baptised. During the week he is called upon to anoint the sick in hospital or at home. Usually on a Saturday he is available at set times for the sacrament of reconciliation, but he is always ready to celebrate this great sacrament whenever asked. On Saturdays too there are often weddings, celebrating the weaving together in love of a happy couple. Many of these sacraments require a lot of preparation, for the priest himself and the catechists who work with him, and for those who are to receive them.

The touch of Jesus
We can see from this why celebrating the sacraments is so central to the priestly ministry. The priest proclaims the presence of Jesus in the sacraments. He is a source of personal contact for people with the Lord himself. And it is above all in the sacraments that the priest himself is a living sacrament of the Good Shepherd. It is Jesus himself who is the minister of the sacraments. When the priest baptises, anoints, consecrates and absolves, it is the Lord himself who is at work through the words and actions of his friend and servant.

Jesus himself continues the same ministry today as we see in the Gospels:

  • He calls people to himself and welcomes them into the community of his friends in the sacrament of Baptism. Priests and deacons carry forward Jesus’ commission to his apostles: ‘Baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28.19).
  • Jesus continues to say to sinners who turn to him, ‘My friend, your sins are forgiven you’ (Luke 5.20; cf 7.48; John 8.11). He speaks his own words of forgiveness through the words of the priest who says in the name of the Lord, ‘I absolve you from your sins. The word ‘absolve’ means to set free. Celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation (hearing Confessions) is a wonderful ministry of healing and liberation.
  • Jesus continues to touch the lives of the sick, strengthening their faith in him, giving them the comfort of his presence and healing them in spirit, in mind and sometimes in body. He does this in a special way through the priest’s anointing of the sick person. He sends his priests to anoint the sick with oil and to heal them, just as he sent the apostles (Mark 6. 13; cf James 5. 14-15).
  • Jesus was present at the wedding in Cana (John 2. 1-10), and he continues to be present at the weddings of his friends. Through his priest who is there in his name, Jesus transforms the water of human love into the rich wine of a love which bears his own love to those whose lives they touch.

The Eucharist - heart of the priestly ministry
Sharing a meal with his friends was central to Jesus’ life, as it was for any Jew. He and his apostles often broke bread together and shared each other’s company. The Passover Meal on the night before he died was the last of many suppers with his friends, although richer in meaning than they could have imagined.

‘Then he took some bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying ‘This is my body which will be given for you; do this as a memorial of me’. He did the same with the cup after supper, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you’.
(Luke 22. 19-20)

Jesus himself continues this great gesture today when we gather together for the Eucharist. He draws us deep into his sacrifice and gives us his own body and blood, the gift of himself. Through the words of the priest, Jesus speaks the same words today as he did at the Last Supper.

There is no greater or more humbling ministry for a priest. In the Eucharist he is the living icon or image of Jesus as our great High Priest offering himself to the Father, as our Head uniting his body to himself in his sacrifice, and as our Good Shepherd nourishing his flock with the sacrificial gift of himself. The Eucharist is the heart of the life and ministry of the priest and of the community he serves. Everything else he does flows from it and leads back to it, and it is there above all that we see the priest’s role most clearly.

No one can ever be worthy of the priesthood. After all, you stand at the altar, today and in countless days to come, and you say, acting in the very person of Christ, ‘This is my body’ - not ‘his’ or ‘yours’ but ‘my’. Then a remarkable change takes place in the bread and in the wine. Think again of how you sit in the confessional and say ‘I absolve you from your sins’ - ‘I’, with all the authority of God himself.
(Cardinal Basil Hume)

PAUSE FOR THOUGHT

  • How important are the Sacraments in your life as a Catholic?
  • How central is the Mass to you? Could you go to Mass more often, perhaps on a weekday occasionally as well as on Sundays?
  • Are you a Eucharistic person?
  • If you are an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, how do you understand your ministry?
  • How important is the Sacrament of Reconciliation to you? If it is a long time since you last confessed your sins, perhaps you could make a decision now to go soon.

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Q: How do I know if I’m ready to begin actively discerning the call to priesthood?

A: Discernment is necessary; because without it our actions would not have the consistency reason can give them.

Discernment must take place in a climate of faith. It is the perception of God's action and his call. Discernment is, in itself, a grace. It is definitely more than a fruit of mere intellectual examination and reflection.

Discernment is, therefore, more subject to the pattern of grace than to the laws of pure reason. For example, God can in one moment enlighten a soul and let him see his call, much like a person can receive the grace of faith from one moment to the next with no apparent natural explanation. People can study the Catholic faith for years, argue with the best of theologians, and still not believe; then in a visit to a church, God can do in a moment what man had been fruitlessly seeking for years. Discernment is not always a laborious process grinding to inevitable results. Sometimes it is a flash of recognition, which we test, but we know it is true.

Discernment should be a prelude to action. Of itself we should say it has no value unless it leads to action: not everyone who says, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom; but only he who does the Father's will. Endless dawdling will only waste the precious time you have to serve God.

A person that is discerning can begin by attending a weekend retreat, vocations days or joining a discernment group of other young men / women who are also discerning their vocation. This can be invaluable in helping one to come to greater clarity about God’s call to the religious life.

If you’re not sure whether you’re ready to attend one of these, maybe speak to your parish priest or someone else of deep faith whose opinions you trust. They will be able to advise you or find out more on your behalf.

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* Grateful acknowledgement to Fr. Stephen Wang, author of “How to Discover your Vocation”, CTS