Each year at this time, I like to use this blog of mine to reflect on the priesthood on a personal level, particularly because on June 20, I celebrate the anniversary of my sacerdotal (priestly) ordination to the priesthood. This year is a milestone of sorts, as I am today a priest of 15 years. Clearly, this is not even close to anything as huge as a Golden nor Diamond jubilee. But considering the circumstances that I have been given, each day that passes is a joy, and each anniversary is a great blessing. By average standards, I am considered a rather mature vocation to begin with, having been ordained at the age of 36. These 15 years have been rich, and I have been given countless situations in life that have molded and shaped me to be the priest that I currently am.
I thought that I’d write this year’s reflection in the form of a letter that I would write to a fictitious man (let’s call him Martin) who is thinking of answering the call to become a priest, giving him counsel from the experiences that God has graced me with in the past 15 years.
Thank you for your letter, which I received last week, asking me to share with you my insights and thoughts on the priesthood as your desires engender you to consider the priestly vocation. I must admit that it is always edifying to see a young man pondering the possibilities of the priesthood. We pray for vocations each Sunday in my parish, so it doesn’t surprise me that prayers do get answered. I hope that my letter will give you some clarity in coming to an informed decision with the advice and guidance of your own spiritual director.
1. I was never worthy, and neither will you be.
Right from the start, I would begin by saying that no one ever is worthy of being a priest of Jesus Christ. If you are waiting to be good enough or worthy enough, you have missed the point of salvation – it is not about you or how good you are. The only perfect thing that makes this possible is the perfect love and mercy of an infinitely loving God. The Lord doesn’t call us because we are good. He calls us because he is good and because he loves us.
2. Always be aware of the immensity of God’s love if you want to be a priest who serves with love, and this comes from a life dedicated to prayer.
If you desire the priesthood, know that God’s love is what makes all holy desire possible. Your wanting to be a priest has to be founded on the fact that you are acutely aware of how tremendous God’s love for you is, despite your faults and failures; your frailties and predilection to sin. Priests convey through their very lives the love of God to others, and all of us, priests as well as laity, are constantly receiving the love of God. This love is experienced most importantly through the discipline of spending time with the Lord each day of your life. Prayer is not something that you have to do. If it is, it becomes a chore. Prayer is something that you must love to do, because it is love given in return for love received. Prayer is not something that you do when you have nothing else to do. Prayer is rather what enables you do to do everything that you do outside of the time that you give to God in dedicated love. Going to prayer only when you feel like praying relegates it to calling a friend only when you need him.
You can be sure of this – there will be times when you do not feel like praying. I hesitate to use the phrase “dryness in prayer” (perhaps because it then means that its antithesis is having “wet prayer”), but there will be days when there is nothing but distractions, agitations, stirrings of a disturbed stillness, and it may seem to be a waste of time because nothing seems to be happening. Always come back to the seed of prayer being love. When love is present in a relationship, one doesn’t depend on what thrills and delights, excites and beguiles in order to keep one in the relationship. When love is the reason of the relationship, and there is apparently nothing to ‘get out of it’, it means that your relationship becomes an offering that is precious and valued.
3. Learn to live with solitude and be at peace with it.
The human heart is somehow hardwired for companionship and intimacy. The call of the priesthood has, as an intrinsic part of it, the call towards solitude. It is not a call to loneliness, because loneliness is a lack. Solitude is the healthy ability to live in a way that sets one apart from the world. An enlightened priest of mature spirit once said that when loneliness is turned into solitude, it becomes the loveliness of being alone with God.
4. Priests can be likened to airplanes. When one falls, it makes headlines everywhere. But no one really bothers much with those that are still flying.
I saw this in a meme lately, and I thought it spoke of a truth in a rather humorous way. Yes, most parishioners do love their priests, but they won’t always love you. Sometimes, with our own quirks and idiosyncratic ways, people will find us less than lovable. Some may delight in making this known to us. Take it all in your stride. Hopefully, you will have a bishop like I do, who will remind you of how much he loves and values your priestly vocation. But there are many priests in the world who may not have supporting and encouraging bishops, so it is crucial to know that God is always going to love you, not for the person you’d like to be, not for your faultless ways, and yes, despite your many sins, but for your very self. This confidence will enable you to persevere in the priesthood even though you may walk in those valleys of darkness merely by being a shepherd of souls.
5. If you want God’s mercy, be an instrument of mercy yourself through humility and searing honesty.
Humility is always going to be a challenge to cultivate in life. But it is a sine qua non for a priest who exists to show God’s face of mercy to his flock, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When we are wrong (and you can rest assured that there will be times when we make mistakes, say the wrong things, touch a raw nerve, and even cause our parishioners to take umbrage with us on a personal level), be the first to make that move to apologize without justification. It is a fallacy that priests are always right, and when we realize that we have made mistakes, be humble enough to seek reconciliation. Having received mercy from others, we will be then able to be sensitive instruments of God’s mercy to those who are humble enough to come to him in the Confessional. Of course, we as priests ought to avail ourselves to the grace of the sacrament at least once every month. It will always be difficult to give what we haven’t got nor experienced ourselves.
6. Have a lived and deep devotion to Mary.
I made it a personal promise on the day of my ordination to pray at least one Rosary a day for the rest of my life. I have come to see how pertinent it is to have a true and lived devotion to our Blessed Mother. One reason is that all our mothers are flawed in some way, and that they will not be with us for the rest of our priestly lives. We need a mother who has loved perfectly and God, in his infinite wisdom, has given Mary to us as a mother with no flaws, and who loves with no selfishness. Closeness to Mary will always help us in our relationships with our own earthly mothers when these relationships become challenging themselves. Furthermore, a healthy devotion to Mary ensures that a priest embodies a certain maternal instinct over his flock, manifesting the important traits of charity, mercy and tenderness.
7. Never say that your work is your prayer unless your prayer is first your work.
I have heard many priests saying that their days are so full and because of this, they say that their work or their ministry is their prayer. Be very careful of this cop-out. If prayer is not your first “work” of the day, it will be very difficult truly say that all your other work is done with a prayerful intention.
8. The best promotion of the priesthood is a joyful priest.
Of course it will be easy to be joyful when things are going swimmingly well. But the reality is that in the priesthood, as in other vocations, there will be times when things seem bleak, when we are wounded, when we are disliked by our superiors, our flock, or when we are assailed by any of the seven deadly sins. Some of us may have to live with other priests who are grumpy, disenchanted, who hardly pray, and perhaps who have lost their initial zeal. Sometimes, (and I speak from personal experience here) we may even be given the news of a life-threatening illness that visits us out of the blue. The only way that we can still have a joy within is when we have truly known the love of God in a sustained prayer life. This will allow those looking on to see that difficult though the life of a priest may be, there comes with it the amazing ability to live in joy despite the challenges that come with an answer to become a shepherd of souls.
These eight points are by no means exhaustive, but they certainly rank among the most pertinent. I would not have lasted 15 years without observing them faithfully, and with God’s grace, I hope to be able to continue to live them out for the remainder of my priestly years in God’s service. I pray that God will continue to reveal his unceasing love for you as you discern your own call to the priesthood. Could I be bold enough to ask that you pray for my today too, as I celebrate another year of God's amazing grace? Thank you and God bless you.
Fr Luke Fong