by Fr. Jim Chern, Director, Office of Vocations
"What made you decide to become a priest?"
I’m often taken aback, not by the question itself, but sometimes the times and places where it’s asked. A couple months ago I was sitting with a relative at a bank who had asked me to be a co-signer on an account of hers and to go over some other sensitive financial stuff. The lady from the bank was going through the paperwork we needed to fill out. Asked the usual questions - name, date of birth, social security number, occupation. When I said "Roman Catholic Priest" she said "Oh, wow... really? Can I ask you something - what made you decide to become a priest." I’m not sure what people expect in those types of scenarios - if they think it’s like a cliffs notes 30 second story variation of a story the Old Testament, one day Moses sees a burning bush, hears the voice of God, that forever changes his life - that then is responded with "Wow, that’s really cool... so I’m going to need you to sign these papers here." Usually in those situations I simply and truthfully answer – it was something that was really in my mind and my heart - for as long as I can remember. Which is very true. I can tell you stories that are vivid memories many years later:
- Like in Kindergarten when our Pastor had made a house visit on a Sunday afternoon when we weren’t home and left a note for us... At the end of the note, he said "make sure you keep bringing little Jimmie to Mass every Sunday." To a 5 year old, the youngest of 3 boys, it blew my mind that that priest who was all the way up there in this big church filled with so many people knew who I was and cared about me. That impacted me greatly. I can see how God was able to use Fr. Whelan to teach me about His love for me in that same way at such a ripe young age.
- Like in Second Grade as we were preparing for First Holy Communion and I started to learn what the Eucharist was - really Jesus’ body and blood - and the importance of Mass, how I really, really wanted to be an altar server, just so I could be up closer to everything that was going on (plus they got to wear cool outfits, and it seemed better than fighting with my two brothers throughout Mass and avoiding the weekly contest "who was going to get in trouble for misbehaving at Mass this week") When my Mom took me to Msgr. Flusk after Mass one Sunday and asked how I could become an altar server he said "I’m sorry Jim will have to wait till he’s in 4th Grade." I remember my parents being disappointed, thinking this would deflate my interest in Mass, in the Church. But very out of character for me then, I simply accepted that and really didn’t talk about it again till the beginning of 4th grade when I said "Now I can be an altar boy" - which surprised my parents as they said "You’re still interested in doing that?"
There’s a bunch of stories that I can recall that demonstrate the different ways the idea of priesthood was planted in my heart. How it was always "on the table" of consideration whenever I thought about "What do you want to be when you grow up." That I kept feeling drawn, attracted to it through high school and college... that different events and experiences would keep renewing my interest in being a priest, imagining myself being happy as a priest - it wasn’t incredibly shocking to my parents, or to my closest friends when they learned I was applying to enter the seminary after college, that I would get accepted by the Archdiocese of Newark and start right away. On some level, people hearing that would be satisfied that I’ve answered their question "What made you decide to become a priest?"
But honestly, what makes me feel awkward when people ask me that question, is that I realize I didn’t just decide to become a priest. I know that I’ve been called to this by Jesus Christ. A seed was planted in my heart by God when I was very young, and He watered it with many situations, and my desire to become a priest grew. I know that I would not be happy doing anything else. Not happy... that’s not a good word for it. Happy – if you’re ADD like me you have that annoying ‘Happy’ song in your head – Happy is feelings of pleasure... I’m happy when I have a nice cup of coffee in the morning. No it’s not that I would not be happy doing anything else, but I would never be fulfilled as a man, as a person doing anything else. I would feel that I missed the mark that God had designated for me.
That realization only came when I almost left the priesthood about 8 years ago. The ins and outs of that story aren’t really that important... My prayer life was terrible. I was frustrated with different things that were going on - things weren’t going according to my plan, how I wanted them to go, thought they should go... My prayer life was terrible... I was really jarred by the fragility of life having to go to the funerals of two men killed on 9/11 who were right around my age... oh and my prayer life was terrible. When things aren't going our way, we have a tendency to pull away from the source of what we hoped, and in this instance I pulled away from God and prayed little. I should have turned the other way and prayed more, for God is my Helper, Refresher … He had living water to give me if I would have paid attention... but I digress.
I really thought I was done with the priesthood. I had taken a "leave of absence" - I had another career about ready to take off, I had been accepted by the FDNY to become a firefigher (another dream job growing up) I had started to tell myself – even while my prayer life continued to be terrible – that this had to have been a sign from God that this was what I was supposed to do. That this would make me happy.
This one day I had gotten the acceptance letter, all I had to do was sign it, return it and report to Randalls Island where the Academy was located on November 1. And I couldn’t sign it – something gripped me that I couldn’t explain – It wasn’t fear or panic. It really was this bizarre experience of having this pen in my hand, and almost feeling unable or prevented from signing it. I was frustrated and didn’t know what was the matter with me. I put it aside figuring it would pass in a day or two. A family crisis arose, so I ended up deferring taking the firefighter job – and then I found myself praying again. First for the family crisis, but once you start praying (or start praying again), it’s hard not to start talking about other things as well. And I started to wonder "What was up with that" - why couldn’t I sign that letter that day?
Months later, after talking with my spiritual director, and a lot of praying, it just came to me. I’m a priest. I remember it being somewhat anti-climactic to me. I was somewhat expecting a burning bush story type ending myself... but it wasn’t anything dramatic like that. It was that Jesus had indeed called me to share in his priesthood- so the unsettledness, the restlessness, the tension that I was experiencing... The reason I couldn’t sign that letter that day was because I had heard that call, I had responded to it, and I couldn’t turn away from it.
It was precisely this Gospel story from Mark where Jesus calls his first disciples – Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus calling these men to come and follow him. Jesus reaching out to these very, very different personalities. Seeing something in them that they couldn’t see themselves. Looking for their willingness, their openness, their desire to become something much more than they imagined, dreamed they would ever be. That he would utilize them in such a way that not only their lives, but the world would be forever changed by their Yes. They would be the first ones to share the Gospel message they experienced and witnessed for themselves: of how much God loved the world, that He would send his only Son to not simply share that message, but to be that message - by laying down his life for the salvation of the world. The Kingdom of God would be established where we creatures are now called Sons and Daughters of a loving Father... which would make us brothers and sisters called to care for those who suffer.
This Gospel message would break forth from that ancient world to you and me, here today, not because Simon, Andrew, James and John... nor Fr. Whelan or Msgr. Flusk or even me – decided to become a priest. It’s because Jesus called us to do so and we responded yes to his invitation...
Perhaps you already have received the call on your life and you are heading in that direction. If you haven't, tonight’s Gospel is meant to remind us of the need to pray about it—to ask God to open your eyes to His perfect plan for you.
The reality is, my story is unique in that it’s my story... but it’s also very, very common. I hope in your heart of hearts that you not only have heard - but that you believe, that you know - what I learned from a very young age, that even with the billions upon billions of people, that in this vast galaxy of ours, that God notices you, cares about you. And when you come to recognize that, you realize that he has a special purpose for you. What is it?
He’s calling some of you right here and now to do the same. There are young men he’s calling to priesthood. There are young women he’s calling to religious life. There are many others who will be called to married life - that in the selfless, sacrificial love of a husband and wife laying down their lives for one another, they proclaim God’s love in a radically beautiful way too. So much so that new life is born of that dynamic vocation. And outside those life commitments, the call to discipleship -to be the best Catholic-Christian we can be in whatever state of life we find ourselves, in whatever job or career is very real as well.
Just as he calls these four men the beginning of Mark’s Gospel to something, there’s specific things he has in mind for you to do. It’s more than you answering a question "What do I want to be when I grow up" - but even more, asking God a question - "Lord, what do you want me to be?" It’s praying for the desire to want what He wants; the perseverance and the courage to say yes to whatever that is and the humility to remain aware that Jesus must remain at the heart and in your heart as you move forward in pursuing what it is you’re called to.
Because He still looks to us to be the ones to share this good news not simply by passing along words, but by our dropping our nets - leaving the things of this world and radically offering our lives in service to Him. That’s not simply the result of our deciding to do it - but hearing His Call - knowing the intimacy and specialness and uniqueness of His voice speaking to our hearts - and recognizing that in saying yes to Him, we are promised to have fullness and fulfillment in this life and the next.
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