By John J. Eckert
Seven of us in my class at the Pontifical College Josephinum will be ordained this year. For our small class, timing has seemed to work out in our favor. During our first year of seminary, we were fortunate to experience together the monumental passing of our mutual role model, our Holy Father (for some of us the only one we had known), Pope John Paul II. Then we rejoiced together as we heard the words “ Habemus papam ,” and witnessed Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger become Pope Benedict XVI.
Last year, during the Year of St. Paul, we had an opportunely-timed class on the writings of the Apostle to the Gentiles and also had the good fortune to take a class trip to Rome where we visited inspiring Pauline sites such as the magnificent Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. The most fortuitous bit of good timing for the seven of us, as well as for all men called to the Sacred Order of Presbyter this year, is to be ordained during this “Year for Priests.”
With the excitement of ordination quickly approaching and time in seminary coming to an end, it is valuable to reflect on the fundamental reasons of why I am at this point and, mainly, why I chose to say yes to this vocation. I am sure my brother deacons share with me the common experience of being asked several times during our years of formation, “Why do you want to be a priest?”
In some ways, it is hard to express exactly why I think this is the way of life to which God is calling me. I think this might be comparable to a question posed to a man as to why he loves his wife; although there are several wonderful things about her he can say, there is bound to be an inexpressible element that can be explained only by his saying, “I just do.” And so, as I try to construct and describe an adequate reason of why I chose to be a priest, I hope the readers of the following will excuse any inadequacies in my reasoning and know that there is a certain inexpressible dimension to the description of my vocation that I hope comes forth from between the lines.
A vocation does not come out of nowhere. I am blessed to have been born into a loving family that appreciated its Catholic faith and let it influence every area of life. My parents set an example for my siblings and me of happily going to Mass on Sundays. It may not sound like much, but that basic example of Mass as a joy on Sunday, rather than an unappreciated obligation, went a long way.
Throughout grade school and high school, I served Mass frequently, attended vocational-themed retreats, and visited a few seminaries to see if maybe seminary life was for me. Although the thought of whether or not I was called to the priesthood was, at best, unclear when I eventually went off to St. Louis University to study political science and communication, the possibility of the priesthood never completely left my thoughts.
As my time in college drew to a close, the calling toward the priesthood was stronger than ever. I had dated in college, even thought at one point that I would get married, but with post-college life staring me in the face, I knew I had to give the priesthood a chance and enter seminary.
As a college senior, I wanted to devote myself to something I absolutely believed in and something that by my devotion would make the world a “better place.” Politics are important, but I knew I could not compromise any of my beliefs to “get ahead.” God bless the good men and women who can work successfully in the political sphere and hold onto their faith, but at that point in my life, and still to this day, I knew that whatever I was going to do, I had to be able to put my whole heart into it.
The Church was that pearl of great price, and at that point I was blessed to have the guidance and the encouragement to know that it was to the priesthood that I had to give my all. I had a wonderful Jesuit spiritual director in college and a wise best friend, who is now also a Jesuit, who helped me to realize that God was helping me to want to be what He wanted me to be. With their support, as well as that of my other friends and family, I began my studies at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, in August 2004.
In the seminary, the elements in my life that pointed toward a priestly vocation have been cultivated. Each year has presented its own new challenges, inviting me to shed old vices and develop new virtues that will, God willing, help me be a better priest. The daily seminary horarium of Liturgy of the Hours, Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament — which six years ago to a guy fresh out of college was a bit of a burden — has become the very rhythm of my day and a source of peace and strength.
I have been in Catholic schools since I was three years old, and the seminary classes have built upon an instilled Catholic way of viewing the world. My pastoral assignments, which have allowed me during the school year to serve the people of God around Columbus and, during the summer, in the Dioceses of Charlotte and Peoria, have given me a taste of what is to come in priestly ministry. It has been in these assignments that I have truly found my place, so to speak.
In particular, this past year of service in a parish as a deacon has deepened my love of service to God and man in a parochial setting. I look forward to the day when I will be in the parish full time, participating in those blessed priestly acts of offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and absolving sins in Confession. These years of formation have been some of the most difficult and most fruitful of my life. It is intimidating to think of my proximity to ordination and how much I still need to grow, but it is certainly helpful to look back to the fall of 2004 and see how far I have come.
As I look to the future of being ordained a priest, I am excited to have the privilege of serving the people of God, the privilege of being spent for their sake, the privilege of having an instant relationship of sorts with everyone I encounter as I strive to be all things to all people — a privilege I could not be able to enjoy if I were not a priest.
At the same time, I am excited to be set apart, to be focused on the fact that I must pray, that I must stay connected to the vine because I am a mere branch. As I have listened to priests over the years explain their greatest strengths, weaknesses, joys and failures, it seems to me that prayer is absolutely central to the life of a parish priest because separation from Christ leads to imminent danger, be it burnout from over involvement, rustout from inactivity, or worst of all, cynical indifference.
These reflections may be those of a starry-eyed seminarian who has not yet borne the full burden of the life of a parish priest; however, I am not naïve. My brother seminarians and I lived through the shock and the pain of 2002. We have experienced the fallen characteristics of the people who make up the Church, of whom we are a part. I know there is a long road ahead of me after ordination. I realize full well that I am not being ordained into an “easy” life. I know that ordination means embracing the Cross; but isn’t that the glory of it?
Yes, many elements of priestly life will be difficult. I know there will be trying moments, trying personalities and trying schedules. But even with all those struggles in mind, I consider it an incredible gift that my brother deacons and I will be ordained in this “Year for Priests,” joining all those chosen men who have gone before us in denying themselves, taking up the Cross and following our Lord to Calvary as his priests.
Why do I want to be a priest? Because I cannot imagine a better way to spend myself fully in the service of my brothers and sisters in Christ and for the greater glory of God. I am called to the priesthood, and I look forward to a life of emptying myself, decreasing, so that He, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, may increase. TP
FATHER ECKERT was ordained to the priesthood on Saturday, June 5, by Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte.
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