Do I still want to be a priest? It is a valid question given the present situation in the Church today. More important, it is a necessary and vital question for the one who answers, as it serves to renew a gift given, a calling affirmed by the people, a decision for which there can be no change and a vocation that is still in process.
To Renew a Gift Given
John 15:16 makes the answer clear. “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name He may give you.” I did not choose the priesthood, God chose it for me. It was not my first career choice. Initially I wanted to be a garbage man, then a cop. Soon, it switched to that man we saw every Sunday at Mass. This desire never waned. When I went to high school, it was eminently clear that there was a calling within the calling.
Yes, I was to be a priest, but now a religious priest, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, one of a group of men who were kind and generous, dedicated educators, genuine, “down-to-earth” humble men who would do anything for you. Like the married couple, the single person or the religious who respond to their calling, their vocation, I was to heed the call of the Lord, to “take hold and never let go,” a motto of St. Francis de Sales. After 25 years of priesthood (36 years of religious life), I’m still holding on and not about to let go!
A Calling Affirmed by the People
Prior to the homily in the rite of ordination is the election by the bishop of the ordinandi followed by the consent of the people. These were the people who nurtured my priestly vocation: family, relatives, coworkers in ministry, people with whom I served in formation representing the Church universal. They have supported and fashioned me to accept with humility this tremendous gift of service.
They have helped me live out the promises made on ordination day: caring for the flock, celebrating the mysteries of Christ, exercising the ministry of the word, consecrating myself more closely to Christ the High Priest. The bishop’s laying on of hands and prayers of consecration then, have been supported since by the people with whom and to whom I have ministered.
I have spent my entire priesthood in the ministry of Catholic education. This has been a privileged place to walk with students at a very vulnerable and formative time in their lives. I have been graced to share the sacraments with students in a rich way — preaching with conviction their dignity as children of God, offering a message of hope for them to live in the presence of God and impact the world for the better, comforting them at the tragic and unexpected loss of a beloved classmate, and trying to explain the mystery of life and how it is to be lived gently, wonderfully, lovingly without any regret.
I have visited their parents and grandparents in the hospital to offer God’s body, comfort and blessing. I have helped them give back to God their loved ones when they died. I have been encouraged when so many of them with faith and confidence have promised to love and honor their spouses all the days of their lives. In baptism, I have welcomed their children into the Christian community. They continue to affirm my calling to be priest, in persona Christi, for them. Their lives of faith have inspired and enriched me to be faithful and patient with others and especially with myself. As I have encouraged them to see the presence of God in their lives at all times, perhaps most profoundly in the shadows of their lives, I am reminded of the duty to do the same with myself, gently and lovingly, so that I may continue to be formed into the priest God calls me to be.
A Decision for Which There Can Be No Change
Like the married couple who vow “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health,” I am called to be a priest through “thick and thin.” In “good times and in bad” the priesthood is the singularly best way for me to be united to God, to work to be faithful to what He calls me to be and to do, whenever and wherever. The great gift of prayer propels me to go deep within to discover where I am in this journey of the priesthood, where I am at one with our God and where I need to heed his call to “come back to me.” The best indicator of this is to see where I am with the God I can see: my sisters and brothers.
The priesthood offers me all the tools for seeking this union — prayer, sacramental ministry, service to Him and His people, spiritual direction, time for retreating and communing to rejuvenate self, a fraternity of priests and/or religious with whom I have formed a new family, while always being cherished and embraced by my family of origin.
Francis de Sales reminds us that perfection consists not in being perfect but in trying to be perfect. Having been supported by love, forgiveness and example from everyone with whom and to whom I have shared these 25 years, the trying becomes more appealing and more attainable. It affirms a decision which cannot be changed. This is the nature of forever! This is the example we give in a world where commitment too often means “until it gets too tough.”
I am reminded of this commitment every first Friday of the month when we Oblates pray our Act of Consecration to the Sacred Heart. In this great prayer we state, “We made a decision we cannot change — to belong completely to you, to do everything for your love, and to renounce wholeheartedly all that displeases you. It will always be our hearts’ desire and the aim of our efforts to love you more and more, and also to make you known, loved and served to the souls to whom you send us.”
A Vocation That Is Still in Process
Grateful for 25 years, I embrace what lies ahead to live each day “passionately well.” I am beginning to see more than ever the absolute necessity of dying to self, so as to live fully with all that this entails. More to the point, I understand Paul’s sentiments in Galatians 2:19-20 that “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.”
In the example of the Good Shepherd, I am called to love and to give myself up for His people. In essence, this is the heart of Salesian spirituality to “Live Jesus.” Being the recipient of God’s infinite forgiveness for times too numerous to count, I thought I was beginning to capture the essence of this “infinite forgiveness” only to find that I had not begun to scratch the surface of this infinite love. Naturally, I want others to experience this same dynamic with our loving God. This is the gift received that needs to be given daily!
Signs of Hope
I am convinced that the tide will change in the Church for the better. By word and example, priests can warn against the tendency to grasp temporary and fleeting pleasure or happiness when we should be aiming to empty ourselves, so that God may make a home within us, helping us to be clearer representatives of his image and likeness.
After his consecration as bishop of Oakland, Michael Barber told a story of another priest like him who was nervous about being a bishop. Archbishop Sambi reminded this gentleman that the Lord himself would be the bishop of the diocese; he was only going to help Him.
Barber informed his new flock “that’s what will happen here. Now, I know I am unworthy, but I do know one other thing: for all eternity in the mind of God to be the bishop of Oakland has been my vocation, and with God’s help and your prayers and the love of Mother Mary, I intend to fulfill it.” So, with your permission, Bishop Barber, for all eternity in the generous mind of God, I was to be a priest, and with God’s infinite love and mercy, Christ’s perfect example, Mary’s imperative to “do whatever he tells you” and the support, patience and example of the community that once affirmed the initial choice and that continues to show me how to live authentically, this is what I intend to do, forever!
FATHER FISHER, O.S.F.S., teaches theology, Spanish, and education courses at DeSales University, Center Valley, Pa., and also serves as coordinator of Educational Initiatives in the Salesian Center for Faith & Culture. He entered the religious congregation of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales (O.S.F.S.) in 1980 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1988.