In my life as a priest, I often joke that it has been my plight to work with young people, but their energy and zeal is certainly something that keeps us ‘older’ folks moving! In my work with young people, especially, however, I have noticed a trend that speaks not only to the reality of life of a 21st Century teenager, but also reflects the realities that many of us face.
When I do vocation talks among the young, or our seminarians spend the day in various high schools around the diocese, and we present to young men the possibility of the priesthood, or young women with the possibility of religious life, the usual initial response is somewhere between a scoff, a shrug or a vociferous ‘NOT ME!’ It is often fodder for my own prayer as to why we get such a reaction. Of course, I have a few thoughts on this…
Especially with the young, facing the demands placed on them by this culture, there is a strong sense that ‘I can’t do this.’ Either because of a pervasive sin that blocks them from hearing God’s call, or the culture prevents them from seeing the possibility of a celibate life, or there is a desire to have prestige in the eyes of the world instead of the eyes of the Church, or a sense that one does not have the necessary talents and/or abilities that are required for the priesthood today; there is an unwillingness or an inability to respond, in love, to God’s gentle invitation to ‘Come, follow me.’
In response, we hold up the example of Christ in the Scriptures. He did not seek out only the talented and well equipped, he did not seek out solely the perfect and the beautiful; he sought out those who loved, and loved deeply. For example, St. Peter was brash and impetuous, Sts. James and John were bold and bragging, St. Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out from her. Yet, these individuals were either Jesus’ closest Apostles or the one to whom He first appeared after His Resurrection.
This highlights one inescapable fact about who Jesus calls, and the response demanded when He calls. Jesus calls the individual into the life of the Church. And when He looks at the one called, he sees not just where they are presently, but what they will become in the future with His grace. The response is not one of ‘Yeah, but…’ Rather it is to have the courage of our saintly predecessors: ‘Wherever You go, I will go; wherever You lead, I will follow.’
Then, in response, in love, we desire to sacrifice our sins in greater love for God. Jesus calls where we are, but He calls to something more, something deeper, something profound that this world cannot answer. To respond to His call (whether to priesthood, religious life, or married life) is to begin a life long journey of faith, of discovery of the breadth, depth, beauty and majesty of life; and a life shared generously.
To those who are called to this unique relationship with Christ as a priest or religious, I leave you with the final words of Jesus to St. Peter in the Gospel according to St. John: “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.” Peter turned and saw the disciple following whom Jesus loved, the one who had also reclined upon his chest during the supper and had said, “Master, who is the one who will betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? You follow me.” (John 21:18-22)