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How do I know if I should become a Priest?


Because the choice of the priesthood or the consecration of a nun (just two examples of the non-marital vocation) is unnatural insofar as it requires non-marriage as part of its discipline, it’s quite rare. People accordingly figure that there must be some means by which God selects who will join this separate vocation. And as such, they say that God “calls” people to it. Biblical examples are then trotted out to support this view: Jesus literally called out his disciples, “Drop your fishing nets and come, follow me.” St. Paul was knocked off his donkey and surrounded by a great light when Jesus personally came to him and redirected his life to become an apostle. So, one might think that it’s the same today, that there must be some special sort of event whereby God “calls” people into these vocations. As a result of this assumption, it’s hard to find a seminarian who doesn’t have some bizarre story about the moment God “called” him. Or, if he doesn’t have one yet, he is earnestly concerned about the legitimacy of his vocation.


But what’s instructive here is how the great holy orders (like the Franciscans or the Jesuits, for example) evaluate candidates. They use the same selection criteria that St. Paul himself advised St. Timothy for potential bishops. First, does the person desire the office? If yes, then second, is he qualified? And in St. Paul’s list of qualifications—all moral, intellectual, and spiritual virtue requirements—there is no demand for a miraculous “call.” What St. Paul is interested in is whether the candidate is fit for the job! The great orders use a similar approach. Everyone who shows up at their door desires to join their holy order and claims some inward “call” to do so. Nevertheless, the holy orders have a long process of evaluation (called discernment) to figure out whether this person is mentally balanced (many aren’t), morally virtuous (many aren’t), and constitutionally suited for the sort of life that that particular holy order adheres to (many aren’t). It’s not a question of some mystical divine call, but a question of competence, constitution, and qualification.


The priesthood is not a question of some mystical divine call, but a question of competence, constitution, and qualification.

One might say that the desire attached to the right competence, constitution, and qualification is a sort of originally created “call” insofar as not everyone desires and is qualified for this sort of job. Plus, the willingness to give up marriage is a big deal, and even St. Paul suggests that that ability is a kind of divine gift, sort of. But let’s not kid ourselves about how immensely difficult this proves to be. There are no short cuts when it comes to human nature. When you move outside the normal human marital modes, you are making a sacrifice that will hurt. God doesn’t miraculously come down and eliminate your desire for women! So, if you are interested in the priesthood, good. That’s great. Now, be self-critical. Evaluate yourself, your virtue, your motives, who you are as a person. Ask the wisest people you know (who aren’t invested in recruiting new priests) whether you are the sort of person in terms of competence, constitution, and qualification for whom such an office would be appropriate. Talk frankly with older priests about what it takes to pursue this life. Be honest with yourself. But regardless of what conclusion you come to, it is the Church who ultimately decides, who actually calls through the sacrament of holy orders. The Church represents God on earth through the sacraments—not some individual subjective emotional experience.


Since our human constitution proves a crucial element in both the marital and consecrated vocations, it’s worth pushing this concept a little bit further. For who we are is not simply a question of more or less random genetics (and, thereafter, environment, upbringing, and free choices and habits), for the Church teaches us that God creates a unique personal soul for each human person who is conceived. Since the Church further teaches that the soul is the form of the body—that which informs it—it follows that the soul is not some sort of blank slate. It has real content. Thus, some of who you are essentially is divinely created to inform the genetic mixture your parents conferred on you, an informing that takes into account that genetic mixture and establishes a formal link, a wedding—if you will—of spirit and matter intermingled so that who we are as human persons is the composite of both our souls and our bodies (for this reason, the resurrection of the dead is crucial for our final fulfillment in God). It follows, then, that God does indeed create a unique you at the moment of conception, a you with certain fundamental traits that he specifically designed. Thus, each individual human constitution is a unique work of art of our Creator. No two are exactly alike, but we can definitely identify patterns in soul-body composites. Take the infamous Artist soul, as an example, a soul we generally consider “tortured” because the person exists on the line of two worlds, punching through to the purely beautiful and then plunging back into our shattered existence to create symphonies, sculptures, and poems. Another example might be the Warrior soul. It’s said that if you take any 100 soldiers, 96 are men and women wearing uniforms, 3 are real fighters, but only 1 is a true warrior. What explains that warrior spirit? Or, again, take the Green Thumb Farmer soul who has a way with vegetation that makes the rest of us wonder. Others have Animal souls, the famed horse whisperers, connections to animals that the rest of us just marvel at. Others have a wistful way with the sea and are never quite satisfied on land.


God shaped us, but he did not fate us.

What does all this mean for our inquiry here? It means that since God does indeed design our constitutions, it follows that he has a specific constitutional fulfillment for each and every human person. That fulfillment isn’t at all the same thing as a fated plan for every decision we make that robs us of our intelligence and responsibility. No, because we must examine our constitutions and form prudent judgments about our jobs, our spousal or consecrated vocations, and other major directional issues in our lives. Otherwise, we risk falling into the trap that Jesus described in the story of the talents, where he provided three men different measures of resources and skills, expecting each one to deploy theirs as they prudentially saw fit to double what had been deposited. But one of the men buried his deposit, doing nothing fulfilling with what he had been given. That faithless servant was condemned by Jesus because he did not use his gifts. Similarly, God gave each one of us a specific human constitution and he expects us to examine it, figuring out what our competence, qualifications, and constitution fit us for. God created us with constitutional direction for sure, but let us not confuse this with what people mean when they hope for a step-by-step divine ratification of each decision in their lives by some sort of inner feeling. God shaped us, yes, but he did not fate us.


Unfortunately, many people concoct elaborate schemes for trying to figure this out, to divinely ratify their own desires and judgments, ultimately turning their own feelings and desires into the voice of God. And this is nothing new. The ancient pagans did the same thing, cutting open birds and other animals to examine the entrails for divine signs. It was called divination, and, as you might expect, it is a practice that is forbidden for Christians. So, it is a puzzle why divination is nevertheless practiced widely across Christendom. We may not cut open birds, but we sure do a number cutting open our internal emotional states to find God in there. But neither birds nor your feelings are evidence of God’s voice. When God wants to talk to you, he makes sure you know unmistakably and evidentially who you are dealing with! Remember Moses at that burning bush?


But if God miraculously demonstrated to both Moses and the Israelites that God had chosen Moses as his spokesman, why couldn’t he do that today? Why couldn’t he offer miraculous signs of his divine call for every priest? He could, but he doesn’t. God intervenes in the world to attest to divine authority very rarely, and we won’t discover the majority of his interventions until we pass through death. We know from what Jesus said in John 9 that in some cases God did or does have a very specific interventionist plan. For example, in John 9:1-5 there was a fellow that Jesus ran into who was born blind. Jesus’ disciples were under the impression that his infirmity was caused by sin, either in the man or his ancestors, and they were debating which was more likely. As usual, they had it all wrong. Jesus explained that no, this situation was designed by the will of God so that Jesus could heal him and demonstrate God’s love and glory. Jesus then healed him.


In specific instances related to God’s supernatural intervention in human history, certain situations are established by God in order to facilitate his will. He definitely has a will, because he is an agent of action. And the mission of redeeming the world to himself requires divine action at various points in human history, perhaps throughout all of human history. But primarily it required the miraculous intervention and set up in the cases of the Exodus and the Incarnation. God set things up in Egypt, locking Pharaoh into his decision to prevent the Israelites from escaping Egyptian slavery until God had completed his judgment on the Egyptians and showcased his powerful love for his people. God also intervened in Jesus’ birth and life numerous times. God is an actor and he can enter into the human story wherever he wishes.


Trying to create some deep reason for our infirmities in order to placate our sense of isolation and misery appears attractive for reasons of consolation. But there is no deep reason that we can identify.

The problem is that we cannot tell his movement unless he reveals it to us with clear demonstrations of supernatural activity. Nobody would have known that that particular blind man was born blind for the specific purpose of Jesus’ eventual healing. Jesus had to tell us that. But it does not follow from that one case that every person born with a physical or mental infirmity is born that way by God’s specific choice, that there is some special reason for the affliction. People are born with and, along the way, contract all sorts of ailments. It isn’t remotely fair, but that’s just the way it is. Nothing in this world is all that fair. God isn’t interested in fairness, not in the least. He created a world of stratified powers, plants and animals below humans, angels above humans, and humans themselves all differentiated in their capabilities. Variation in capabilities permits love, and love is what God is interested in. So, many people get a lousy roll of the genetic dice. Others are born just fine and then get hit by a car. Even the blind man Jesus healed and Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead nevertheless died in the ordinarily miserable ways later on in life. Trying to create some deep reason for our infirmities in order to placate our sense of isolation and misery appears attractive for reasons of consolation. But there is no deep reason that we can identify. We are all going to die and those deaths are not going to be pretty. We are mortal creatures, and being a Christian doesn’t change that equation. But God still loves us. On the other side of death God will fully heal and complete each person who loves him, yes, but in this world, he allows any number of miserable afflictions just as he allows all the violence that we do to one another. This world is a cauldron of suffering into which he sent his own Son. He is accordingly not blind to the situation. But God understands that our earthly miseries actually create many opportunities for us to learn what really matters, loving God and loving our neighbors. His mission is unaffected, nay, perhaps even bettered by our pains and difficulties. We need one another, and that need moves us toward communities of love. That is God’s will.


But we pray about these issues, you might object. We ask God for help in making these decisions. Yes, we do. But we make the decisions. When we ask God for help, we’re not supposed to be asking for divine signs to point us in the “right” direction. We’re supposed to be asking God to help us think clearly so that we can make the prudentially wisest choices. Launching an esoteric quest to find God within our inner states is about as quixotic as it could ever get. It’s irresponsible. It’s imprudent. And it’s divination. We are never authorized to take the Lord’s name in vain, and stamping God’s name on our desires for the priesthood or anything else is a violation of the third commandment.

So, if you desire to be a priest, that’s the first requirement, desire. The second is the triple test of constitution, competence, and qualification. The third is the actual divine call, authorized by Jesus through his apostles and bishops in the sacrament of ordination.

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