Such a motivation is laudable. And candidates to the priesthood had certainly better want to serve others. But if that is where the explanation begins and ends, then further examination of one’s motives is really required. Such can be the case, for example, with so-called “late vocations”—men who either never married or are widowers, who later in years see priesthood as a possible avenue for “service” in the Church (and this is often coupled with their own acute sense of the shortage of priests). Again, the motivation is laudable; but it is not enough in itself to demonstrate the presence of a genuine vocation to the priesthood.
The key question for a candidate to the priesthood is always this: Have you experienced a “call” from Christ? The word ‘vocation’ itself derives from the Latin verb, vocare, to call. A ‘vocation’ is a call, as in: “He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message” (Mk 3: 13-14).
The Church has always understood this Christ-originated calling as the primary motive for seeking ordination to the priesthood—notwithstanding the historical reality of men who have been ordained for other motives, sometimes to the great harm of the faithful. This is why it is a matter of co-discernment: you, the candidate and those who represent the Church engage in a process of discerning whether you have a genuine call to the priesthood. Sadly, it has always been possible, and remains so today, to pursue the priesthood for all the wrong reasons. Consequently, as stated in the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF) of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (5th edition):
Potential candidates for the priesthood must be in prayerful dialogue with God and with the Church in the discernment of their vocation. The linkage of this divine and ecclesial dialogue is especially important because “in the present context there is . . . a certain tendency to view the bond between human beings and God in an individualistic and self-centered way, as if God’s call reached the individual by a direct route, without in any way passing through the community” (Pastores dabo vobis, 37). Eventually, this dialogue, properly conducted, may bring candidates to the admissions process, completing this first phase of vocational discernment (33).
The key to that co-discernment is to uncover motivations that transcend the mere humanitarian appeal of the Catholic priesthood (“serving others”). For the man called to the priesthood, there must be profound, rooted-in-the heart motives, a whole interwoven set of them that form a core drive in one’s life, in addition to sound motivations like the desire to serve others. To name just a few:
• A love for the Eucharist;
• A longing to administer the sacraments to the people of God;
• A hunger to build up the Church and promote bonds of profound ecclesial communion especially in the dynamics of parish life;
• A drive to be a servant-leader and spiritual father to your brothers and sisters in the faith;
• A zeal to live to its ultimate consequences a deep-rooted experience of Christic discipleship.
Granted, these motivations might only be incipient as you prepare to enter a college seminary program. But your ability to identify several of these motivations and “connect the dots” between them constitutes a considerable piece of evidence that your vocation is genuine.
Ultimately, your primal motivation should arise from your intimate friendship with Jesus Christ. Certainly by the time of your ordination, your seminary formators will want to hear from you a credible story about your personal encounter, once upon a time, with Jesus Christ, living and risen, who approached you on the shores of your life and got into your boat, and whose divine person became irresistibly attractive. In the best case scenario, you will be able to share with them how you feel a call to priesthood the emanates from your love for Jesus Christ, how you want, like Jesus, to take on the Church as your bride, and serve her exclusively and unconditionally throughout the rest of your life.
It’s not enough for a candidate to the priesthood simply to “decide” that he wants to “serve others” as a priest; his heart has to be irrevocably set and fixated on Jesus from whom he has perceived an undeniable invitation and calling to follow him more intimately through priestly ordination.
Do you find the prospect of marriage and raising a family unattractive?
If so, then, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” And if I may put it bluntly: if you do not find marriage and raising a family profoundly attractive—so much so, that at least now and then the struggle to forego them becomes a real battle—then you really need to put on the brakes. Marriage is a “natural” vocation; there should be in every human heart a natural proclivity to human love and the procreation of new human lives through the bond of marriage. Without over-romanticizing it, and hopefully informing our understanding of marriage with loads of realism (diapers, arguments, money problems, in-laws, illnesses, and everything life can throw at a married couple)—married life should nonetheless always remain immensely attractive to the celibate.
The priesthood is not for men who choose it as a default because of their own personality foibles that have made long-term relationships with women difficult or impossible. It is not for men who just don’t like kids, or who just prefer a bachelor’s life style. If you find marriage unattractive, if you cannot see yourself as a good husband and father, you really need to focus on discovering why that is. And that might even require some professional help.
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Do you find emotional intimacy with others difficult or distasteful?
An affirmative answer here really constitutes a red flag. One cannot underestimate the significance of one of the findings in the 2002 John Jay Report on the Causes and Context of the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests: “Priests who sexually abused minors did not differ significantly from other priests on psychological or intelligence tests but had vulnerabilities, intimacy deficits, and an absence of close personal relationships before and during seminary.” I am not suggesting that any degree of discomfort with interpersonal relationships or inability to express and communicate emotion might be indicating that an individual is a potential abuser. But the report does shed light on an immensely important, and for decades overlooked, element of preparation for priesthood: the seminarian’s (and eventually the priest’s) ability—even as a celibate—to be enriched by emotional communion with others in healthy and supportive friendships.
In truth, the priest cannot genuinely thrive in a commitment to celibate chastity without at least a few close and emotionally intimate friendships, male and female. Emotional intimacy is not sexual intimacy, and it certainly must be channeled within proper interpersonal boundaries. Nor is emotional intimacy to be confused with emotional dependency. Rather, we are talking here of a degree interpersonal communion appropriate to the celibate state. It is, in a word, the most important manifestation of what we call “affective maturity.” As articulated in the PPF, affective maturity entails, among other elements, the following:
[A] deepening of the capacity to give and receive love, an ability to practice appropriate self-disclosure, an ability to develop and maintain healthy and inclusive peer friendships, and an ability to set appropriate boundaries by choosing not to act on romantic feelings and by developing self-discipline in the face of temptation (94).
It means an acquired degree of self-mastery over feelings and emotions which enables him to be appropriately vulnerable, to manifest empathy, to communicate emotion with prudence and balance, and to share and receive appropriate gestures of affirmation and affection.
We want to see our candidates for Orders thriving in genuine friendships with men and women, single and married, and planning on being sustained in their priesthood by a close-knit network of such friendships.