|4/24/2014 9:00:00 AM|
Why I finally said yes
|This is part of The Evangelist's ongoing series of reports from diocesan seminarians on their studies, work and development. To read previous installments, see the "seminarian's diary" link under "specials." If you have any questions on studies for the priesthood you'd like answered in a future column, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.|
BY DEACON BRIAN SLEZAKWith less than two months before my ordination, I can't help but reflect on why I chose to become a priest.
After someone decides to pursue the priesthood, the length of seminarian formation can vary, depending on age and prior education. I've spent six years in formation, but the discernment process began long before I entered the seminary.
As I reflect, I think about how much the Lord has been at work in me throughout my life, gently drawing me closer and closer to Him. There were days, early on, when I could not bear the thought of the priesthood, despite the inclination of being called to be a priest.
At times, while in prayer, I offered cheap promises to the Lord, telling Him I loved Him and one day would give my life to Him as a priest. But, deep down in my soul, I was hoping that day would never come - that God would forget His call and see my "promises" to be as empty as they were. I truly hoped, at that time, that the idea of a call to the priesthood would simply fade away.
A famous Catholic poem by Francis Thompson, appropriately titled, "The Hound of Heaven," captures the natural aversion that I felt during the long period before I came to my final decision: "I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;/I fled Him, down the arches of the years;/I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways/Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears/I hid from Him, and under running laughter.../From those strong Feet that followed, followed after...."
As time went on, I finally stopped running and, in some mysterious way, realized that the call to the priesthood was there - it was real. Yet, I still couldn't find the courage to say yes to it. I recall my mother asking me, "Why is it so difficult to decide?"
So, how is it that I am where I am today, looking forward with great joy to the day of my ordination? I ask myself: Was I suddenly attracted to the wonderful work a priest does? Not really. Did I run out of other things to do with my life? No, I often think of the many other things I would enjoy doing with my life. Did I avoid marriage because I saw the difficulties couples struggle with? No, I know the beauty of marriage in my own family. I know that marriage is a comforting, rewarding and holy vocation.
None of these were factors that played a role in my decision to be a priest. The one and only reason for my decision to become a priest is the result of a genuine and personal encounter, deep within my soul, with the One we call Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In a recent apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis reminds us of the words Pope Benedict XVI offered early on in his pontificate: He said, "Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and decisive direction."
That event is the redemption of mankind by the Son of God; that person is Jesus Christ; that new horizon is the promise of eternal life.
Someone who is called to be a priest must listen carefully to Benedict's exhortation. Without a profound personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I don't understand how anyone could possibly become a priest. If he does not know Christ and love Him intimately, how can he act in Christ's name? A man who chooses to be a priest must be fully configured to Christ in his words and actions.
There is also an element of trust in responding to the Lord's invitation. I recall coming to the realization that, if God knew me before I was formed in my mother's womb, knowing what He intended for me, then I must place complete trust in His love and care for me. By His call, He assures me that my life will be fulfilled according to His plan.
Then there is the anticipation! How eagerly I look forward to nourishing God's people with the sacraments; proclaiming His teaching in my homilies; comforting the sorrowing; encouraging the fearful; reaching out to the sick, poor and forgotten. I know that as a priest I will have an awesome responsibility to be like Christ. With His grace, I will strive to live by the counsel of St. Paul: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5).
My decision to be a priest is nothing other than my acceptance of the grace of His invitation. God is persistent. He will chase us "down the nights and down the days" - but He will never coerce us. We must choose Him freely. It must be our love for Him that compels us to follow Him freely.
Every day, I will respond to the words Thompson has God speak in the closing lines of his poem: "Rise, clasp My hand, and come!...I am He whom thou seekest!"
(Deacon Slezak is a native of St. Margaret of Cortona Church in Rotterdam Junction, a mission of St. Joseph's parish in Schenectady. He'll be ordained to the priesthood in June.)
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