24 Oct How do I know God is calling me to the Priesthood?
by Fr. Jean Laurent Marie – interviewed by Priya Malkani
Many lay Catholics, often wonder, what is it like to live the extraordinary life of a priest, especially thinking of those priests who have touched their lives, are friends of theirs, or great examples for them and are seen as great leaders. Certain parents and children, have great admiration towards this divine gift of the priesthood. While some youth tend to visualize themselves as a priest. It sometimes makes one wonder, what are the steps they would have to take, should they chose to become a priest.
In the days following the pandemic, commuting and engagements have proven to be very challenging. Nonetheless, many Catholics, have wisely used this time in reflection, joined online prayer services and have been praying more fervently. Often, it is during these times, some youth and adults, experienced an inner pull or sensed a faint call to the priesthood. However they do not have enough knowledge as to what it entails, and would find it helpful to have some basic information.
Fr. Jean Laurent Marie, will give us a deep insight into this topic and will answer several questions that lay Catholics have about the priesthood. What is mainly covered in this interview are topics such as, discerning if it’s a call, the available streams within the call, the joys and challenges of seminarian and a priestly life, advice to parents of candidates interested to join the seminary.
While this particularly serves to answer youth who show interest in the priesthood, it is also meant to enlighten the faithful about a day in the life of those who chose Holy Orders, their role and all they cover, right from enrolling as a seminarian, to a deacon, the final graduation to priesthood and living the life of a priest.
Joining the Seminary:
- Perfect discernment and age of calling:
If an individual feels drawn to the priesthood, how could he discern whether it is just a fascination or a real calling? What are some of the signs and is there any recommended method of properly discerning, like fasting or maybe, church prescribed prayers for this intention? How often does he sense the call; from what age?
Over the centuries, different people have described different paths they have journeyed on, in coming to realize their calling to be a priest.
- From my personal experience, one would firstly need to visit a diocesan vocations director, who may invite you later on to a discernment weekend and maybe one or two more, thereafter, in order to finally come to (what is called) a selection conference.
- The initial two or three years in the seminary, is also treated as a discernment period; therefore, a thorough discernment can never be considered complete, only based upon, one’s initial feelings of a calling to the priesthood.
- In the seminary itself, there are formators or formation staff, guiding you and will help affirm your convictions about your calling or on the other hand advice you that, this is not the route for you.
- It is also expected that at the end of the first, second and third year of seminary life, you have to ask yourself, if you are confident that this calling is meant for you.
Signs and spiritual tools to help one discern:
- Without knowing it, the practice of saying the daily morning and evening prayer and being part of a prayer group was, in fact a great aid to discernment. However, I only came to realize this, when I met the vocations director, who spoke to me about morning and evening prayer.
- Being honest in what you say and do, the kind of social life you have and just being a normal Catholic. In my case, I did not use any particular fasting approach.
- The other sign, is the way one is drawn to prayer, if the sacraments mean a lot to you and when you see many things in a spiritual/holy way.
Regarding the question, at what age a calling comes, in my case, the initial murmurings began in my early teens, because I had a desire or quest to know the truth. Nevertheless, I went to teach music at a private school, for about two years and realized this was not my route, but that I needed to serve God, somehow.
I would pray and go for daily Mass and thereafter had deep spiritual experiences (later finding out that these were similar to the experiences that St Patrick of Ireland had). He described several nights when he was praying and suddenly had to fight off a heavy pressure on his chest, this ceased when he finally decided to go to Ireland.
Strangely, I also found myself experiencing a similar pressure for years, until I gave in, to find out if God was really calling me. Furthermore, one day, my sister arrived from another country and out of nowhere, announced to me that I would become a priest. These experiences stayed with me until my decision at the age of 24, to try for the priesthood. My own searching for the truth and path took 10 years, and it was truly when I finally got to the point of being ordained as a deacon, that I was fairly comfortable that I was on the right path.
- Joining the seminary – entry age and basic educational requirement:
Is there an age limit to enter the seminary, and what is the minimum education level?
I believe 18 years of age, is the minimum age level, wherein a young man can enter the seminary, although I do not think it is encouraged anymore. Rather, at that age, you would be advised to go for a degree or an undergraduate course and return when you are 21 or 22 (that is, if you still feel that way about the calling).
Yes, some young men, do enter the seminary at the age of 18, but these days it is quite exceptional.
- Men of older age and state of life, who can join the seminary:
Is the call to priesthood and seminarian life limited to young men, or could widowers or older men join?
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a seminary in Rome, known as the Pontifical Beda College for mature/older men, who wish to consider a vocation to the priesthood. These men could have been previously widowed but are free, some could have been single, who have had a professional life and they have now come to the age of retirement. The Beda College accepts English speaking men from the age of 40, right up to 65 to 67.
- Candidates with a physical challenge:
If a person wishing to join the seminary has any slight physical challenge, could he still be accepted? Is there a health criteria, that they have to meet?
The initial part of the selection process before one joins the seminary, is that the enquirer is required to visit a medical doctor, to confirm if he is actually a male, with all the faculties and thereafter undergoes a couple of psychological tests at a center, appointed by the bishop. Upon clearing all these stages, the staff advises the bishop that the candidate has the all clear, to enter the seminary.
These days, even if one were to have a certain physical defect, this may not be counted against them, for example, the ability to see only through one eye. However the exception is, if you have a very serious illness, where it is evident that you may not be able to complete your training. Conversely, if after joining the seminary, one suffered ill health, special provisions would be made to help the seminarian continue with his training, should he wish to.
- Diocesan or a community priest:
I also understand that the first question a priest asks a candidate, is if they are interested in being a diocesan or a community priest. In a nutshell, what is the difference between the two?
Diocesan priests belong to a diocese, with the bishop, as the head. They do not live in a community with other priests, unless maybe in a cathedral, with about two to five priests serving at the cathedral (in that way, they form a little community). They usually live in society, among people from the parish.
They are required to take the vows of chastity, and obedience to the bishop or the bishop’s successors, however they do not need to take the vow of poverty!
Community priests or priests belonging to a certain congregation or a certain order, are obedient to the superior or the general superior of the community and live in a community of priests who take the same vows as they. They take the promises/vows of obedience, poverty, chastity and wear a habit to distinguish the order they are from. For example, Franciscans are known to wear the brown habit with a cord around the waist.
About seminarian and priestly life:
- Stages to ordination:
What are the various stages that a seminarian undergoes to graduate to priesthood and approximately how long does it take for him to become a priest?
Once you enter the seminary, you will go through a number of stages:
- The Office Of Lector – where you become an official reader.
- Candidacy – where you vow to keep to the teachings of the Church and believe in the creed, that we all profess on Sunday
- Acolyte – where you are called to serve as a servant at the altar; basically an altar server.
- Deaconate – Then there is the diaconate, which is the real order where we receive the sacrament of Holy Orders from a bishop and are ordained, not to the ministerial priesthood, but to the Ministry of Service, as a deacon.
- Priesthood – After the diaconate, comes to the priesthood where you are given the duties of being a priest, among the people in a parish.
The time it takes nowadays, for a diocesan seminarian to graduate to priesthood, is approximately six to seven years, where you serve as a deacon in the last year, at the seminary – subject to the Bishop of the seminary, and the seminary staff. Some seminarians may be considered for priesthood within six years, while for other cases, the bishop may feel, an additional one or two years are needed.
Certain orders of priests, such as the Jesuits and Dominicans, take nearly 10 to 13, years before becoming a priest, while some of them remain as brothers.
- The different orders in priesthood:
What kind of orders are there within the call? For example, there could be some who have the gift of preaching, professional counseling, while others would like to be a missionary or still others would in fact like to work in the field of medicine, or research (in general). So, what are the different orders and roles?
Depending on what you feel God has called you to do and according to your own charism that you feel you have, you will be attracted to a particular congregation that has the same charism. Hence, you should have started your training with that particular congregation.
Dominicans – Tend to have the charism of preaching, they belong to the preaching order, which is why their names hold the title of OP (which stands for Order of Preachers).
Jesuits (and similar orders) – They are very strong in education, formation, teaching, some are medical staff (doctors) and still a few others are scientists!
Franciscans – They possess the charism for missionary zeal, evangelizing especially in poor countries.
Vincentians – They have the charism of preaching retreats and counselling.
Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa of Calcutta) – A congregation that takes care of the sick, poor and abandoned – there is also a male branch to this congregation.
- Priests and the married state of life:
Is there any right or sect of priests in the Catholic Church, that allow for priests to marry and continue ministering as a priest?
The code of Canon Law states that, in order to be considered for priesthood, you have to be single or unmarried. However, there is a special provision that was created about 10 to 12 years ago by Pope Benedict XVI, allowing former Anglican priests (both married and unmarried), to join the Catholic Church, under a particular group called The Ordinariate. They are trained in the Catholic seminary, and thereafter minister as Catholic priests. They are allowed to bring their wife and children, with them, while living as fully functional Catholic priests. All the same, for those unmarried Anglican priests, who wanted to become Catholic priests, they will not be permitted to marry.
- Joys of a seminarian:
What are some of the joys of being a seminarian?
In short, it is the wonderful community life (the quality of that community life), and having a great comradeship among the seminarians. Wonderful friendship with like-minded people, who love God and the Church, and they are usually from good families. Quite a number of them are specialists in their respective fields of academics, prior to entering the seminary. Overall, they are a very interesting group of people to be with.
It is also a great joy in doing things together, in a prayerful way; in general, being a church in microcosm.
- Challenges of a seminarian:
What are some challenges of seminary life?
If you are not academically in tune, it can be very challenging; some people struggle with theology and philosophy studies in the university. You are also expected to do your own house work and if it is not done well, there will be questions asked. The main challenge is to remain focused; refrain from spending too much time on things irrelevant to a seminarian (as one could have their mind wandering). All the same, one can also use this as a tool for discernment.
My challenge was with academics, because I had to use Italian as my medium, which I was not very familiar with.
- Lifelong mandatory sacrifices vowed and practiced by a seminarian and priest:
To be sure, what are all of the general things a seminarian or a priest, are required to give up?
About the things we have to give up:
Celibacy – First of all you have to live a celibate life, which means you must refrain from having intimate relations and you must therefore keep your passions, under control.
Overindulgence – Keep away from overindulgence in material things, food, possession, money, lavish lifestyle, luxury.
Political matters – Be moderate with your political views; with regard to political matters, we must abstain from meddling in such affairs, and remain impartial, unless the teaching of the Church is being questioned, in which case you would then have to speak up.
What we must adhere to:
Church’s teachings – We have to adhere to the Church’s teachings and promote gospel living. Anything that mitigates against the Church’s teachings, must not be practiced, both publicly or privately.
- Joys and challenges of a priest:
In general, what are the common joys and challenges of priesthood and in addition, if you compare this to leading a single life or a married state of life, what are the benefits of being a priest, from your experience after meeting and administering to the laity?
As a priest, the following are great spiritual joys, I have experienced:
- Witnessing people discovering God, coming closer to Jesus and receiving liberation.
- Rejoicing in Jesus, when experiencing healing and God in their lives
- Seeing people being touched, converted and transformed by the message of the gospel, while growing in virtue and they find deeper meaning in life.
- Seeing souls being saved and some people living like saints.
- The opportunity to be very close to the sacraments, is a great joy, to celebrate them daily and live a blessed life.
- Helping the laity to also receive the sacraments, is another great joy.
- In contrast to seminarian life, a priest (especially diocesan), has to live alone and not with the community.
- Living apart from a community, can sometimes open the doors to being vulnerable, such that a priest must now be even more cautious to refrain from things, he should not engage in.
- Meeting all sorts of people of different temperaments, can be a great challenge as well.
- Daily life of a seminarian:
What is a brief overview of the daily life of a seminarian?
Well, it is a regimented life; to begin with, they have to follow rules set by the formation staff, the rector and his team.
A regular day, would start with waking up around 6:30 am or earlier and entering the chapel by 7 am, followed by meditation by 7:15 am and community morning prayers.
This is followed by 15 to 20 minutes of breakfast, heading out to the university for lectures, returning by 12pm for mid-day mass, followed by a community lunch (which is a very important part of the timetable).
Thereafter, enjoy an hour of recreation, rest, private study or return to lectures.
By 6 or 7 pm, there will be another evening mass, community prayers (known as Vespers), followed by the community supper.
After supper, you are free to choose to do further studies in private, socialize, or take part in some of the projects you are involved in.
Furthermore, depending on the different seasons of the year, there are different activities and you will find yourself participating in these activities, perhaps, doing some works of charity, outside of the seminary.
- Daily life of a priest
What is a brief overview of the daily life of a priest?
To start with, the formation and discipline that was ingrained and received during seminary years continues as an important and regular practice, for a priest in the parish. From rising in the morning, meditation, prayer and discipline surrounding mass.
During the initial years of priesthood, there are many tasks and skills you learn on the job, which was not taught in seminary.
As a priest today, who is now called to serve a parish, he needs to pay special attention to the celebration of mass, preparing for everything (even the background preparation).
The daily life of a priest, is centered on the tasks that he is expected to do, mainly in dealing with the sacraments.
Additionally, there is counseling, which is an offshoot of the Sacrament of Penance and dealing with people. We also have a lot of administration work such as, seeing to Catholic schools and parents seeking admission for their children.
There is also the financial burden that goes with managing “a plant”, which is what a parish is. This comprises of things in the church, the school, presbytery, hall and many of the other things. The priest is a bit of a caretaker, if you like – who has to be available for everyone and to everyone, almost 24 hours a day.
Parents and families, of those children, who want to become priests:
Considering the scandals, some parents feel hesitant to allow their son to join the seminary. What is your advice to such people or their parents?
I believe it is very necessary to remain focused on the big picture, remembering obstacles will always be there (it will always come), with some of them being more challenging than others.
Yet by no means, should scandals surrounding the abuse of children and others, be ignored.
Rather, one should have their eyes open to any signs of scandal that could perhaps occur in the seminary. Should a candidate have the slightest hesitation or doubt, he should ask the bishop, rector or formation staff, about the measures taken to prevent such scandals, the checks in place and how everything is supervised.
Simultaneously, we need to remember that, with a true vocation or true calling, all obstacles, no matter how insurmountable, will definitely be overcome.
It may even be that, the seminarian feels the need to take some time off, like, one or two years to reconsider things, if he feels disturbed and then, after a period of time, rejoin the seminary – this is very possible.
If however, one does come across a scandal in the church, that has personally affected them, it should be reported at the seminary and he may then consider, if he wishes to continue with the training and ordination.
The main point here is, we should not be put off, by the scandals.
- Special blessings for families of priests:
What are the blessings for a family who has a priest son/relative?
- When a family has a priest son or relative, they will enjoy special blessings, knowing that all its members will be prayed for and especially remembered during the mass by their priest son (or relative).
- He is there for the family, for special celebrations; to administer baptism, confirmation, weddings and even funerals. It is highly satisfying, for a family to have their own family member administering the sacraments to them!
- Deceased family members are regularly prayed for by their priest relative.
- Another great blessing, is that the younger generation (relatives of the priest), have an awareness instilled in them, that their own relative is someone chosen by God to serve as a priest. This is (what I hope), could be very powerful, in helping them, orient their own lives in the right way.
My example: Very recently, though I was bereaved to lose my brother, nevertheless, it was a blessing that, as a priest, I was able to conduct the funeral mass and burial. Perhaps it felt even more special for my brother’s family, as it seemed more intimate and personal.
- Hesitant parents:
Based on Scriptures and revelations to saints, who also had some parents who were greatly concerned or hesitant to allow their son to join the priesthood, what do you think Jesus would advice such parents of today, who find themselves in a similar situation?
It is important for parents to bear in mind that the seminary is just the initial step to discernment and not everyone who enters the seminary, will come out as a priest. So, to begin with, it is a time of discernment and parents should not be too fearful for their son.
If their son has indeed been called to priesthood, during the six years of formation, a parent will come to realize this very sacred and special nature of their son’s calling, which is very important and unique!
In Mark 10: 17 – 30, we have the account of the rich young man, who asked Jesus what must he do to inherit eternal life? Jesus who loved him, asked him to give up everything and follow Him, but it was too difficult.
In sharp contrast, St. Francis of Assisi, who was not only rich, but from a highly noble family, readily gave up all wealth and entitlements, to the great disappointment of his highly influential father, to embrace poverty for the sake of the gospel.
From the history of the church, we have a great number of people, called to be saints and showed such discipline, which first proved to be a disappointment to some of their parents, until they realized the deep calling God had, for their own beloved child.
- Joining the priesthood, in spite of being the only male child:
Is there any truth in this belief that, if a family has only one son or only one child who is a male, it is really not encouraged by the Church for him to join the priesthood, but that he should continue assisting his family – especially being the main bread earner?
Parents ought to rejoice that God has called their son to be a priest.
Taking the example of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, who had the responsibility of taking care of Jesus, nurturing Him for the greatest mission, in history. They refused to hold Him back, to look after them in their old age. Moreover, Jesus was able to help them, even more, after beginning His mission.
It is truly wonderful when a couple desires that at least one out of their many children, should consider the priesthood. At the end however, we need to accept that vocation is a calling from God and no matter how many children they may have, if the calling is not to priesthood, most probably then, it is to family life, which is extremely important.
- Parents and encouragement to join the priesthood:
Is it necessary for parents to bring up the topic of joining the priesthood with their children (from their early years) and keep encouraging them to do so?
Parents must be very careful, with the way in which they encourage their children, towards priesthood. In other words, it must not be forced upon them, nor should they be pressured into it, especially at an early age.
What is more important, is to exercise the duty of faith at home, which is what serves as a great example. In other words, faith that is practiced at home, which is witnessed and experienced by a child is the ultimate real treasure.
What also goes hand in hand, is the regular attendance of Sunday obligation mass, frequent attendance of weekly mass, along with all sacraments and a devotion to the practice of reciting regular prayers at home.
This provides great encouragement and the right spiritual environment for a child, as it works on the formation of a child in the level of his heart, mind and soul. Receiving such good exposure, will help them decide about the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood, or in the case of a girl, to enter the religious order. It has to be natural – in the family home.
Yes, some gentle suggestions on priesthood can be given, when appropriate.
We must be careful never to force priesthood upon our children, similar to the meaning behind the term, “Oh, he is the vocation of his mother or parents!” This should never be the case, because with such pressure from parents, what is found, is that later on, certain ordained priests, seem to be struggling because it was not truly their vocation, that they have been trying to fulfill, but rather that of their parent’s desire or dreams.
- Seminarians who did not make it to priesthood:
If in the unfortunate circumstance, a seminarian, after many years feels, he cannot continue or is not interested to be a priest, could he:
- Perhaps join the monastery? Or if he is not keen to join the monastery then,
- With the education he received, will he be able to live as a lay Catholic and earn a basic living?
In regard to joining a monastery, my answer to this question is – No. This is especially after someone has spent several years in the seminary process and decided they do not want to go ahead with the priesthood. The seminary is for this purpose; to help one discern and decide, the right path.
However, it is different, if during this time, they strongly discerned that the monastic path is where they should have started in the first place, then, yes they can go ahead.
Yes there are many cases of people who started out in the seminary and then moved over to the monastery and were very happy, thereafter.
About living as a lay Catholic and earning a basic living, let us remember that these days before a candidate enters the seminary, most of them have already obtained a degree from a university for secular studies. In the event of a few seminarians who entered without a degree, after the first two years, they would have earned a philosophy degree, three years later, they will have a theology degree and thereafter they will obtain a license to teach theology (equivalent to a degree higher than a Master’s degree).
It is to be noted here, that seminarians who are very academically gifted, will also be invited to go on and study for a PHD.
Depending on when someone left the seminary, either they would have not managed to earn a degree or earned some degree, all the same, before leaving, they would be given a recommendation for studies in a secular university.
On a spiritual note, with all the education and formation they received in seminary, it would certainly assist to keep him in a very good stead, living as a good lay Catholic and be a good husband and father, in time to come. None of their education gets wasted or redundant.
How to go about looking for further information:
What is the best way for an interested candidate to make further enquiries, if he wishes to join the priesthood – not just a particular order, but to get an overview of all the orders, to help him decide?
With the age of the internet, we are very blessed to have much information at our fingertips.
A lot of congregations, seminaries, diocese and vocation departments of dioceses, have websites that provide you with all the information you need. You may even contact them and they will help you.
I have seen some websites that provide a listing of all the religious orders that exist in the global Catholic Church. So one would only need to use a search engine to find an order that is in line with the charism you feel you have.
In addition, I would advise that one should also pray instead of just randomly picking a particular congregation, just because they like the sound of it. One has to pray a lot, before you make the initial decision to investigate deeply into a particular order.
Fr. Jean-Laurent Marie, is a priest from the Diocese of Brentwood in The United Kingdom, who has now returned to the UK to resume his duties in the diocese, after spending six to seven years, in missionary work in India, the Middle East and other parts of the world.
Father Jean, thank you for your valuable time, experience and advice, which is very useful for many who have reflected on this calling and are not sure where to go for answers or feel unsure if their timing is right.
For those interested to know more about the order of the Vincentian Congregation, please contact:
Fr Jose Palliyil VC: [email protected]