The Call to Priesthood
Priests are both shepherd and lamb – and the Church should promote vocations by stressing the sacrifices demanded by Jesus’ call to follow him, argues Fr Ralph de Hahn.
Our cry for vocations to the priesthood is meeting a poor response in many parts of society — and it’s not surprising.
Apart from the artificial living in this new technological and secularising age and with the curse of drugs and alcohol, it would appear that the Catholic priesthood is being poorly promoted. By that I mean that we are still using common advertising techniques, as if we are punting a better washing powder, to call the attention of our youth to this sublime vocation.
That is not what will stir our young men and women to greater heights — not in sport, nor in career-building, nor in religious vocation. Young people need to be challenged. Set before them a challenge that demands self-sacrifice, a spark of heroism, something beyond the ordinary way of living, a call to greatness by surrender to a far higher degree of living.
How about taking up the call and challenge of Jesus Christ, the eternal High Priest? He calls: “Come follow me!” And where will he lead you? Most certainly to Calvary! This will demand of any young man a deep, unshakeable faith, a sincere appreciation of the life of the Master, a willingness and a heart to want to imitate the Master, to be another Christ among his people. Jesus invites young men to be like him — both shepherd and lamb, both priest and victim, both servant and therein exalted.
As his anointed priest, he will be the one who offers and also the one who is offered. As priest, he will be the continuation of the Incarnation, a mediator between God and human. By emptying of self, he will carry the scars of the redeeming Saviour.
Any young man who seeks status, dignity and comfort in Christ’s priesthood is on the wrong path. The vocation fails miserably if the young man insists on the dignity of priesthood but not on the indignity of victimhood. Try to imagine the heavy responsibility of a priest promoted to serve as a bishop. That is indeed a heavy cross to bear, for he becomes responsible for the spiritual and material wellbeing of every priest in his diocese — and by nature, every priest is a different personality.
A muddy channel
Many people tend to see the priest as a source of power. But that is wrong. He is only the channel — a muddy one at that — and never the source. The priest is ever human, ever fallible, yet an anointed instrument of the Almighty.
In the old law, the Jewish priests would use the blood of animals in their sacrificial offerings, and the blood flowed for the remission of sin. But in Christ’s priesthood, in the order of Melchizedek, the Catholic priest offers his own body with Christ in every celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass. “I appeal that you offer up your bodies as a living sacrifice consecrated to God in a manner pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). In celebrating the Holy Mass, speaking the words of consecration over the bread and wine, the priest is aware that, as Christ’s servant, he is immersed in both priesthood and victimhood.
This Holy Mass offered is not just an historical recalling, “remember me”, but a practical living out of the Cross. It is very clear that the Blessed Eucharist is at the centre of the priestly vocation. The reverence, faith and love he exposes in his celebration of the Eucharist speaks volumes to the laity. The first cracks in his joyful ministry will show in his haste, his slipping into mediocrity, that lack of fire and zeal, and so often discontentment.
It is now so unconditionally clear that this unique vocation demands unceasing prayer, which is the priest’s very lifeline. His constant communication with the Divine Source is the only means of survival, else his ministry will be sterile and fruitless; the branch will die if not attached to the vine (John 15). Pope Pius XII advised: “There is no substitution for prayer… for the very busy priest there is the heresy of action which betrays poverty of soul.”
The priest is called to pray the breviary daily — it is the Church at prayer with Christ, and it is for the whole world. In loving the breviary and reading it with devotion, the priest will find excellent material for his preaching and teaching. “It will go hard for me if I did not preach the Gospel in word and in deed” (1 Cor 9:16).
A missionary vision
It is so much better for any priest to have a missionary vision, for he is ordained not for a parish, nor a diocese, but for the world. That is what Jesus commanded just before ascending to His Father (Matthew 28:19). It is no wonder that the missionary societies attract far more young people who yearn to venture to foreign lands with the Good News, not sure if they will ever see home again. Now there is the challenge, the daring and the thirst for our young people for all cultures and all ages. It is true that in some regions the spirituality of the laity is deeper than that of the local clergy.
A Roman Catholic priest will not have a family of his own, but everywhere people will call him “Father”, because of his vow or promise of celibacy. And, yes, he will generate children through the pure fiery love of the Spirit in his untiring ministry for souls. How good if a young priest sincerely asks God to give him a million souls — aim ever higher!
As a humble pastor he will always be available with a patient listening ear, ever in love with his mission and the poor, seeking always the lost sheep, inspiring the youth. While reflecting on the Crucified, he will come to realise and understand that as priest and victim, as shepherd and lamb, the privilege he enjoys has been paid for in blood.
So, please, no more sugary and pretty words in our cry for priestly vocations. The call must be a far more challenging and dynamic “Come, follow me…”
Fr Ralph de Hahn is a priest of the diocese of Cape Town.