My discernment of the priesthood began when I was in high school. What led me to first consider such a vocation was a series of retreat experiences and the continuation of prayer. One retreat in particular taught contemplative prayer in the presence of the Eucharist, which had been elevated and surrounded by about 80 large candles – each with the name of a retreatant on it. I took my candle home and would often light it, remembering myself to be in the presence of God through the recollection of that night of adoration.
The first inkling toward discernment was not actually the thought of becoming a priest, but the realization that God simply wanted me to serve Him. I suppose that if I had been presented with the idea of becoming a priest, I would have either rejected it or it would have been scorched by the sun for lack of roots. I continued praying, though not specifically for God’s will, and grew into a deeper understanding and love for Him.
It was through the sacraments that I first began to consider the priesthood. My family made it a point to to go confession as a family once a month, as was encouraged by Our Lady of Fatima and no one ever missed Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation. I tried desperately to find meaning in my Confirmation, though it was hard because it seemed that every other pimply-faced teenager was more concerned with simply having more oil on their forehead. Still, I would often go to confession on my own; even once a week during the Lent of my Sophomore year.
This continued through the rest of high school and college and even though I was in and out of a few relationships, the idea of the priesthood was never shut out, but put on the back burner. After my last dating relationship in college, I began to heavily discern the priesthood and/or religious life. Of course, the Abbey on Benedictine College’s campus provided generously for retreat opportunities and spiritual direction. I remember an occasion during a weekday Mass in which Fr. Meinrad (who ultimately celebrated my marriage to Katie) elevated the host and I felt a voice deep within me, suggesting that I could do the same. It was from that point that I not only asked God what he wanted from me, but began imagine myself ministering the sacraments to others. As I continued to receive the sacraments, I began to love them in a different way – not just as once receiving them, but as one who might bring them to those who seeking Reconciliation, the Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick, etc. In desiring the priesthood, I grew to love the sacraments as the fruits (so to speak) of Holy Orders.
Interestingly enough, I was also discerning marriage, though I was not in a relationship (honestly, I became a little enamored by St. Monica’s example of a holy wife as illustrated in The Confessions). Again, I saw the goodness of marriage and in growing to appreciate marriage more fully, I fell in love with the idea of children – the fruit of marriage.
I’m actually not sure what God was calling me to do at that time of my life. The best way I can describe it is to say that the desires for marriage and the priesthood came from different places in my heart, but the love of each sacrament’s fruits sprung from the same well. I may be writing about love and fruits and sacraments, which sound warm and fuzzy, but it was actually a very difficult spiritual experience, not knowing what God wants from you. In retrospect, I can say that I was just waiting for Him to tell me what to do.
Through the natural course of events, I graduated from Benedictine, left town and began a friendship with a BC sophomore, Katie, who would become my wife, which included frequent communication and long, in-depth discussions on personal and spiritual matters (i.e. we were Catholic-nerds who liked each other). Several months into our friendship, I attended a Holy Week retreat at the Abbey on BC’s campus, during which time I spoke at length with a priest who, after hearing my discernment situation said, “I think you have done all the discerning that you can as a single, lay person. My advice is for you to either get into a serious relationship as soon as you can or join the seminary tomorrow.”
I walked back to my guest room, stood in the middle and made a decision to put the priesthood on hold and ask out Katie when our paths would cross upon her arrival back to Benedictine in a few day’s time. It was in that decision that I realized God would never have told me what to do – the gift of a vocation comes with one freely choosing it.
Katie accepted my request to become discerning partners and several months later we became engaged. It was during our engagement that the eventual permanence of our relationship began to solidify in my mind and with it the realization that I would never be a priest. My desire for the priesthood eventually became a simple appreciation and my love for the fruits of Holy Orders (from the priest’s perspective) essentially had to die. Seeing a line of people waiting for confession might often hurt, knowing that I would only be able to join their ranks rather than being able to help them, sacramentally. Witnessing other sacraments had a similar effect; the ability to love in a very specific way, lost for the choice of another.
Katie and I were married and with each day that passes, the realization deepens that my middle-of-the-room decision at the Benedictine Abbey was the best of my life. The love of the idea of children has been fulfilled and transformed into a profound love for my kids that I could not have envisioned without them. God has blessed me rather profoundly through the vocation of marriage and I believe that priests find similar blessings in the sacrament of Holy Orders.