Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dinner with the Cardinal

Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua,
shown in this Dec. 2, 2000 picture.
(Credit: H. Rumph Jr./AP)
Between 2000 and 2003, I was discerning my vocation. Was I called to the ministerial priesthood or marriage? Should I wear a Roman collar or a wedding ring? Discernment requires constant introspection and prayer; self-deception is possible and God's will is easily blurred by worldly attachments. With the help of my parish priests, I eventually found the answer -- marriage -- but it wasn't without trips to my diocesan seminary and a privileged dinner with my bishop, alongside other discerning men. My bishop then was Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who recently died on January 31, 2012.

Please take a moment to pray for his soul:
Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace. Amen.

I privately wrote about my experience as part of my discernment. Oddly, I wrote it exactly ten years to the day of his death. I feel his passing compels me to publish it for two reasons. First, I wish to express my fond memory of his bishopric with regards to finding and training holy priests. Second, in case you are going through the discernment process, perhaps my past reflections will prove useful while you too "see in a mirror dimly" (1 Cor 13:12).
Lord, I am very much confused with my apparent call to the ministerial priesthood. What am I to do with it? I really would like to know, and perhaps I already know but my double mindedness is confusing my perception. This inner drive to be a priest has been raging within me since 2000, but I haven't made a decision yet. My chance to enter the seminary for the 2001 fall semester passed last spring and I am going to presume (unless something major happens) that I will forgo another year with my indecision. However, it is quite possible that I am not just meant to enter the seminary. Recently, I have been thinking that maybe my supposed call to the priesthood is actually a call to holiness via a different ministry. Who's to know? You do, of course. Please kindly present to me what my calling is through normal ordinary means.

Last night, my pastor took me to Cardinal Bevilacqua's house for a gathering with diocesan priests and five other young men interested in the ministerial priesthood. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is continuously seeking solid candidates to the priesthood, and last night was another invitation to become more acquainted with the lifestyle. This is about the third or fourth invitation that I have accepted, but, unlike previous meetings, I am no longer sure what I want nor did my knowledge increase. Upon arriving, we walked into a room whereby we temporarily stayed until everyone arrived. I introduced myself to the priests already at hand, and then took a seat on a couch. I didn't sit long though. I, as well as everyone else, stood up to introduce ourselves each time a candidate arrived, and then we would assume our previous positions. Upon the entry of the next candidate, the greeting sequence started again.

When all arrived, we proceeded to the Cardinal's private chapel -- a small place where he offers daily Mass -- and awaited his presence. (To my surprise, I learned that he usually has no one in attendance for Mass. To offer a Mass without any attendance, you may think, is useless. However, that train of thought is a farce. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is an act of the entire Church -- earth, purgatory, and heaven -- and it is Jesus’ prayer to the Father made present on behalf of the Church. Even if no one is in visible attendance, the Church is praying through Christ; since Christ is praying through the celebrant, the Mass is always efficacious.) We were handed the evening prayer for the Liturgy of the Hours and that is what we prayed when the Cardinal arrived. We sung two beautiful psalms, other hymns, and Blessed Mary's Magnificat in front of Jesus veiled in the Tabernacle. Afterwards, we greeted the Cardinal personally and made our way towards the dinner table. I was thrilled to be placed right across from him!

The evening's highlight was listening to the priests -- including the Cardinal -- share their respective vocational stories. Each was unique. For instance, one priest desired the ministry since he was five years old, and another was a professional electrician until his mid-twenties. When the Cardinal spoke, he said, "The call to the priesthood comes like footsteps barely noticeable," meaning the Lord approaches slowly and quietly, “but the call can be muffled by certain lifestyles. Not that a particular lifestyle is necessarily wrong, but some are not conducive to making clear the call. The Lord is always giving the gift of vocation, but not everyone responds…. The devil doesn’t want anyone to be a priest. He will try everything to turn a person away from it."

My God, what I just quoted from the Cardinal is one aspect of my discernment. Ever since I slammed down the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my bed and admitted aloud thereafter, “I have to become a priest,” my desire to assist Your Church -- giving birth to live souls -- has always been within me. I cannot imagine being at the sideline and simply watching the Church journey towards the fulfillment of human history without wanting to help. I want to help, but how do You want me to help? The ministerial priesthood is very attractive because my life would be a service unto others, but I am not always strong in that opinion: the thoughts of Holy Matrimony bubble up when the thoughts of Holy Orders sink. Which sacrament do You want me to choose? Even if I can receive both (in the Eastern rite), do I really want both? I don't think I could withstand the stress of both ministries. St. Paul echoes a similar sentiment: "The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided" (1 Cor 7:32-34). I desire to choose one or the other but not both. Differing proportions of the two ministries may be fine for others, but I don't foresee choosing both because I would want to devote one-hundred percent of my time to each ministry -- an impossible task.

With the very small understanding I have, my heartfelt conclusion is that even though You may be extending Your grace of Holy Orders to me, You will not be offended if I decline. I once heard from an enthused seminarian, "God will not force you into a vocation. He doesn't want you to feel resentment in a position you truly do not want," but I am not accustomed to such great freedom. Most of my life has been people deciding where I go and what I do, but the Father has created me a free creature and He wants me to choose how to serve Him. Do I want to serve my God in a forced career? Of course not! That would be a hell. Do I want to serve Jesus, my God, out of freedom? Yes! That would be a heaven. My Lord and my God, give me the grace to serve You in complete loving freedom according to Your most holy will whereby I will have no resentment or regret in my choice.

The Psalmist speaks: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer" (Ps 19:14). Despite giving this topic deep meditation, I am not prepared for any drastic decisions right now. I am no more ready to receive Holy Orders than I am Matrimony, but I shall continue to seek Your will. Grant me the intercession of St. Paul since he once similarly helped the Colossians: “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1:9). St. Paul, pray for me.
Lastly, read this truly magnificent speech regarding the priesthood by Pope Benedict XVI (3/11/2011). It will blow your theological socks off! Among other points, he emphasizes that the priesthood is not a profession, to be engaged in part-time, but a full-time and perpetual vocation: "We cannot be part-time priests, we are priests for ever, with the whole of our soul, with the whole of our heart. This being with Christ and being an ambassador for Christ, this being for others, is a mission that penetrates our being and must ever more deeply penetrate the totality of our being."