Our readings this morning focus on the call of God, and the response to that call. One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a priest is:
“How did you know that God was calling you to the priesthood?”
To be honest, that is a difficult question to answer. I always share with people that I did not hear a voice or see a vision; but deep within my heart I simply knew that God was calling out to me. What I began to understand more and more clearly, in time, was that He was calling me to be a priest. With that said, there is still a great deal about the call of God that I do not fully understand, even now that I am a priest.
On his 50th anniversary of priesthood, Pope John Paul II wrote an autobiography describing God’s call in his life and his response to that call as a Catholic priest. The name of that book is Gift and Mystery. In the opening pages he describes how those two elements are essential to understanding the vocation of the priesthood: gift and mystery.
As Jesus says to the first apostles, on the night before He died:
You did not choose me but I chose you (John 15:16).
Priesthood is a gift given. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says that no one takes this gift of himself, but “takes it only when called by God” (Hebrews 5:4).
But God’s call and the gift of a vocation is also a mystery. A mystery is something that we do not fully understand, but something that we can still embrace and accept. God is a mystery; why should His call be any different?
One of the things that becomes clear in our readings this morning is that God involves all His people in this gift and mystery. A vocation to the priesthood or the religious life involves everyone in the Church. No one—not even the one being called—stands alone with God. God’s call involves the entire community.
In that first reading God calls out to Samuel, but Samuel doesn’t know how to answer. He doesn’t even realize that it is God who is calling. He thinks it’s Eli! We are told:
At that time Samuel was not familiar with the Lord, because the Lord had not revealed anything to him as yet. —1 Samuel 3:7
He didn’t know; but Eli knew. Although he may have been a little slow on the draw—it took him three tries—Eli is eventually able to figure out what is happening. He recognizes that God is calling Samuel, and as his teacher and mentor, he guides and helps Samuel to answer that call.
In the Gospel we have something very similar. John the Baptist is standing by the River Jordan with two of his own disciples. They are not disciples of Jesus; not yet. Suddenly Jesus walks by, and John utters that famous phrase:
It’s as if John is saying, “There He is. The one I have been teaching you about, the Messiah I have been preparing all of Israel to receive. He is right there!” And at that point those two men—Andrew and his companion—cease to be disciples of John the Baptist and they become Disciples and followers of Christ. They call Jesus, “Rabbi,” (teacher); He is their teacher now.
Jesus invites these first disciples to follow Him; they answer His call, and become the first two Apostles . . . but not without the teaching and guidance of John the Baptist. God’s call, whether it be to an apostle, or simply to a priest or religious, involves other people; it involves the whole community.
In that book I mentioned from Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery, he talks about the very beginning of his vocation. Not surprisingly, there were many people who had suggested to him that God might be calling him to the priesthood. From the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow to the laborers he worked with in the stone quarries during World War II, many people recognized that God was calling this man to something else, something different.
In our own time, are we able to recognize that God still calls men to serve Him as priests, and women and men to serve Him in religious life? I am convinced that God is calling men and women from this parish to serve Him as priests and religious in the Church. But I am also convinced that our culture is not at all set up to help them answer that call.
Let’s face it: it’s hard to answer God’s call today. We suffer from “Samuel Syndrome”. Like that scene from the first reading, God is calling but I believe men and women today are finding it difficult to hear and answer that call.
When I was 20 years old, I worked third shift at Stop & Shop in North Kingstown, just three miles from this Church. At the time I was not at all involved in the Church, and faith was not a very important part of my life. Late at night we would listen to the hard rock station on the loudspeaker, and one night a commercial came across that station, a commercial from the Diocese of Providence about vocations to the priesthood.
I remember laughing out loud, and thinking, “Don’t these people realize who listens to this station at three in the morning? People like me. They would have a better chance getting me to become a priest!”
When I finally realized—years later—that was exactly what God was calling me to, I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t talk to my parents, my friends, or the priests of my parish. It was only over a long period of time that the Elis and the John the Baptists began to emerge and helped me to answer this call that was both a gift and mystery in my own life.
I remember the day I finally shared with my parents that I thought God was calling me to the priesthood. We were in our kitchen, and my Dad turned to me and said:
“We’ve seen this coming for a while now, and we want you to know that, if this is what you think God is calling you to, and this is what He wants, we support you 100%.”
What a blessing in my life, to have such parents. I am a priest today because my parents, my friends, the people of my home parish and people I worked with saw something in me that I did not fully understand.
Who are the men and women that God is calling in this parish? Who are the ones that God has set apart for the work of making the Gospel message known as priests and religious? We need to pray for them daily; but we also need to make an active effort to help them recognize and answer God’s call.
What if your son or daughter, your grandson or granddaughter, stood in your kitchen and said: “I think God is calling me to the priesthood,” or “I think God is calling me to be a religious sister or brother”? What would your response be to that gift and that mystery?