Showing posts with label Society of Jesus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Society of Jesus. Show all posts

Thursday, 14 August 2014

So What if She is Gomer? She is my Gomer

With a couple of rare exceptions, most people are perplexed when they hear I am seeking entry into the Society of Jesus. Several people think celibacy is a ridiculous way of life, others have no idea why I would pick religious and priestly life over a secular career in physics (or a career in pretty much anything else, for that matter). By far the most surprised people are the people who see the Jesuits as a heretical, hyper-liberal and liturgically nonsensical order, and know that I am none of these things. Well, maybe I am a heretic, but I do try and avoid being one. Here is my apologia of sorts.

Why would I pick such an apparently dreadful order when I could be something sensible like a Franciscan or a Dominican? In part, it is because neither of those two orders reflect properly my charisms, though I have admiration for both nonetheless. In part also because I think that the Jesuits are considered far worse than those two quite unfairly; this prejudice is not a new, post-conciliar idea, either, as a glance at the Society's history will demonstrate. There has always been an anti-Jesuit myth.

Still, there is a great deal of truth to the post-conciliar Jesuit bashing, one that it would be hard to deny if one is in regular contact with a Jesuit parish. I am very far from saying that all Jesuits are bad priests, or even that I am in substantial disagreement with all of them. Of my favourite books, the top three are written by 20th century Jesuits: Henri de Lubac, Hugo Rahner and Walter Ciszek. I would be lying, however, if I said I could calmly read a book written by a Jesuit in the past fifty years without being consciously on the lookout for error. Although to be fair, I am rather critical of anyone I read, even canonised saints.

In short, the objection people present to me is this: Lobi, you have high standards for liturgy, a no nonsense attitude to theology, you are more interested in truth than in being airy fairy and nice, and even though you do spout the occasional modernist line, you are pretty far in general from the current ethos of the Jesuits. So, why join them, when you could join some better and more suitable order?

The answer is quite simple. I have full assurance that I am called to the Society of Jesus, and hence that I am not called to another order or another state of life. What does it matter if the Jesuits are a horrible order? If it is God's will, that is the end of the discussion. One cannot pick one's vocation as "whatever suits you" - vocation is necessarily where God calls you to be. Now, if you have some theory of discernment which says that somehow one's deepest and holiest desires are where God communicates one's vocation (as St Ignatius Loyola himself does), then by all means, pick whatever is suitable. But one should not confuse the discernment of the call with the call itself. The call of Jesus comes, and the disciple follows, it is really that simple. Just one verse from the Gospel according to St Mark show this:
And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. (Mark 2:13-14)

Some exegetes have tried to imply that there is something between the call and the response, or perhaps some past experience that primes Levi to respond as he does. Surely, they say, nobody would just get up and leave when just presented with a simple "follow me" - without any build up of trust, any prior confidence in this stranger, a conversation separating call and response? Yet such an imposition on the text is a prime example of a crucial error in considering vocations: the idea that there needs to be extensive dialogue between Jesus and oneself, between Master and disciple, before we agree to some conclusion and label that "vocation." That sort of perspective on vocation makes Jesus into a sort of Prime Minister rather than Lord and King, someone that we get to elect rather than someone who we have to accept. We would always get the vocation we wanted, and not in a divine sense, but in a worldly one. It is great when what we want is aligned with what God wants, but when there is tension, one must heed always to the will of God, even in perplexing cases where it seems that even God should want something different. Sometimes our discernment can be marked by pious human wisdom, which leads us to follow what we imagine God would want for us rather than follow what God in actual fact calls us to.

The prophet Hosea's life illustrates this well. Hosea was a northern kingdom prophet who was called to live out in the context of his own marital context the prophecy given to Israel. The call of Hosea is simple:

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2)

I cannot seem to find a Catholic dating guide that suggests marriage to a harlot is a good idea. Following worldly wisdom for marital discernment would have lead Hosea to picking for himself a wife of better repute. Heck, even following a general sort of Catholic wisdom would lead Hosea to pick a different spouse. But Hosea knew better. He knew that he had to follow the will of God, not his own wisdom, not what he thought God should call him to. So he marries Gomer, an unfaithful woman, and whilst they have children together, Gomer continues to be a harlot.

God gives a reason for why Hosea is called to take a "wife of whoredom", but the reason given is not in any sense an absolute one. There is no logical necessity between Hosea taking Gomer as wife and Israel being unfaithful to God, even if it would make for a good illustration of the nuptial covenant between God and Israel. The call is ultimately senseless to worldly wisdom, but the Lord is not God of worldly wisdom.

Why does God call me to the Jesuits? I have vague ideas about it. I am a missionary at heart, I am adaptable to wherever God wishes to place me, and these make me kin to the authentic Jesuit spirit. I am drawn to Ignatian expressions of spirituality. By the grace of God, I can be equipped to be one of "God's marines." But whether I can figure out why God wants me to pursue entry into the Society or not, this is where he has called me.

I am now more certain of that than ever before. When I first wrote the short essay explaining my discernment process and decision, I had not even been accepted into the Catholic Church, my reception of the sacraments would be months away. It was not quite the complete story when I wrote it, and it is certainly not the whole story now, since I have altered and refined my reasoning. I am completely at peace with celibacy now, I have acquired a more mature desire for liturgy, and as Fr. David Braithwaite, SJ, pointed out in a talk given about a year ago as vocations director for the Society, the development of lay ministry is not fundamentally at odds with more clerical forms of ministry. Whatever tension exists in my mind now between me going to married life or religious life is rather centred on my love of children, something more directly suited to married life. Still, the more I learn and grow, the more certain I become of where God calls me.

Since I have used such harsh words to describe the Society - though not my own, only the accusations of others - it must be the case that I am more resigned to my vocation than happy about it. Quite the contrary. I am entirely at peace, filled with joy, at the prospect of entering the Society. Perhaps this is in part because I do not think that the caricature is largely accurate. More than that, though, I am content to abandon myself to whatever God wants for me. So I go towards the Jesuits not with weariness, but with a happy demeanour, not a forced one either, rather one that wells up from within me. That famous prayer of St Francis of Assisi of which I have a wooden plaque on my wall in front of my desk begins with "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Perhaps that great saint had found that he was to be an instrument of peace. As it stands, I cut the prayer even shorter: "Lord, make me an instrument of yours." That is enough for me. Or as Bl. John Henry Newman wrote in his famous hymn "Lead, Kindly Light," words that remind me every time that every vocation is both gift and mystery: "I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me."

Thursday, 24 April 2014

We Live in Full-Time Ministry

I have been under an immense amount of pressure lately from several angles, a pressure under which I often thrive, but certain family conflicts have meant that I simply do not have the time, the energy or the disposition to do all the things I have to. I have made reference before to how I have something of a reputation for doing a lot, including a notable six university courses, which is twice the minimum for a full time load. These family troubles though, whose nature I would rather not disclose for privacy's sake, have caused several mishaps academically recently, and I am at the point where I think I will drop two of those courses (leaving me at still a full-time load, amusingly enough). This means I will not be able to cram my four year degree into three years, it will take me three years and a half (since I already crammed half a year into my degree thus far). This bothers me more than it should.

To see why, let me do some rough calculations, and disclose my life plan of sorts. I warn that this plan is, of course, exceedingly contingent on all manner of things, but I will sketch regardless. If I drop those two courses, then I will finish my degree in three and a half years, which when added to an Honours degree year, makes 4.5. That would finish halfway through 2017. There's some uncertainty at this point over what  I will do next. Tentatively, my plan is to apply to the top universities to pursue doctoral studies, and if I cannot get into a good university for that, then I will hope to directly enter into the novitiate of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). If I do get to complete a PhD, it will probably last about 4-5 years, so that would take me to the beginning of 2022. Here I am even more uncertain, though I imagine I would enter the Society here, and if whoever is in charge permits, do post-doctoral work afterwards. It would be up to whoever is my Provincial Superior (at least, I think that's roughly how it works). If that's how it works, then assuming about 15 years until ordination, I would be ordained probably sometime at the end of 2037. That means I would be ordained at age 43.

For a 19-year-old like myself, being 43 sounds rather old. Now, that's about 24 years of life away, so of course I would be considerably older then, but I think it sounds more than just old, it sounds too old. Why? Because I think I harbour the perception that, since my vocation is to that life, I will not actually have gotten there until my life is half done. Note that this is not saying that the only form of service is as a priest - what I am saying is that, if my service is meant to be as a Jesuit priest, then it stands to reason that I should get to being a Jesuit priest as fast as possible.

This is absolutely wrong. When one does calculations like the one above, where years are added until one gets to a certain stage or event in life, one is going about the issue of life in a misguided way. I do not start my ministry when I get ordained, I start it the moment I get baptised. All Christians, whether ordained or not, whether working explicitly in Christian things or not, are in full time ministry, because our lives are our ministry.

In the Church's calendar, we are now in the Easter season, which stretches from Easter Sunday through to the day of Pentecost, for fifty days. It is a very interesting time liturgically: at the Easter Vigil, we baptise the new converts, and celebrate the Resurrection. This celebration lasts for fifty days until Pentecost, which has sometimes been described as the birthday of the Church, because it is when the Church received her commissioning. This period is hence the transitional period between baptism and mission, the time of preparation for our task to begin.

Everyone who passed through the waters of baptism, the womb of Mother Church, is now preparing for their lives of ministry. It is their whole life they have given, they can no longer live for themselves, as the reading from that same Easter Vigil reminds us:

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6)

In other words, Christians' lives are, because of their calling by Jesus and their baptism into his death, now dedicated solely to God, and that means that the life of a Christian, whatever their job, marital status, etc., is full time ministry. It is full time because our newness of life is full time. Unless, of course, you are a part-time Christian - in that case, no sweat, you are also only a part time minister.

This has profound implications for how I view that long time until ordination, even removing the five years of doctoral studies. I cannot count it as a "this and that, then I start ministry." Ministry starts now. Right now my ministry is going to involve such exciting things as reading what Brian Barry has to say and calculating Hermitians of quantum mechanics operators, whilst I serve the Newman Society here at UQ in whatever role it is (I am currently the Secretary). If I just refer to what I do as an official capacity, if my answer to "what do you do?" is "I study Science and Arts at UQ" then I have lost from the start. If I was being accurate, I would have to say "I live out my vocation as a Christian in the context of studying Science and Arts at UQ."

One of the reasons that the impoverished answer I usually give is on the completely wrong track, even though I know that is what the asker wants to hear, is that it ignores one of the core components of Christian ministry: people, and our relationships with them. As I once remarked to someone: "You know what's wrong with to-do lists and timetables? It's hard to put people on to-do lists and timetables." Because I did not once mention people or relationships in the planner I gave above, that discomfort at "getting there" when I am middle-aged has been produced. If instead of thinking "2015 is my third year of university, I will be doing Statistical Mechanics, third year Quantum Mechanics and third year Fields, as well as Complex Analysis, Advanced Topics in Metaphysics..." I thought "I will be doing my third year of university in 2015, where I'll be studying a bunch of exciting things, as well as making sure I always have time to build caring relationships with my close family, who I will be moving away from in the upcoming years, making sure to be kind to strangers, being loving towards my friends, and always going out of my ways to serve the poor", then I would be on the ball!

It is in my nature to make lists, timetables, schedules and the like. Even though I am undisciplined, I am quite organised, in that sense. However, it is the intangibles, the things that cannot be easily placed on my schedule, that are really the meaningful things that I should think of as occupying those two-dozen years between now and my projected ordination date. They cannot be placed on any to-do list because they should be on every such list. For the same reason, full-time ministry cannot be placed on a schedule, because it fills the whole thing. When I really internalise the fact that the important things, the people, the relationships, cannot be timetabled, then I will stop thinking of half my life having disappeared by the time that most exciting Veni Creator Spiritus is sung.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Why Religious Life

The religious life (meaning the vowed life of poverty, chastity and obedience) is forever producing commentary, both from secular quarters and Catholic ones. Three weeks ago, Br. Justin Hannegan, a Benedictine, published an article in Crisis Magazine explaining why the religious life was imploding in numbers, which can effectively be summarised in the title “Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism.” The essence of his argument comes from an analysis of a paper published by the secular sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (here), which shows with an impressive amount of data that the cause was the end of the Second Vatican Council, in particular, the emphasis on the universal call to holiness. Hannegan argues that an perverted spirit of egalitarianism that emerged after the council has effectively made religious life into masochism, obscuring the highway to holiness that it represents. He writes:

Religious life, in itself, is not a desirable good. Religious life is a renunciation. It is a kind of death. It involves turning one’s back on what is humanly good and desirable. Consider the life of a Trappist. A Trappist monk deprives himself of sleep, deprives himself of food, gives up a wife and children, puts aside the joys of conversation, gives up his personal property, rises at 4:00 in the morning every day to chant interminable psalms in a cold church, loses the opportunity to travel, and even relinquishes his own will. The thought of being a Trappist is not an appealing thought. It instills a kind of dread—the sort of dread that we feel when we contemplate a skull, or when we stand over a precipice, or when we look across a barren landscape. All forms of religious life have this repulsive effect. All forms of religious life, at their very core, consist of three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—and each of these vows is repulsive. The vow of poverty means giving up money and property; the vow of chastity means giving up a spouse and children; and the vow of obedience means giving up one’s own will. No one has an innate desire to sever himself from property, family, and his own will. No one has an innate desire to uproot three of life’s greatest goods. Such a desire would be mere perversion.

Hannegan goes on, however, to point out why religious life exists at all by quoting various saints:

Instead of asking people whether they desire religious life, we should ask them whether they desire salvation—whether they desire to become saints. If sanctity is the goal, then religious life and all its harrowing renunciations begin to make sense. Although religious life is the hardest, most fearsome way to live, it is also the most spiritually secure, most fruitful, and most meritorious. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux tells us that because they renounce property, family, and their own wills, religious “live more purely, they fall more rarely, they rise more speedily, they are aided more powerfully, they live more peacefully, they die more securely, and they are rewarded more abundantly.” According to Saint Athanasius, “if a man embraces the holy and unearthly way, even though as compared with [married life] it be rugged and hard to accomplish, nonetheless it has the more wonderful gifts: for it grows the perfect fruit, namely a hundredfold.” Saint Theresa of Ávila even tells us that she became a nun, against her own desires, because she “saw that the religious state was the best and safest.

Now, as Sister Theresa Noble, in responding to the article over at Ignitium Today, points out, the Benedictine seems to be suggesting an excellent way to Pelagianism, the heresy memorably combated by St Augustine of Hippo, the idea that people can earn their way to salvation. Still, if he subbed in sanctity for his mention of salvation, he does have a point: very few people spontaneously wake up with a desire to be obedient to someone else, renounce marriage and sexuality, and not own anything. Preaching desire for the vows as a way to vocation will almost inevitably lead to married life.1

If I was being overly cynical, or more likely, I was completely ignorant of the way the Church understands the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, I would be inclined to think that they were either a way for a power-hungry Church to dominate people, or an exercise is pointless asceticism. Both are ignorant, and for those who know where they come from, absurd. The vows, at least as I see them, have at least three closely related purposes: they are evangelical, they are eschatological and they are practical.

Before I explain why I think the vows are central to the Church's mission, I should probably note that my perspective is different to those from other religious orders' traditions: I am not seeking to be a Trappist, or a Benedictine, or a Franciscan, etc. Each of these great orders will have a view on why the vows are taken. Instead, I will present a view that is at least moderately within the Ignatian or (broadly) Jesuit tradition. Since I am not (yet) a Jesuit, perhaps this is a bit presumptuous of me, but I will do so nonetheless.

The evangelical counsels are named so because they are, in fact, evangelical. That is to say, they foster the conditions which are most suitable for evangelism, for mission, for the proclamation of the Gospel. Obedience makes a person versatile to their superiors (in particular, note the Jesuit fourth vow of obedience to the Pope in matters of mission), poverty means they will be less attached to a particular place (as someone with a mortgaged house, for instance) and chastity also increases versatility. Historically speaking, the Order of Preachers (commonly known as the Dominicans) adopted the evangelical counsels as part of their own ministry, particularly in the context of the Albigensian heresy, where the monastic orders were limited in their ability to counter the heresy because of their monasticism.

The vows are also profoundly eschatological for two related reasons: they mirror the ministry of Jesus and they point to something other than this world. In mirroring the life of Jesus, those who take the vows show in exemplary fashion an aspect of Christ – they are like the poor preacher who had no-where to rest his head, they are like the chaste man who laid down his life for the Church, a theological marriage only to be consummated in the parousia, and they are like the obedient Son of God, obedient even unto death on a cross. This leads to the question, why? If one seeks to find the answer in purely worldly terms, the task will be in vain – because the vows, just as the life of Christ, point to something beyond the grave. Poverty leads to riches, as Paul says “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Though he gives himself bodily to nobody, in doing so, he is able to give himself bodily to everyone. The the obedience of Christ on the cross points to, and indeed, is a precondition of, the resurrection. Hence, the vows are not only centred on the Gospel, but point to its truth, and point to the life of the world to come.

Finally, they are intensely practical: both in the common sense pragmatic way and in the “practical way to holiness” type way that Br. Hannegan, the saints, and John Paul II (cf. Vita Consecrata) pointed to. They are pragmatic because they allow greater freedom – one is more free when less attached to material possessions, more versatile when not committed to the married life and children, and in a strange way which most religious can attest to,2 more free with the vow of obedience. An explanation of why that is the case would take a while, so I recommend Fr. James Martin, SJ's discussion of the issue in “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”

When things are practical, however, it is not for the sake of being practical – pragmatism is, by its very nature, instrumental, a tool in the hand of the user. Practical for what? One answer might be, “for whatever you want to do”, and to a great extent, this is true. For this reason, these vows, particularly the vow of chastity (understood as vowing not to marry, ie as celibacy) can be abused for selfishness, at least when not professed for some other purpose (as religious vows are made). For the Society of Jesus, the vows are made for the purposes of mission and service to others, in recent times, particularly the poor. For other orders, the purpose might be slightly different, though the vows are still helpful in those pursuits.

Finally, they are indeed paths to holiness. One should not quote the saints as proof-texts on this point, but the witness of the holy people of times past is broad and has a degree of unanimity: religious life is excellence in the path to sanctity. Some of the reasons are like the ones above – the religious life is the life of Christ, not just in the vows, but in the community, contemplative and prayerful aspects of it. Probably the clearest, second to the example of Jesus, is the eschatological reason: in living a life that points to the Kingdom of God, it serves not as a pointer to others, but as preparation in itself. If C.S. Lewis was right in saying that the Christian path is such that we may become little Christs, then living like Christ, imitating Christ, is sure to be the fastest path to being transformed into Christs.

Still, the Second Vatican Council is not incorrect when it teaches that, in the words of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium): “All Christians in any state of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.” This universal calls are universal, by virtue of baptism, and even further than that. But whilst it says that it is the essence of the Christian vocation to grow in the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of love, it does not say that any particular way of following Jesus is the same. I think religious life probably is an easier path to holiness, which implies that the married saints really are heroic. This view might sound clericalist (though most, or at least many, religious are not ordained, and hence not clerics), but it is actually surprisingly obvious: a life of prayer, immersion in saintly spiritualities, liturgy and various expressions of Gospel centred life is seems evidently going to lead to greater holiness, and not even in a Pelagian standing way, but because religious life is clearly and simply a response to Jesus' call to leave everything and follow him. The issue is, how does one incorporate the same embodiment of the ministry of Jesus into married life? That difficulty is why religious life is an easier way to holiness.


1. I must emphasize the “almost” - because I was drawn first to the vows, then to the Society of Jesus where they were expressed in a way I found expressed what I thought they meant the best. I have never met anyone like me, however.

2. Whilst it is certainly freedom in a very real sense, if one takes freedom to be the mere absence of structures in life that guide one's path, of course one will not find it more free. The tales of people who have left religious life and written as if it were awful that whoever the superior is in the order would tell them to actually do something, did not understand the meaning of the term “obedience.” If they did not want to be obedient, they should not have vowed to do so.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Road Ahead

This is part IV of a four part series. The others are (in order): Road from Unbelief, Time in the Evangelical Church, The Road to Rome.

Quo Vadis?
- Latin for "where are you going?" The apocryphal text "Acts of Peter" tells the story of Peter asking Jesus this as Peter flees the danger of crucifixion in Rome. Jesus responds "Romam vado iterum crucifigi" - I am going to Rome to be crucified again. Peter then musters the bravery to return and face martyrdom.

The event probably never happened, but the question is one that Jesus asks, and by extension, the Church asks, of each Christian. Quo vado? Where am I going? Where are we going? These are questions to be answered in our own personal way, but not based solely on our own impulses and inclinations (for often these contradict or are wrong), but on where Jesus calls us.

This language of calling is the language of vocation, from the Latin “vocare” which means to call. So what is my vocation? In the early church, and actually throughout most of Christian history before the 16th century, the highest calling was to some form of religious life: a monastery, the priesthood, etc. This, from fairly early on, usually implied celibacy, and it is of interest to note that various martyrdoms among Christian women were because they refused to marry. Yet what of today? The major division for men to consider first is between marriage and the priesthood.[1]

Though Holy Matrimony has been recognized informally as one of the core sacraments since at least as early as St Augustine of Hippo, and despite relatively strong statements about marriage theologically in the New Testament (though not incredibly abundant – the strongest being Ephesians 5), some critics from within the Church (such as Erasmus of Rotterdam) and sometimes dissenters from outside the Church (particularly the Protestant reformers – though these were primarily opposed to clerical celibacy and monasticism) made moves to re-assert the beauty and holiness of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Now, the reformers did not recognize Holy Matrimony as a sacrament, and this has led to the most elevated view of marriage surviving nowadays as being distinctly Catholic. The Catholic view is reasonably well summarized by a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

""The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws.... God himself is the author of marriage." The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes. These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures. "The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life." (1603)

Holy Orders, for better or for worse, has been considered holy since the very beginning. Take this quote from St Ignatius of Antioch, third bishop of Antioch and a disciple of St John the Apostle, as well as by some accounts directly appointed by St Peter the Apostle himself:

Follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father.  Obey your priests too as you would the apostles; give your deacons the same reverence that you would to a command of God.  Make sure that no step affecting the Church is ever taken by anyone without the bishop’s sanction. The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is one that is celebrated by the bishop himself, or by some person authorized by him.  Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as, wherever Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church.
(Letter to the Smyrneans 8:1-2)

Evidently, Ignatius is using a lot of hyperbole. However, the idea I want to get across presently is that from very early – this is written in about 110 AD[2] – the priesthood and religious life was held in high esteem. Now, all validly baptized Christians are part of the Church, and therefore partake of the “priesthood of all believers” – but this is a particular priesthood. Just as Israel was said by God to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6) yet still the Levites were selected as being the tribe with the particular priesthood. Strictly speaking, upon ordination one is ordained to the presbyterate, [3] and from there the presbyter (here on, simply priest) partakes not of their own human priesthood, but in the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. For human priests could not and still cannot offer true and proper sacrifice – but Jesus can and did. The priest offers not his own sacrifice, but that of Christ, re-presented for the edification of all the faithful. Furthermore, the priest engages in other aspects of the ministry of Christ through various other sacraments, such as the sacrament of penance where the priest in persona Christi becomes a visible sign of the absolution of sin, though the absolution of sin itself is always done by God.

One area where the Church would benefit from a deeper theology of women, as Pope Francis has called for, is in the renewed emphasis on female vocation to religious life. It has been my experience – and from anecdotes, that of some others – that the procedure for discernment of vocation to religious life for women is greatly impoverished in comparison to that for men. What does this suggest? In my view, it promotes the idea that the real crux and foundation for the Church is the presbyterate, which in turn leads to an outcry over a male-only priesthood. This is not the correct place to discuss this issue, so I will merely say that this deeper theology of femininity and women in the Church is sorely needed at present, to fully express the truth that priests are only one part of a very multi-faceted Church. The Catholic Church is blessed by God with the laity of all stripes and forms (single and married), the Brothers and Sisters, the priests (together with bishops) and deacons. Having noted that there is a very important part to play for women, I will now set aside the issue of particularly female vocations, because this is to be a blog post about my own calling – so I must omit female vocations as well as the single life (as part of the laity), to which I am by no means called.

If becoming Catholic was the second most difficult decision I have yet taken, this must be the first: am I to follow Jesus in married life or the priesthood? This issue is one I have been considering since April 2013, and it can rightly be said I have even been struggling with this since around June or July 2013. Like always, these matters are intensely personal and coloured by my experience. I surely approach this issue differently as a convert – and more particularly still as a convert with my unique background – to someone who has embraced the Catholic faith since childhood.

If it is not clear from my discussion of both the sacraments of Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders, there is no distinction for me in how holy one is when compared to the other. Yes, I am aware of the rulings of the Council of Trent on this issue (which declared that Holy Matrimony is not above Holy Orders) – but that merely reinforces my point, that both are on equal footing. If not based on which path is holier, why the difficulty?

My circumstances impact how I approach this question in all sorts of ways. I had planned to get married ever since I left primary school.[4] I have had a girlfriend for close to two years. I barely know other than from theory what a priest does. I am completely unsure I can handle celibacy – both from the natural impulses I have and because I have been variously told that it can be very lonely at times. I have no enormous taste for liturgy. I also am very much in support of lay people realizing and taking hold of their crucial part in the Church – the universal vocation to love and holiness, the commission to make disciples of all nations, and many other callings – and that message would seem hindered if I was a cleric, not a lay person.

My aspirations also impact how I approach the matter. I grow ever more uncomfortable with my affluence – even though it is my parents’ and not my own – and material riches, particularly in light of Jesus’ call to sell everything, give to the poor and follow him. I aspire to be able to love chastely, give of my time and care freely and not be required to dedicate myself mostly to the small group of my wife and kids. And I want to say fully to God “not my will, but yours be done” – especially in the call to missions. I deeply desire these things, and always for the greater glory of God.

For the close reader, the choice would seem clear: most of my reasons for marriage are circumstantial or arise from the fear of being unable to take on celibacy (that precious but difficult charism) and fear of not being able to be used as I want to be, on my terms, in the presbyterate. In contrast, the reasons for the priesthood seem eternal though still personal.

Still, the solution could not yet be trivially arrived at, for these paths are both callings in the Christian life. One ought not to assume that marriage or the priesthood are defaults, for both are things to which the Lord calls or does not. We are not entitled to marry another person – marriage is therefore not a right – nor are we entitled to the priesthood, which is also not a right. Therefore the question is – and it should always be this question – am I called to one of these paths in life?

The reader that knows how the Church probably already knows the answer, because my list of aspirations closely mirrors the vows of the Society of Jesus. Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as a fourth vow of obedience to the Pope in matters of missions. If that hint was too subtle, that deeper desire to do things for the glory of God reflects one of the mottos of St Ignatius of Loyola and by extension of the Jesuits which he founded: “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.”

Am I called to the Jesuits? This question which I struggled with for about two months was essentially answered one Sunday. What happened was this: for about a month when I was considering the issue, the Sunday Mass gospel readings had all been of Jesus calling and sending the apostles, other disciples, etcetera, and one week even the Old Testament passage also - it was of God calling Elisha to take over from Elijah. Finally I was sitting in the parish of St Ignatius in Toowong (notable because this parish is run by the Jesuits) for the closing Mass of the ACSA conference, and once again, the reading was of Jesus calling to his particular service. Could I say anything other than “your will be done”?

For these reasons and with this calling from the Lord, I have decided to pursue entry into the Society of Jesus to become a priest of Jesus Christ. It has been confirmed by many people, some saying I pray like a priest, one even going so far as to say, perhaps not so jokingly, that I have all the makings of a Pope.[5] Do my fears remain? In part. I come to Jesus much like St Peter did when he saw Jesus walking on water:

“He spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

Instead of walking on water, I walk to the priesthood. Instead of sinking in water, I may begin to sink in hesitation. But God, being patient and rich in kindness, nonetheless says to me “O you of little faith! Why do you doubt?” Then my Lord helps me out of my uncertainty with the hand of assurance that truly he is with me until the end of the age. May I yet fear? By no means! For God who has brought me thus far can be trusted to equip those he calls! The Lord does not call people to be light in the world and yet keep them in darkness.
It is true that I am not entirely sure what the future will hold. In the short term, I am called to finish my university degree and perhaps even some further studies, all the while doing my part to help edify the University of Queensland’s Newman Catholic Society. Each Christian, after all, is called to be a beacon of hope and of the love of God wherever they find themselves. In the long term things are even more uncertain, since in taking vows I relinquish control and surrender (in a new way) completely to Jesus Christ who called me where I go. I must hence live by faith, and not by sight, as it was said so long ago. May I live ever more ad majorem Dei gloriam!

Written on the Feast of St Bartholomew the Apostle,
24th of August 2013 AD
Brisbane, Australia

Published on the Feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux,
1st of October 2013 AD
Brisbane, Australia.

[1] Vocations to be a Brother or a single lay person exist, though these days these are found less frequently. Perhaps this is a sad thing, because both roles enrich the Church – but it is a fact in present times.

[2] Some scholars believe that this is even earlier than some of the canonical documents now recorded in the New Testament – though this is by no means a majority view, and the consensus seems to be that one of the Johannine texts is the last, dated around the end of the first century. If not a Johannine text, then one of the epistles of Peter instead – sometimes II Peter is dated to around 150 AD.

[3] For those wondering why the distinction is made, this more technical term lies behind the word “elder” in many translation of the New Testament. It is therefore properly understood as being entirely biblical. There are historical and cultural reasons for the use of a different word in many early church documents, but the concept is nonetheless identical.

[4] When I was in year 3 or 4 in England, at Manorcroft, I remember telling my best friend James Alston that I did not want to get married, though I would probably have a girlfriend. My childhood idea of girlfriends was one of companionship, and as it was most of my friends were boys, so having a girl companion did not seem a top priority. I also recall, though I know not when this was, asking my parents why people who are dating love each other, but married people do not. But this attitude of my childhood left me as I went to Spain, and by the time I was in first year of ESO (secondary school) I reckoned I would marry.

[5] That is not, of course, my intention. Why would I join a religious order that asked me to vow not to ambition for higher office?