Showing posts with label vocation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vocation. Show all posts

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Good works, good works, everywhere! And all my time did shrink.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

~ The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge's famous poem has these memorable lines of the mariner surrounded by his abundance, yet stranded also because of it, for the water was useless if not drinkable. I have found that much the same can be said for ministry: opportunities abound, even more, they are in excess. And so we are stranded, with good works in every direction we look, but until we take a step, make a commitment, it remains mere potentiality. The mariner can distill the water, but he must take a portion of the sea, he cannot distill it all. So too can we Christians take a portion of ministry as our own, and by doing so do what is good and right, but we cannot do anything if we simply gaze at the plenitude of possibilities for ministry.

There is good to be done in almost any walk of life. Doctors and medics who heal, lawyers who can be advocates for the unjustly accused, priests who can administer the sacraments, social workers who provide all sorts of services, missionaries who provide the Gospel in a manner particular to their calling, politicians who work for the common good of society, natural fathers and mothers who care for their children, contemplative religious who take as their own the yoke of prayer, teachers who educate the young...the list is probably as long as there exists people. There is a lot of good to be done in the world. No one person, however, can do all these things.

If we try and take all of them upon ourselves, we will surely fail. Certainly, one might object, one can be more than one of these professions: one can, for instance, be married (with duties to one's spouse), with children (with parental duties) a doctor and missionary, all in one. I have met such people. Yet even these unsung heroes cannot do everything, they simply do more than most. What remains - and this is clearly evident to the man I know who does combine those professions and vocations, since studying medicine is hardly a weekend hobby - is to commit. A bucket full of water can be taken to be distilled, not the whole ocean.

I want to write about two things in brief: first, how do we pick? I give St Ignatius Loyola's answer. Second, what then do I pick?

What then shall we do?

For Christians, as I explained when I went discussed vocation briefly here, deciding what to do is about discernment, discerning the will of God who knows how best to include us in the unfolding of salvation history. The problem we come to when figuring out what ministry to engage in, however, is that we already have as a premise that the choices are good. We already know what is wrong, and not to be involved in such activities. We have to distinguish, somehow, between good-and-meant-for-me and good-but-not-meant-for-me.

St Ignatius has a profound answer, which would be hard to summarise here. The way I understand it, his answer is threefold: first, a holy person makes holy decisions, so our first step should be to strive in everything to be holy. Second, Following the will of God produces feelings of consolation, and opposing it produces feelings of desolation. These are terms are used in a very specific way in the spirituality of St Ignatius, they do not refer simply to feeling good (consolation) or feeling bad (desolation). For this reason, I will at most touch on them briefly, in connection to one of the central insights of St Ignatius, which is (thirdly) that our deepest and holiest desires accord with the will of God for us.

Before alarm bells go off, this is not a sort of "prosperity discernment," whereby I declare whatever I want to be God's will for me to get. "I want some chocolate? God must want me to have chocolate." - not exactly, sorry. I am going to extrapolate from Ignatius' insight into a new form of language which may be clearer (hopefully without being unfaithful to St Ignatius). Our common desires, for pleasure over pain, having a full belly, being well rested, indulging our whims, can be called first order desires. Our second order desires are our desires of what we want our first order desires to be. Third order desires are about what we want our second order desires to be, and so forth.

Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane exemplifies this division, which is far from being his human will pulling one way and his divine will pulling another. It is a deeply human problem. On the one hand, the natural inclination to avoid pain makes Jesus want to avoid the cross. On the other, his deeper desire is to want whatever the Father wants. His surrender of the will ("not my will be done, but yours") is an act of a high order desire. It is here where St Ignatius places that convergence of God's will and ours.

Let me give an example that is not explicitly moral: my conflicting desires between checking Facebook for the fifth time this hour or doing my coursework. My desire to procrastinate, I assure you, is strong, and Facebook provides an infinite venue for it. Still, I could hardly say that checking Facebook is a particularly deep desire, in fact, it pops up more regularly precisely because it is a superficial, surface level desire. Deeper down, hidden somewhere, I want to do well at university, and in fact, deeper down I thoroughly enjoy my university work.

If it is true that my deepest desires accord with God's will, noting that idea can certainly be misunderstood and perverted, then it follows quite clearly that holy people make the right choice the holier they are. Part of what the stain of original sin does to us is disorder our desires, so what is fundamentally good is perceived as peripherally good, and what is peripheral (at most) is fundamental. So part of undoing that stain and once more being sanctified, being holy, is to re-order our passions so that the true, the good and the beautiful are sought in their right hierarchy. It is not bad, for instance, to be concerned with oneself, it is healthy and good. Yet narcissism is a perverted form of self-concern which comes from placing oneself as the highest good. All sin results in some way from a disordering of these desires, these passions. This message, which could be expanded to fill a book, can be summarised as follows: holy people make holy decisions because their deepest, holiest desires are given centrality.

What then shall I do?

Now it is time for some introspection. What is it that I desire most deeply, what moves and motivates me more than anything else? I have sort of begun to answer that question with my series of blog posts, still unfinished, on what influences my theology. Vocation is an obvious one, but that is almost a given here, other than to note that most profoundly I want to do what God wants me to do. Grace for me implies, at least in part, that I have a deep desire for reconciliation, a point that will become clearer when I write about another crucial element of my theology, which is the focus on communion. This focus of mine on communion also implies that I have a deep desire for community, more than that, covenantal community, or in other words, a community that is based on a bond of sacred kinship. For the Christian, this bond is based on the reality of baptism.

Two other concepts, one I already wrote about and another yet to come, are central to my thought: incarnation and mission. Incarnational ministry, as I view it, is a form of ministry which makes the minister renounce what makes them above those ministered to (where by absolute I might mean, for instance, that a rich person renounces wealth to minister to the poor) in a way that imitates the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ "and dwelt among us." Last but far from least, mission is a central motivating concept for me. It is for every faithful Christian really, since Jesus came proclaiming the good news, St Paul pronounces woe on himself if he does not preach the good news and up to today the apostolic authority entrusted to the Church by Jesus has continued to say such things as "the Church exists to evangelise" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI).

That might sound overly intellectual, but it is really quite important, not least because to some extent my innermost is really quite intellectual anyway, perhaps to the point of being (overly) cerebral. Community, incarnational (sometimes called "intentional") community, witness and proclamation of the Gospel. These are all key. If I did not engage these, I would be being false to my vocation. I could name a few others (resurrection and truth are both exceedingly important), but I will skip them for brevity.

Changing modes for a moment, what about people's physical needs? The spiritual is important, and anyone who says otherwise is simply mistaken, but so is the corporal. Are corporal works of mercy something I am called to? Absolutely. Most people, if I may dare to generalise, probably are. Still, what variety? There are diseases to be cared for, homeless to be sheltered, hungry to be fed, the socially marginalised to be included, and so on. The list is long. So what am I meant to do?

I genuinely do not know. There are certain issues I perceive as injust, and yet I do not find myself called to work in those areas. For instance, as it stands at the moment, I do not think I am called to work in political activism for the sake of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' rights. I am far from claiming it is an unworthy cause, it is simply not my cause. Similarly, whilst I have been to all sorts of rallies, marches and vigils for the end to the murder of children in the womb, it is similarly not fundamentally my cause. Still, nobody who knows me can really say that I do not care about these things. On the other hand, there are some issues where I am compelled to do something: homelessness, hunger, de-humanising poverty, slavery both physical and otherwise (like substance addiction), social marginalisation because of such stigmas as related to race or mental health illness, among others.

To that effect, I have begin discerning committing to various apostolates that deal with these issues, and am involved already in several. To the extent that I can identify key issues, and since engaging with the corporal ones is clearly compatible with engaging in the spiritual ones (which, because they effect eternal consequences, I am compelled to give pre-eminence), it would seem that my problems are largely solved.

That would, I think, be to go too fast. Whilst there is a sense in which I will always have a certain autonomy of will, in a few years time I will be taking not one but two vows of obedience, where I consecrate my will to God via my superiors and the Pope. I find that a comforting thought. But whether comforting or not, I am not sure in the long term what sort of ministry I will be involved in. I can only discern the next two years.

This will involve, as far as my eye can see, continued involvement in soup kitchens and including whoever I meet who seems to lack community. It will involve continued service in the Newman Society at UQ, and Frassati Australia. It will hopefully involved, though I have just started doing so, being involved with outreach initiatives of the St Vincent de Paul Society. It will hopefully involve working with initiatives of the Waiter's Union, soon. All of this, whilst not neglecting that my primary state in life as it stands is that of student at university. These are my buckets of water.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part III: Vocation

When I started reading the works of John Henry Newman, on the road to becoming Catholic, I accidentally stumbled across the University of Queensland's Newman Society, the Catholic society on campus at UQ. I walked into their first meeting, and when the ice-breaker introduction came, I said quite clearly: I am not Catholic, I do not want to be Catholic, but I do need to find out more to know if I should be Catholic. Most of the people were fairly quiet at this, they just tried to continue on to the next person, since I was an atypical person to be in that meeting and in that sense I could make people uncomfortable. There were two exceptions: the president at the time, now a close friend of mine, seemed to be quietly excited about the idea of someone looking into being Catholic, even if it was true that I did not want to. The other person was UQ's chaplain at the time, the priest who would eventually receive me into the Church, and importantly, Fr Morgan Batt was (and continues to be) the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Hence, the idea of vocation has been in my head since before I was Catholic, and it has not left since then. At the beginning, influenced as I was by the office that Fr Batt had, vocation for me was related to what one might call the sacraments of state, that is, Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. A little later, and influenced now by the Second Vatican Council's clear teaching on the universal call (vocation) to holiness by virtue of baptism, I realised that baptism was a sacrament of state (of sorts). This remains the common usage of the term "vocation": priest, married, religious...? That is an important question to ask oneself, because it is indeed the subject matter of vocation. However, two other people have influenced me and made vocation into a central element of my theology.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship is one of the most important books I have read this year, particularly the initial chapters, leading up to his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, he attacks cheap grace, replacing it with costly grace, the grace of the cross. Bonhoeffer presents costly grace as grace that demands something of us, namely ourselves, not to repay a debt, but because the debt cannot be repaid.

In reflecting upon this, I realised that the grace of God always implies a calling, a vocation. For instance, the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus is simultaneously the self-revelation of God acting in Christ, which is an action of grace, the imparting of that grace of conversion and the gift of faith, but at the very same time, and inextricably linked, it is the calling of Saul to be Paul the Apostle. For everyone, in fact, the hearing and believing of the Gospel is at once an act of grace on the part of God and the calling of God to the proclamation of the same Gospel.

Therefore, one's vocation, one's calling, is not just a gift of grace but a necessary element of any gift of grace. First and foremost, every Christian is called to holiness. Secondly, there may be a vocation to married life, to priestly life, to religious life, to consecrated single life... In terms of sacraments, the grace of Baptism is a call to holiness. Then follows the specific path to be taken, for which (if one is to be ordained or married) one receives that grace of office. It is not in vain that the sacrament of ordination is called Holy Orders, because the grace of the sacrament implies by its very nature the orders, the vocation, for the sake of which it is administered. In short, grace and vocation are inseparable.

Bonhoeffer, being a Protestant and not having the same sacramental theology of priesthood or matrimony, also challenges Catholics such as myself to think of vocation in broader terms, though this is not something he had introduced to Christianity. It is at the very least as old as the other influential figure that solidified the centrality of vocation in my thought, the spiritual master and one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius Loyola.

St Ignatius is most remembered for his Spiritual Exercises and as a master of discernment. Discernment is, in one sense, a Catholic version of decision making, but the theology that underpins it sets it aside from its secular analogue. Discernment is not so much about weighing up pros and cons of choices, rather, it is about figuring out (discerning) the will of God. The will of God and his calling are one and the same.

Yet discernment of the calling of God for St Ignatius does not stop when one figures out the state of life one is called to, it is a constant process. I must discern the will of God for me at all moments during my day, during my week, during my life. Discernment is not a matter for big decisions, it is a matter for all decisions. Yet if discernment is for all decisions, then that means that there is a calling of God in all decisions, which means that vocation is a term that encompasses the totality of our lives.

This has influenced me to make the bold claim that Christian ethics can be divided into two categories: general and particular. The general is aptly summarised in the words of Jesus when asked what the greatest commandment was:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The strength of this formulation is evidently its generality, but it hence is overly ambiguous in terms of choosing how to live out the commandment. Scripture abundantly testifies that not all are called to do all good works, that God wills that some dedicate themselves to one form of ministry, others to another. There is hence another way of formulating Christian ethics, in a way that makes note of the particularity and the uniqueness of the vocation given to each person. One could write it in an expanded form as:

The right thing to do is to employ one's charisms in lovingly living out own's vocation for the common good and the glory of God.

It is rough, somewhat academic, and most likely imprecise. It is not quite my intention to give an absolute statement that I would petition the Pope to define as dogma. Rather, I use this as a sketch-statement to show how vocation forms the basis for Christian ethics, and can be more specifically tailored to each person than a general statement about love.

All this implies that what seems good can be bad. St Ignatius talks about feelings of desolation arising because one has followed inclinations that seemed holy, but actually come from the false angel of light. What seems like a good action can be the wrong action if God calls us to do otherwise - indeed, what would be a good action in another circumstance could be the wrong action in this circumstance, because we are not called to do that action then. I wrote a little about how the converse can be true, what seems like a bad idea turns out to be the right action, when I discussed my own vocation here.

Applying the language of vocation to our decision making is important in making decisions about what we will do with our time. This is specially the case because of how many opportunities there are to do good: should we give our time and energy to homeless people, the elderly, the socially marginalised, the mentally ill? Sometimes these categories overlap, but not always, and we need to make decisions about who we are going to minister to. Should I commit to this ministry, or that other one? I know God calls me to do what is required of me in service of him, so how do I divide my time between my work duties, my study duties, and my ministry duties? How much time should I rest? How much time should I dedicate to fellowship with Catholic friends compared to non-Catholic friends?

All these questions are ultimately questions we must discern the answer to, because God has a calling for us that will answer these questions. As you can see, the language of ethics, of should and ought is the language of vocation and calling.

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."

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?