The Better Part: The Religious or Priestly Vocation

(This was written in preparation for a series of conferences on vocations and states in life that I gave at Saint Benedict Center in the Spring of 2005. Please see the end of this piece for a small table of contents with links to the other conferences.)

In the previous conference, we introduced the general subject of states in life. We said that the importance of choosing the right state in life, which we call a “secondary vocation” has to do with the fact that your primary vocation — to the life of grace here and of glory hereafter — is very much related to it. We talked about the teaching of St. Alphonsus and others that your salvation has very much to do with choosing that state in life that God had already chosen for you from all eternity. We gave an overview of the four states in life and made the point that, contrary to popular belief, discerning your vocation is not very difficult.

The Name. Tonight’s subject is ecclesiastical vocations. I entitled the talk “The Better Part: The Religious or Priestly Vocation.” The name is inspired by Our Lord’s words to St. Martha. You probably remember when St. Martha objected to St. Mary Magdalen’s not helping her with the housework because she was at our Lord’s feet. He defended Mary against her sister’s criticism by saying that Magdalen had chosen “the better part” which “will not be taken away from her.” Martha was busy about “many things,” but “one thing is necessary” — tending to your salvation — and Mary had chosen that. Our Lord praised her for choosing the “better part.”

It is common to apply these words of our Lord to ecclesiastical vocations, since those who respond to that call are brought into a state of closer intimacy with Our Lord.

The States in the Gospels. I would like to lay the foundation for this evening’s conference by focusing on a passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel regarding states in life. It begins with the Pharisees trying to trap our Lord by asking Him a question about divorce. Now, at the wedding feast of Cana, Our Lord had already elevated matrimony to a sacrament. But in the reply that He gives to the Pharisees he reveals that, in the New Law, matrimony is indissoluble. Those who put away their wives and remarry are guilty of adultery, plain and simple. Moses allowed divorce “by reason of the hardness of [their] heart… but from the beginning, it was not so” (19:8). Surprised by this announcement — it must have been the first time they heard it — the disciples say, “If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry.” Our Lord answers “All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother’s womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it” (11-12).

This mention of “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” is a clear reference to the voluntary embracing of celibate chastity for the purpose of greater intimacy with God. It is here that Our Lord offers the counsel of chastity. You see, in the very same discourse in which Our Lord disclosed the sanctity of matrimony, he also speaks of the higher vocation of the counsels. We get the good and the better presented at the same time.

The Rich Young Man. Shortly after this announcement by Our Lord, a notable “coincidence” happens. The general vocation to be a “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven” is made very personal: “And when he was gone forth into the way, a certain man, running up and kneeling before him, asked him: Good Master, what shall I do that I may receive life everlasting?” Our Lord reminds him of the commandments, to which the young man responds, “Master, all these things I have observed from my youth.” St. Matthew continues: “And Jesus, looking on him, loved him and said to him: One thing is wanting unto thee. Go, sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor: and thou shalt have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me. Who being struck sad at that saying, went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions” (Mt. 10:17-22).

Here, Our Lord offers all three counsels:

Poverty — “sell all you have”;

Celibate chastity — “come, follow me”: something the married apostles could not do with their wives, as they “left all things” to follow Jesus; and

Obedience — again, “come, follow me.”

The man is invited to join the disciples and live the rigorous life they led, a life of toil, penance, detachment, and simplicity, but a life of following Our Lord in greater intimacy than the crowds who came to Him daily.

Vocation Abandoned. You all know what happened. The man went away sad because he had many possessions. He was attached to his riches. Even though Jesus had “loved” him, Our Lord was not soft on the rich young man after he left. Jesus told the disciples that it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. It seems that, for this man at least, the counsel of poverty was necessary to keep him from becoming sinfully attached to riches.

Rewards of the Counsels. This leads St. Peter to ask, in his typically bold fashion, “Behold we have left all things, and have followed thee: what therefore shall we have?” Our Lord’s answer is stunning. It’s the reward of the counsels: “And every one that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting” (Mt. 19:29).

The Apostolic Pattern. The Apostolic college — these twelve men — give us the pattern of ecclesiastical vocations, in its difficulties and its rewards. They were the first religious to follow our Lord. They were also the first priests, being elevated to that dignity at the Last Supper. Our Lord’s words to them — “come, follow me!” — are the same words He addressed to the rich young man, and the same words He still addresses to those He calls to the priesthood and religious life.

If Thou Wilt Be Perfect…” I want to focus on one utterance of Our Lord to the rich young man who went away sad. After looking at him and loving him, Our Lord said, “if thou wilt be perfect,” and then went on to describe the apostolic life he wanted him to follow, with the counsels. In Catholic theological language, we call the counsels the “counsels of perfection” and we refer to the religious life a “state of perfection.” What does this mean? Does it mean that others — lay people either married or single — cannot be perfect? No, it doesn’t. Strictly speaking, following of the commandments is all that is necessary for perfection, but the actual achieving of that perfection is helped a great deal by the counsels. This is the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in the matter. In other words, the counsels fit us for the perfect observance of the commandments. They so form our intellect, our will, our affections, and all our habits of mind and body, that we achieve perfection with greater ease.

Example. Recall the example we gave last week of the son who followed his father’s counsel to do his homework by a certain time. In following the counsel of his father, the young man practices good habits of obedience, habits that will make him less likely to sin against a commandment later.

This does not mean that every religious will surely achieve perfection over every layman. It is possible for this particular married or single layman to achieve greater sanctity than this particular religious. But the religious is given more opportunities for advancing in the spiritual life.

Encomiums. Considering these advantages, it is no wonder that the saints extol the greatness of the religious life to the skies. Here’s what some of them have to say about it:

Saint Mary Magdalene di Pazzi: “A religious vocation is the greatest grace God can give a soul after holy Baptism.”

Saint Basil: “In this privileged state [the religious life] there is a happy and wonderful exchange; for goods of this world are given up and in their place the goods of Heaven are received. Treasures that will pass away are surrendered in exchange for treasures that last forever. Articles of no value are swapped for articles of priceless value.”

Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri: “The Religious State is like the Promised Land; it is Paradise on Earth; it is a Great Grace.”

Saint Laurence Justinian: “God has designedly concealed the happiness of the religious state because, if it were known, all would relinquish the world and fly to religion.”

Saint Bernard: “Is not that a holy state in which a man lives more purely, falls more rarely, rises more speedily, walks more cautiously, rests more securely, dies more confidently, is cleansed more quickly, and rewarded more abundantly?”

About the priesthood, we can quote St. John Chrysostom. I’ll offer a word of explanation first: Unlike religious life, which is called a “state of perfection,” the priesthood is an office in the Church. In other words, the priest performs a certain function, that of sanctifying his fellow men by offering sacrifice (the Mass), forgiving sins in the confessional, and administering the other sacraments. The office of the priesthood is given to a man primarily to sanctify other men, while religious life sanctifies the one who lives it. St. John, who was both a monk and a bishop, had this to say of the priesthood:

“Though the office of the priesthood is exercised on earth, it ranks, nevertheless, in the order of celestial things — and rightly so. It was neither a man nor an angel nor an archangel nor any other created power but the Paraclete Himself Who established this ministry and Who ordained that men abiding in the flesh should imitate the ministry of the angels.”

What greater function could a man exercise than to forgive other men’s sins or offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

Different Forms. There are different forms of the religious life. The Apostles were the first religious to follow our Lord. Later on, there was the great movement of monks and nuns who lived in the deserts of the East. These include men like St. Anthony the Abbot, St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and hundreds of other saints. Very early on, the monastic life came into the West. St. Augustine, who died in 430, lived it, inspired by St. Athanasius’ book on the life of St. Anthony the Abbot. In the next century, we have the great St. Benedict giving us his famous rule for monks. Without going into the long history of religious life, we can put it this way: after years of growth and adaptation to the various needs of the times, and under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the Church has approved of many distinct forms of religious life which incorporate different approaches to prayer, different kinds of work, different apostolates, and different rules into the religious life — a life which essentially consists in the living of the counsels.

One can be a teaching sister or a contemplative Carmelite nun; a hermit on a hilltop in Lebanon or a religious operating the most sophisticated computer equipment in an American publishing apostolate; a Jesuit priest very publicly doing parish work in Boston or a Trappist priest very silently making beer in Belgium. All of the approved forms of the life combine the active and the contemplative dimensions in different measures, and all have produced saints, which is the point of the whole venture.

Those who would like to know more about the different kinds of religious life are encouraged to read the life of a saint who lived it. It not infrequently happens that the first glimmer of a vocation happens when a boy or girl reads the life of a saint who was a religious. The same goes for the priesthood. How many girls longed to enter Carmel reading about St. Therese? How many boys desired the holy adventure of being a missionary after hearing of St. Francis Xavier? And what about the priesthood? How many young men have gone to the seminary because in their childhood they were inspired by the life of the Cure of Ars or St. Pius X?

Requirements. Before being accepted to any community or seminary, the candidate will have to meet certain requirements. These are generally of three kinds: physical, mental, and moral. If you have a very weak physical constitution, the austere life of a Trappist monk or foreign missionary sister would clearly not be for you. Most religious communities do not accept sickly people or those with serious handicaps, although there are exceptions. Mentally, to be accepted into a seminary, one would obviously have to have a capacity for the serious study which goes into priestly formation. The same is true if one were to enter a community of teaching brothers or sisters. Morally, one has to have the necessary virtue to live the consecrated life. Yes, one can and should grow in virtue during the years of priestly or religious formation, but those with serious moral problems must overcome them before being accepted. A thief, a cheat, a lier, a Romeo, or a notorious gossip obviously would be a serious problem in community life and would be a disedifying example of the priesthood.

The Call. Now we come to discuss vocation itself, in the strict and proper meaning of the word. In other words, we’re going to consider “the call,” not the state itself. Our Lord made several “general calls” to the consecrated life that are contained in the Gospels. These are present for all to read and hear. However, along with the general call by which all are invited to follow Our Lord through the counsels, He also gave special calls: to the twelve Apostles, to the seventy-two Disciples, to the rich young man, to St. Paul, and St. Barnabas. Besides the general call that’s there in the Gospel for all to hear, you need to discern if you have a special call, a “personal call,” just for you.

Particular Providence. And here please note: Being a child of God, you are a subject of special interest to the Holy Trinity. The Eternal Father is your Father. Jesus is your elder Brother. The Holy Ghost dwells in you. The federal government may think of you as a Social Security Number, but to God you are a person destined to live with Him for all eternity. Don’t ever forget that or grow cynical about it. Jesus died for your salvation; He will not abandon you in the matter of your vocation, which, as we have said, has very much to do with your salvation.

Quiet Call. It must be said that God does not generally call people to the priesthood or religious life the way he called St. Paul, or the way he called St. Augustine or St. Anthony of the Desert. In these cases, extraordinary things happened drawing these men to follow Our Lord. In most cases God calls His servants in the quietest of ways. I am morally certain that, given the number we have here tonight, some of you in this room are being called by God to the consecrated life of the counsels. Perhaps one or more of the boys is called to the priesthood. What are signs that you have an ecclesiastical vocation?

Signs. As we said last week, from the testimony of St. Francis de Sales and St. John Bosco, it’s not brain surgery. The first sign of a vocation is a firm will to live the life. For the religious vocation, this is a will to embrace the evangelical counsels. If the will is firmly planted, this is a sure sign of a vocation from God, as long as the motives are good and as long as there is no impediment. I repeat, if your will is firmly planted that you want to live the religious life, if you have good motives, and if you meet the requirements, this is a certain sign. You must follow it.

Regarding a priestly vocation, the principal signs are a virtuous life, a pure intention — that is, an intention to secure your own salvation and to advance the glory of God by saving others, and the desire to be a priest — that interior impulse of grace inclining one towards the priesthood.

Uncertain? Suppose you aren’t that certain. Is a firm will in the matter the only sign of a vocation? No. The anonymous Vincentian priest who wrote the book Questions and Answers on Vocations gives this explanation: “The interior voice of conscience, soliciting the will through the intellect, and suggesting the religious state, is a mark of a vocation, whether a person corresponds to it or not… This voice of conscience, which is nothing but the grace of God speaking to the heart, is heard and recognized in various ways: with some, it has been lingering in the heart since childhood; to others, it comes later and more suddenly. This prompting of grace may result from reading, from a sermon, a mission, a conversation… In a word, this interior voice may be occasioned by the thoughts and reflections of our own minds no matter what caused these reflections.”

Father Stephano Manelli, the Franciscan priest who wrote the book Come, Follow Me, says that a sign of a vocation in children is an “attraction and spontaneous inclination toward sacred and divine things… As for adolescents and adults, a vocation is evidenced by certain holy ambitions more analyzed and pondered. Thus, the desire to deliver our soul from the perils of worldly surroundings, to acquire holiness, to atone for our own sins and those of others, to imitate Jesus’ life perfectly, to be an apostle in order to save souls — all these are supernatural ambitions and inspirations, one or another of which is sinking its roots in our heart and spurring us to renounce the world to give ourselves to Jesus and become His close follower.”

The theologian Lehmkuhl says this about entering the religious life without certain signs: “In order that a person may safely embrace the religious state probable signs of a vocation are sufficient, together with a firm will of fulfilling the obligations to be assumed.”

Challenges. I have no doubt that some, maybe several, of you have had the idea cross you mind that you are called to this service. Some of you have begun to form the conviction that God is calling you to be a priest or religious. But the world, the flesh, and the devil are trying to convince you otherwise. You have to fight.

Poor Response / No Excuses. We live in very troubled times. One part of the disastrous state of affairs in the Church is the fact that there are very few vocations, or, more correctly, very few generous responses to God’s call. The troubles in the Church today do not provide an excuse to the young man or woman who walks away from a vocation. There were many difficult times in the history of the Church and these were precisely the times that God rose up great armies of apostolic workers: the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Redemptorists. All of them were founded at times of crisis in the Church. They were the solution. Thank God St. Benedict didn’t run away from his vocation because Europe was in such bad shape after the barbarian invasions. With the help of God, he fixed it. Our new Holy Father has called the Benedictine Order “the saviors of western civilization.” After their first fervor, most of these institutes fell into corruption. Again, God rose up great saints to reform them, like St. Gregory VII, St. Peter Damian, St. Bernard, St. Odo of Cluny, and many others. God hasn’t stopped being generous with His grace. It’s that we’re not being generous in our response.

Means of discernment. But I don’t want to appeal to you by lamenting the poor response to vocations. I would rather give you solid means of discernment and leave it to your own good will aided by God’s grace. So, here are some solid means for discernment.

Prayer. The first of these means is prayer. “Ask and ye shall receive” is the divine promise of Our Blessed Lord. St. James said, as we quoted him last time: “But if any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men abundantly, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Holy Scripture gives us too many examples of the power of persevering prayer for us to take it for granted: The blind man begging, the man knocking on the door for three loaves, the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. They are there in scripture to show us that we have God’s ear.

I highly recommend regular mental prayer, a practice which is better suited than any other to secure for you the graces necessary to discern God’s will. Those who would like information on this practice are encouraged to ask. I will give you some easy pointers.

Freedom from Sin. The next means goes under an interesting name: freedom from sin. If the priesthood and religious life are divine invitations to living a life of intimacy with God, sanctifying yourself and others, then it stands to reason that sin presents a great obstacle to following the invitation. Think of the rich young man in the Gospel. He was attached to his riches. Remember: that’s the concupiscence of the eyes. It was enough to keep him from following a vocation received directly from the mouth of Our Lord Himself.

Why is sin such an obstacle? Recall the effects of sin as they are given in the catechism: darkening of the intellect and weakening of the will. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that “the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God. For it is foolisheness to him: and he cannot understand, because it is spiritually examined” (I Cor. 2:14). As for the weakness of the will, recall that a sign of a religious vocation is the “firm will” to live the life of the counsels, something over and above the commandments. How can one and the same will embrace both habitual violation of the commandments and the voluntary living of the counsels. It’s a contradiction.

Without dwelling on it, I would like to mention that, even though it’s not the most serious sin, the sin of impurity is the most certain obstacle to embracing an ecclesiastical vocation. Habitual impurity leads to what Catholic theologians call spiritual darkness and even spiritual blindness, horrible moral states that paralyze the soul. Our Lady of Fatima did tell us that “most people go to Hell because of sins of the flesh.”

Retreat. I will not say more on this point, but a spiritual retreat, such as an Ignatian retreat, is a highly recommended exercise to help in discerning one’s vocation.

Counsel. Finally, counsel is very important, especially from you regular confessor or spiritual director. Seek counsel from people known for their wisdom and prudence, not from just anyone. Oftentimes, your friends are the last people to give good advice. Having no experience, they tend to advise you based on their own ideas of the realities of life, ideas which often come from the land of make-believe. Good priests, experienced religious, and wise, devout, older laypersons are much better suited to give good counsel. It is your regular confessor, especially, whom you should approach to ask questions pertaining to vocations and states in life.

Act Quickly. If you have decided, for good motives, and without any impediments, that you do have a priestly or religious vocation, then follow the advice of Sts. John Chrysostom, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, and Alphonsus de Ligouri: Promptly respond to the call. Some of these Doctors assure us that when the devil can’t outright destroy the idea of a religious vocation in someone’s mind, he will do his best to make you delay in order to buy himself more time.

The book of Proverbs says that “every sluggard is always in want” (Prov. 21:5). This can certainly be applied to the matter of a priestly or religious vocation.

Testing the vocation. If you have the signs of a vocation, even only the probable signs and not the certain ones, you should apply to a seminary or novitiate in order to test your vocation. Many are under the delusion that it is a failure to leave a seminary, postulancy, or novitiate. Quite to the contrary, it would be better to enter and then leave having determined that it was not your vocation than it would be not to try at all. One of the purposes of these institutions is to test your vocation. St. Thomas Aquinas specifically gives this advice. It’s only a failure to leave the vocation after professing permanent vows or after being ordained.

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Here is a small table of contents with links to the other conferences in this series. If a given conference is not linked, that means it is not posted yet on this web site. (Back to top.)

1. The Big Decision: Your Options, God’s Plan.
2. The Better Part: The Religious or Priestly Vocation.
3. Flying Solo: The Chaste Single State.
4. The Great Sacrament: Holy Matrimony.
5. Who will it be? Choosing a Partner.
6. The Chaste Preparation: Courtship.
7. Till Death Do Us Part.