“He has chosen us…and yet, my dear friends, do we not sometimes have the feeling that we have chosen ourselves? That we made our own decision about our vocation and the we said, ‘I want to be a priest, and I choose the priesthood?’ What an illusion!”1
New Votive Masses Introduced
In the waning months of 1962, the final typical edition of the Missale Romanum before the liturgical revolution rolled off the presses. Some of its new ink, however, was passed by, little noticed. A scant number of faithful know of it, and few are the number of priests who use the five additional Votive Masses related to religious and priestly vocations. So quiet their introduction, and so infrequent their use, that a search through all the electronic library catalogues in the world for the Gregorian Chant of these Masses revealed two copies—one in Poland, and the other in the Vatican Library. A small school in New Zealand now has a photocopy of the latter.
Within the Epistle of one of those Masses, the Missa ad Vocationes Eccleiasticas Petendas, the hagiographer writes, “In those days, when Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Heli’s care, a message from the Lord was a rare treasure; He would not openly reveal Himself.”2 Ironic, it is, that the Church was on the cusp of an unprecedented and grave crisis in priestly and religious vocations when these words were added to the Missal, a time when it seems God would hide Himself, permit a great calamity in the Church and allow a massive loss in priestly virtue and fidelity with an horrific dearth of priestly vocations.
The traditional world often takes as a great sign of its rectitude a relatively large number of vocations. While large in comparison to the rest of the Church, it pales in comparison to the numbers even a century ago, which themselves were far reduced from those Ages of Faith. Even among traditional Catholics, a vocation which is pursued is rarer than it ought to be. After nearly a half century, the Society can only count about 650 priests out of how many hundreds of thousands faithful in that time?
What is rare, however, is also quite dear, quite precious—a “treasure” as the Scriptures say. Like any sacred reality, supernatural or natural, while rare, it also is a far simpler matter than most Catholics imagine. Certainly, a consequence of that mistaken notion of a vocation means fewer take the time to consider that God may be calling them than ought to do so.
The Introit: The Simplicity of a Priestly Vocation
The Introit for the Missa ad Vocationes Ecclesiasticas Petendas, preaches this simplicity: “Along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Lord saw two brothers, Peter and Andrew, and called them : ‘Come, follow me : I will make you fishers of men.’” Their response: “leaving everything, they followed Him.”3
Far from a mere summary, the lacunæ—the holes in this short summary—demonstrate how simple the matter of a vocation is, yet also hint at its profound depth. A vocation, as Archbishop Lefebvre says, is simply Our Lord whispering to a soul: “Love Me a little more than the others,” yet the holy Curé of Ars would proclaimed, “if we really understood the priest on earth, we would die, not of fright, by of love.”4
A vocation is God gently calling a young man, holding out the opportunity of loving Him more by becoming an alter Christus. Never in this life however, can he even begin to appreciate that in this simple self-sacrifice, he finds the gateway into the very hypostatic union between God and Man in Christ. Far from the normal means God uses are those who would wait for some apparition or special sign, for the Lord “is not in the wind…not in the earthquake…not in the fire,”5 but is in the gentle breeze.
Mistakenly, some think for a man to consider pursuing the priesthood, he must have a clear calling such that he can have no doubts in order to enter a seminary. While he must have a resolution, not mere fancy, God does not use such means to call a young man. God also does not remove all doubts, so that until the definitive moment at the subdiaconate a man is never absolutely sure of his vocation, because the detecting of a vocation is ultimately a prudent decision. That decision is the candidate’s with the help of his spiritual director in the forum of his conscience, and his superiors’ with regard to the exterior. Human prudence and divine assistance come together to settle the matter. Then, once that step is made, a man can be then certain of his divine calling at least to Major Orders.
The Epistle (1 Kg. 3:1-10): Fertile Ground
It is not unheard-of for men to be called away from a life not lived with the highest of Christian Virtues. Saintly priests such as a St. Augustine, a St. Ignatius of Loyola, or a Charles de Foucauld, attest to such providential calls. Such dramatic conversions are not the common way God prepares a soul for His beckoning. For most men, a good Catholic family is the nursery, nourishment and womb of a priestly or religious vocation. The importance of a good Catholic home life and education cannot be over-emphasized.
A young man provided with what will nurture in him virtue and faith from his youth is apt for hearing the call of God, and the ground tilled so it can flourish. He needs have the example of a strong, but prudent man for a father and a loving, valiant woman for a mother. Necessary, also, are the sufficient material goods by which he can to learn to use well what he has, treasure such things as means to his sanctity, but never learn the selfish disposition that such things are owed to him under any title. A solid formation at a good Catholic school, if such exists, is invaluable, as is a group of good Catholic peers to train his social virtue and be the field upon which he can practice this virtue, especially a fraternal charity outside of that family.
Such being the ideal conditions for a young man to be disposed to hear the call of God, concretely, they do not perfectly exist, but to the extent they do, they manure and prepare the field for the “seed” if God will call. Parents wanting to see their sons pursue a vocation must seek to create the conditions from the very start.
What sullies even the soul prepared by great gifts is a deafness when God does call. Much ink and many words have been spent about the distractions of technology and modern life in these pages and from pulpits. Sadly, surfeited with such dainties which capture the heart themselves or are the gateway for temptations, many young men lose the plot before the story even began. No one can say how many, but it is impossible to deny that many possible vocations are lost when young men are unable to hear God speaking—when they lack silence of the heart.
It was only when, as the Epistle tells us, Samuel was sleeping silently in the temple, that God’s voice was heard.6 Even then, it was easily mistaken for the voice of Heli. Samuel needed the help of a spiritual director to help discern the signs, just as a man who first senses that call of God stands in need of a guide to help see if the signs and dispositions exist for a possible vocation.
The home is no Trappist monastery, nor should it be, but a young man who is never trained to silently hear his conscience, but instead is always distracted by technology, sports, activities and so many other things will never hear the voice of his conscience, nor God whispering in his ear.
“What glorifies God most, is that the Body and Blood of His Son should be offered to Him as often as possible by the priests whom He calls to that… If He calls you to that, take care, therefore, not to refuse. Accept the chalice of salvation, whereby you will give back all that you have received from Him. You have received Himself, you will give Him back Himself.”7
But if a man cannot give up the fancies of this world, he will never give himself to God. If he never gives himself to God, he can never give God to others: Nemo dat quod non habet.8
In his Mercy, knowing a man’s weakness and deafness, God will sometimes beckon a soul despite its initial indifference. Like with Samuel, He often will call several times. Perhaps even for some the Sacred Heart, in His mercy, will arrange for some obvious coincidence of events to wake such a soul from its slumber. One cannot rely on such mercies, however. If God is calling, there is no guarantee that He will call again in another month, another year, or even ten. It may be a call held out for a but a moment, so it demands that one who detects such a call reply with promptitude, prudence, and generosity.
The Gradual (Ps. 26:4), Alleluia (Ps. 83:5), and Gospel (Jn. 1:35-51): The Seminary
Once a man has heard the first whispers of God’s call, the natural worries turn toward all of the preparation necessary. He may even ask himself if he is ready for such a immense step. What is behind the door is not fully known. So it was for the Apostles, who wondered at this Prophet before them, asking: “Rabbi, where dwellest Thou?”
Our Lord, again, in His mercy does not explain the plan or the details. They, like the man who detects a calling, are not yet ready to understand everything, and need to spend that time with Him to prepare. It is not their time to worry about the details, but to be generous. Thus, His simple reply: “Come and see.” And, as the Gospel tells us “they stayed with Him the whole day.” A small act of generosity reaped great dividends.
The seminary is such preparation, a time to dwell with Christ so as to become another Christ. The Gradual, Tract and Alleluia each in their way speak of this one desire of a soul called to be another Christ: to be consumed with zeal for both the place and souls in which God dwells or could dwell.
Like these first Apostles, what a seminarian learns in his years is not so easily told as it is experienced. Their short exposure to Our Lord was enough for the first two Apostles to cast their nets around Peter and then Philip. The Apostles brought in this haul for Our Lord, who did the work. So impressive that short stay with Christ, that Philip already could mirror Our Lord in His reply to Nathanael. To his sarcastic interjection, “can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip replies with those words of Jesus: “Come and see.” He did come and see, and would find such good came from Nazareth that Nathanael would lay down his life for Christ.
Unfortunately, even the seminarian, tainted by the odor of the world around him will be deaf in certain ways to Our Lord’s graces. This is true even when dwelling intimately within the seminary walls with Our Lord. Thus, the Church, in her wisdom, is highly deliberate with forming priests. It is not an overnight training, or even a training of a few months or a year. Seven years in the seminary only begins to scratch the surface of the formation, knowledge, virtue and wisdom that a man needs to be a holy priest. It is a good start, but not in itself sufficient.
The Offertory: First Steps
After about 30 months as a seminarian, a man will kneel before the bishop, offer up five pieces of his hair in the form of both a cross and crown, and say the words of the Offertory : “The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup: Thou wilt restore to me my inheritance,”9 as he receives the First Tonsure, and enters the clerical state. In a sense, the first two years were a preparation for this first official offering of self to God in joining the clerical ranks.
As the next five years progress, the seminarian learns to offer himself more and more in different ways, and the Church provides him corresponding responsibilities which are, in fact, ways of participating in the power of the priesthood—the minor Orders.
The sixth year in the seminary for most candidates brings the definitive step of the subdiaconate. Just as the hosts and wine, once offered definitively cannot legitimately be put again to profane use, there is no turning back, now. The consecration is not yet upon us, but the Offertory has ended and the Preface is begun. With his step forward, the subdeacon confirms his definitive commitment to celibacy and to service of the altar.
The Secret and Canon: Consummatum Est
The prayer over the offerings expresses the essence of the priesthood, and of the Mass, as taught by the Council of Trent. The Mass is a sacrifice—The Sacrifice. It is, as the prayer suggests, “a life-giving sacrifice for Thy people” and it is offered in this Mass, “so that there may be an increasing number of priests around Thy holy altars” to perform the essential function of a priest, “to offer prayers and sacrifice.”10 Realized at the moment of Consecration “is the heart, the essence, the very goal of ordination: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”11
In a sense, the end of the seminary with priestly Ordination is analogically a “fullness of time” as St. Paul writes.12 This fullness is not for the whole of the human race but for this individual soul, who is meant to bring others to this fullness of maturity in the Christian Life. It is the decisive moment when he passes from a childhood to a maturity, marking the end of the preparation, and the beginning of the living out of this new life which is none other than to incarnate Christ, spiritually, in others.
The Communion: Ite, Missa Est
While the essence of the priest is the sacrifice, the effects of the priesthood is the sanctification of souls. A man petitioning for Orders must manifest a sufficient supernatural intention. While the religious vows are meant to perfect a man to aid his own sanctification, the priesthood is not principally about the priest’s own sanctification. St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, puts Orders among the two sacraments ordained to the good of society and not the individual.13 Thus, to intend only for one’s own sanctification by becoming a priest is insufficient, good as it may be. Yet, by being a good priest, a man will sanctify himself.
The priest is a man for others, and a man called to be a priest must communicate God to others. Firstly, this will be by harvesting from his Mass, meditations, prayers and spiritual life the harvest of graces he will communicate. Then having filled his own soul, the grace overflows into other souls as St. Bernard demands that wise priests, “be reservoirs and not channels.”14 His cup must first be full in order to pour that grace on other souls, thus the priest must be holy. “The reservoir is first filled,” writes Dom Chautard, “and then, without emptying itself, pours out its overflow, which is ever renewed, over the fields which it waters.”15
He communicates God by his preaching, by word, indeed, but principally by his example and by the various circumstances, conversations, and seeming coincidences Providence arranges. Thus, the Communion antiphon: “Come, give ear, and I will tell all you who fear God, of the great things He has done for my soul,”16 for God has done great things to the soul of the priest, drawing him into the very hypostatic union uniting the human and divine natures in Our Lord. These great things, as they are not for the priest himself, must be shared in his preaching and ministry. Firstly, that ministry consists in the Mass and his Breviary, from which he is sent forth and takes those fruits, applying them to souls. It is the mission, par excellence.
“Each day, God gives you this grace to offer the Holy Sacrifice for all the sins of the world and for all those who are around you when you are celebrating Mass. Thank God for giving you this extraordinary mission.”17
Yet, this extraordinary mission begins in a very ordinary, very simple way: with the first whispers of grace into a man’s soul, inclining him toward this life of sacrifice, and then a simple prudential decision. Many are called, but sadly, many are deaf to the call, or hear it, and like the young man in the Gospel, unwilling to “put out into the deep”18 and instead, “go away sad.”19
Fr. Ian Andrew Palko is Dean of St. Augustine’s Boys’ School and teaches Catholic Doctrine at St. Dominic’s College in Whanganui, New Zealand. He was ordained a priest in 2017 at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary (Dillwyn, Virginia) by Bishop Bernard Fellay.
1 Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Sermon at the Mass for Priestly Ordinations (Sept. 20, 1980).
2 I Wis. 3:1
3 Mt. 4:20
4 St. John Vianney, Catechism on the Priesthood, in Monin, A. The Spirit of the Curé of Ars. (London : Burns, Lambert, and Oates 1865).
5 I Kg. 19:11–12
6 I Kg. 3:1–10.
7 Charles de Foucauld, Méditation sur les Saint Évangiles quoted by Castillon du Perron, Marguerite. Charles de Foucauld (Paris : Grasset, 1982), p. 265
8 A Thomistic Philosophical axiom : “One cannot give what he does not have.”
9 Ps. 15:5
10 Missale Romanum (1962), Secret Prayer of Missa ad Vocationes Ecclesiasticas Petendas
11 Marcel Lefebvre, Sermon (Mar. 23, 1985).
12 Gal. 4:4 : The sense of πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου suggests the decree of God, fixing a certain delay for the Incarnation which divided the infantile human race from the fullness of age which came with the Incarnation.
13 Summa Theologica III q. 65, a. 1
14 St. Bernard, Sermon 18 on the Canticle of Canticles, no. 3.
15 Chautaurd, J.-B. Soul of the Apostolate. Pt. 2, no. 2
16 Ps. 65:16
17 Marcel Lefebvre, Sermon at Zaitzkofen (July 7, 1985).
18 Lk. 5:4
19 Mt. 19:22