Dear Fr Anthony,
I am struggling between becoming a religious or diocesan priest. Part of me wants to join an order such as the Legionaries and give myself up completely. However, I also feel that I will be most useful as a priest in my local community. Is it selfish for me to want the stability of the diocesan priesthood? How can I discern what to do?
Both vocations, serving in your diocese or joining an order and being ready to serve elsewhere, are good, valid and necessary for the Church. They both are gifts given by Christ for the purpose of building up his Church. And BOTH entail giving yourself completely.
Now, you touch on a very important and delicate point: how do you choose which form of priesthood to follow? How far should your likes and preferences influence your decision? What are the proper intentions for choosing to follow one over the other?
I will give you some principles to help you in your reflections, but it would be very good to seek help from a spiritual director since there may be some very personal circumstances to take into account, which will affect your decision. First, we have to understand that a vocation is not an afterthought, as if God suddenly realizes we are almost finished with school and has to come up with something to give us to do. No. God had a plan (what he wanted us to be and to do) in mind when he created us, and therefore when we find our vocation it clicks; it is where we are meant to be; it fits.
However, there is a complication and it’s this: when God creates us with a plan in mind, he takes into consideration not only the natural gifts he will give us but also the supernatural ones (his sanctifying grace; the supernatural virtues especially faith, hope and charity; the gifts of the Holy Spirit), or rather, he gives us everything (both our natural qualities and the supernatural gifts) in view of his plan for us. He is after all our Maker. What this means is that even though our vocation is our true home, we cannot find it if we only look at our human likes and fears; we have to take into consideration what our faith tells us; we have to trust in God’s help; we have to exercise the gift of supernatural love we have been given in Baptism; we have to look at what attracts us when we think of things in the light of faith.
Now, this is why we need the help of a spiritual director. Christ said to Peter that what he asked of his followers is impossible for men, but possible with God. He told his disciples, and St John Paul II and now Pope Benedict are always telling us, Do not be afraid! So, on the one hand we have to rise above our human fears and calculations when are trying to detect our vocation, and on the other we have to take into account both our talents and our weaknesses (because grace perfects nature but does not substitute it) and the authentic spiritual desires God places in our hearts. For example, from what you say in your question, the fact that you are spiritually sensitive to the needs of your local community is a factor of greater importance when you are searching for your vocation than your desire for the stability of being close to home.
To end, I would just like to address two other things you touch on in your message. You say that part of you wants to join a religious order in order to give yourself up completely, and part longs for the stability of the diocesan priesthood. To be a true priest, diocesan or religious, always entails giving yourself up completely. Jesus told us, unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear fruit. The priesthood in a diocese is complete dedication to Jesus. I have traveled much over the years, stayed in dozens of rectories and met countless priests who rise early to do their daily prayer faithfully, who preach and teach, are available always to take a sick call, spend hours in the confessional, train the lay leaders of their parishes, suffer with those who suffer, are joyful even with the headache of keeping the parish school going, etc. I couldn’t list all they do because they love Christ, their priesthood and their people. As regards stability, there are two types of stability: one is to stay in roughly the same area and place, the other is the stability of a community, spirit and support.
I think what you need to do, Francis, is to speak more with Jesus. After you receive him in Holy Communion is one of the best times to do so, but if not, drop in and visit him in a Church, or simply speak to him present in your soul through Grace. Ask him how you can love and serve him more, which type of total dedication he is asking of you—diocesan or religious priesthood; reflect on the needs of the Church, and see which particular ones speak more to your heart; try to see where your spirit and your love for Christ will thrive more. Don’t be afraid to visit seminaries and religious houses. And especially, find a spiritual director so you will have the input of someone you trust.