This past week I learned that one of my seminary classmates was leaving the priesthood – after 17 years of being a priest. The news struck me with a profound sadness. I’m sad for him, his family, and the Church. He is a very gifted man – a good homilist, an excellent musician and singer, a charismatic personality who could connect well with youth and young adults, and, from all appearances, a devout and holy man. Even if a priest leaves the priesthood and he didn’t do anything scandalous that requires him to leave, there is something scandalous about it anyway – something that is profoundly sad. Something that should not have been. We can say the same thing about a marriage that just grows cold and becomes a burdensome arrangement that gets reduced to a bunch of tasks to get done. Sooner or later, one or both of the spouses says, “I have to leave.” They feel empty, alone, and unfulfilled. We can say, “well, if the person wasn’t happy, it is better that they move on.” But the fact that it happens is always a cause for sadness.
Whether it is priesthood or marriage, what we are “looking for” or want out of priesthood or marriage when we embark on that vocation makes all the difference. A friend of mine whose marriage fell apart after more than 10 years and two children, discovered after some serious soul searching, that she went into her marriage with the top criteria for choosing a spouse that he would be able to provide financial security for her family – something she felt she didn’t have in the home she grew up in. The husband she found had a secure job and a high income but lacked the emotional maturity and empathy necessary to build a strong and lasting relationship. She knew something was not right early on in the marriage, but it was easy to dismiss or excuse the problems because “he’s a good provider”. “Isn’t that what I wanted? Shouldn’t I be happy?” In a similar fashion, if one enters the priesthood because one “has a lot of gifts to offer the church” or the priesthood carries a certain level of esteem, or would make your mother happy (“I would love it if one of my sons became a priest”), it usually does not work out. What defines a vocation to marriage or to the priesthood is that it is a surprising discovery. It is something better – supremely better – than what one was looking for or expecting. It is experienced not as “having all of your boxes checked off” but as a surprising gift – something beyond what one deserves. It is a surprising find – or more accurately, the experience of being “found” and loved in a surprising way – that fills one with joy so profound that it is worth more than anything else in the world. The fullness of joy and the attraction to this joy makes extraordinary sacrifice possible. What one “gives up” or “takes on” in the priesthood or marriage is experienced first and foremost as an attraction and not a sacrifice – not a burden. Because vocations – marriage or priesthood – are “callings” from God and born from the encounter with God, they are going to be like the treasure buried in a field which a person finds and out of joy goes and sells all that he has to obtain that treasure. The same thing is implied in the parable of the merchant who finds the “pearl of great price.”
Archbishop Pérez, in his Holy Thursday homily (Holy Thursday is the day the Church commemorates the institution of the priesthood), asked his priests to remember the experience they had when they discovered their vocation. This is the “joy of the Gospel” that sets the tone for all we do. Pope Francis calls this “joy” the “key” to evangelization. (“Key” as in musical “key” but also we can say the “key” that unlocks”). The priests of our Deanery had a Zoom call with the Archbishop this week, and he reiterated the importance of our personal prayer that keeps us connected to the source of our vocation and the source of our joy. He asked us to think about what tone we are setting as priests. He said, if we are not sure, we should ask our parishioners. “The honest ones will tell you.” One can tell that despite all the many challenges that come with running a diocese, Archbishop Pérez is a happy man – a man filled with joy. He reminds us, his priests, why we are priests, and the tone with which we need to work. People will not follow because of our skills and accomplishments but because of our joy – a joy that is not dependent on our accomplishments but on Him who we discover in surprising ways on the road of life in the midst of our ordinary work.
What we need to ask for, as Solomon did, is not that everything works out well, but that we discover the love of God and are able to love as God loves. We are able to face the difficulties and challenges when we love God and are responding to his call and are open to his purpose, not seeking our own criteria for what we think will make us happy. What are we asking for from God? What is it that we want? What is it we are looking for? If our vocation is not born from seeking God and discovering his surprising love (or if we forget that love), we might stay a priest or stay married, but it won’t be lived with joy. God has given us all a heart to judge what is important in life – what brings us happiness and fulfillment – to distinguish right from wrong. Our heart is made for the “joy of the Gospel.” May we listen to our hearts and be careful what we ask for, because our joy and the joy of those around us depends on it.