When I began to discern a call to the priesthood, I was in my mid-twenties and working in the Washington DC area in public relations. Since most of my friends and the people I worked with were not Catholic and were living according to the values promoted by the dominant secular culture, I was very apprehensive telling anyone that I was going to enter the seminary. But when I did let my friends know, I was surprised by their reaction. Even though they were surprised by my news, I was looked at more with admiration and even a bit of envy than with any scorn or disdain. And this was from people who had no particular admiration for the priesthood or even knew anything other than the popular stereotypes about priests which, even in the late 90s, were not that positive. So what accounts for their reaction? Why would they admire me who was embarking on six years of studies and a life of celibacy? They saw that I was happy. They saw that there was a certainty to what I was doing. They saw that I had found what I was looking for. There was a direction in my life – a meaning and a purpose, and even if they didn’t understand that purpose, what they saw in me was attractive. I knew what I was meant to do with my life. I had found the answer to what we all were looking for. I was probably just as surprised as my friends to discover my vocation.
This is the question we all have to ask ourselves: “What are you looking for?” These are the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel because this question in primary for the spiritual journey and the journey of faith. Without this question alive in our hearts, we will not recognize Jesus as the answer. The two disciples – John and Andrew – recognize in Jesus the answer to this question. That is why they are attracted to him. Their question back to Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” seems odd at first, like they are asking whose house is he staying in while he is in town. But the question also carries the meaning, “where do you live?” or “where are you from?” “Where does this life we see in you come from?” This life is what is attractive. This same verb “stay” is translated elsewhere in the Gospel of John as “remain.” Jesus uses this verb to refer to his intimate relationship with the Father – the divine communion – to which he invites his disciples. “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.” (Jn 15:9). They see in Jesus the love of God in the flesh. “Come, and you will see.” He brought them back to his home – the place where he was staying – but by staying with him, the disciples’ eyes of faith were opened to see that Jesus is from the Father and that the source of this new and extraordinary life – this life that corresponds to what they are looking for – is God. In this experience of correspondence, they find a certainty about who Jesus is and that the fulfillment of their lives is with him. “We have found the Messiah”. The “Messiah” represented the fulfillment of God’s promises to come to free his people. We feel most free when we are at home – the place where we are loved without condition. Home is where we find peace and rest. The disciples feel “at home” with Jesus. This is how they become certain about their life and why they follow. Heaven is our eternal “home” and Jesus has brought heaven to earth. St. Augustine captures this experience famously in the line describing his own conversion, “you have made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The certainty and new life that Peter saw in his brother Andrew brought him to Jesus. Andrew doesn’t give his brother an explanation of how he knows that Jesus is the Messiah. It is no different than when a woman comes home after the first date and tells her roommate, “I’ve just met the man I’m going to marry. He’s the one.” The method of evangelization is not an explanation or an analysis but an invitation, “Come, and you will see.” Peter has to experience for himself the look of love that knows us in our depths and invites us to be part of God’s plan. This is exactly what happens when Jesus looks at Peter, calls him by name, and changes his name. “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas” (Jn 1:42). Peter will become the “rock”, the foundation, on which Jesus will build his church. It is in this experience of being chosen, wanted, and loved, despite our weakness, that the calling or vocation is born. It is where the voice of the Lord is heard and where the certainty of life is formed.
As in the call of Samuel and in the “Behold the Lamb of God” of John the Baptist, there was something that woke me up and pointed me in the direction of the priesthood. I needed someone like Eli to help me to discern the call and to encourage me be open and receptive to what the Lord was asking of me. One of the first things I did was call up a priest I knew who was assigned to our parish when he was a seminarian. I went to visit with him and heard his vocation story. He was a happy priest. He encouraged me to talk to the vocations director, and soon I went on a retreat at the seminary. I think it was called a “Come and see” weekend. I heard the vocation stories of different seminarians and priests from different generations. While they were all different stories, their experience of being called – recognizing that a life with Jesus corresponded to what they were looking for – and that they were happy in their vocation – resonated with my experience. They were ordinary men – men I could relate to. I felt “at home” with them. They witnessed to the extraordinary happening in the ordinary and confirmed that what I had experienced was not crazy but the method through which Jesus works to draw us into his life. After staying the weekend in the seminary and participating in the life of the seminary, I saw where I was meant to be. I was at peace and felt more free than I ever did in my life.
We live in a restless world and in a culture that holds up money, power, and pleasure as the goods that will change our lives and make us happy. If someone you know is struggling to find the meaning and purpose and direction of their life, don’t tell them what they should do (“you should go to college and study this or that or get a job”), but invite them to spend some time with the question, “What are you looking for?” The other night, I watched a beautiful documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” on the life and work of Fred Rogers, who for over 30 years hosted the PBS show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”. Describing the reason for his work and the unlikely “success” of his program, he said, “Everybody longs to be loved and longs to know he or she is lovable. The greatest thing we can do is help someone know that they’re loved and capable of loving.” “Come and see” is an invitation from Christ for us to become his neighbor – to come close to him, find out where he stays, and share in his life. Pray that more young men and woman are asked and answer the question “what are you looking for?” and will come and see that Jesus is the answer that brings peace and certainty to their lives.