Dear Aspirant to the Catholic Priesthood, let me begin by congratulating you for having decided to apply into such a journey. I assure you that millions of young men out there would ignore this invitation even if it were to be given to them freely, which already gives a sense of the degree of the vocation you are about to venture into.
I am writing to you joyfully for countless reasons which you will eventually discover as you read along. My focus on this piece is not to scare you, neither am I to tell you that the priesthood is not what it appears to be nor am I writing to remind you that you will not marry or bear children; (smiles) No! I am writing to tell you that the state you are is a delicate one and that though you may not have access to proper counsel, this may assist to shape your understanding a bit on what the journey looks like.
Now, unlike the Priesthood of Old, God has through his beloved son our lord Jesus Christ established the Catholic Priesthood since Holy Thursday not as a reality transferred by inheritance, but to draw to himself young men (like the Apostles) from different tribes, nations and the corners of the world to offer sacrifices to him and to serve as intermediaries between heaven and earth and between God and men. Interesting right?
I would like you to know first and foremost that though the call is one and has a universal goal, it is diverse and personal because there is something particular which God has designated every being to carryout in the world and all priests, like Isaiah were called before they were born, but this call materializes or rather, they got to hear or accept or confirmed this call at different times or stages of their lives.
You may have an early vocation; perhaps, you were fortunate enough to have been groomed in very pious families where beyond the holiness of your parents, the higher degree of holiness you sought to attain was that of the only man who wore different colours of ‘Babariga’ at morning masses and who rose a ‘golden cup’ and bells were rung always whenever he did that on the altar where even your fathers could not climb and then unconsciously you began to develop the passion to climb and stand someday to face the people with your hands raised-open, saying to them in a foreign language, with a fine voice and a beautiful simile, “Dominus Vobiscuuuuuum”.
On the other hand, it is possible that you developed or responded to this call since primary or secondary school as an Altar server or as a member of the legion or lectors association or as minor seminarian or by living with a priest in the rectory after or during your secondary education. It is possible you may have struggled or may have been sponsored by parents to have gone through the university and (may) have started working maybe close to a catholic environment or close to or lived with devout Catholics and after service you were about to get married before the weight of this call finally came heavily upon you and you could resist no longer. In all, a priest-figure is at the centre of this attraction to the priesthood.
A classmate of mine in the seminary got finally admitted after his 14th trial. At this time he had already become a soldier. So you see, the summary of the whole thing is, you could be called like Samuel or like Moses or like Peter or Paul irrespective of your age, space, background, denomination or even religion (people from other denominations and religions have found themselves in the Catholic priesthood as well).
When you have finally made up your mind to apply into the catholic priesthood, you need to go for counselling to be able to properly discern if it is you who has been called or you are the one calling God or you are the one who has been trying to resist God’s call all the while. Even after making up your mind, you need to ask God to what direction he seeks of you to be of service to him. Is it a call to be a Reverend Brother, or a Reverend Father, or a Catechist? If it is the priesthood, then is it to a congregation, an order, a diocese or to a monastery?
I stand to be corrected, but unlike the diocesan Priesthood where a host of abilities and giftings are welcomed, MOST congregations have particular charisms that you would be expected to attain; their mission centres on certain characteristics and way of life, and so, if they do not see those potentials in you and not admit you, it does not mean that you are useless or that you are worthless, it simply means that you need to go back and apply elsewhere.
The year I applied, almost eighty handsome and good-looking young men came for the exams. Twenty three scaled through to the interview and eleven persons were admitted but one never resumed; only ten resumed and now we are eight. I remember asking a priest if the other 70 persons who were not admitted were not called and his response was that the 11 who were given admission were those who were called by God in the diocese for that year. Even though some believe and say that there is a lot of ‘politics’ and ‘favouritism’ in the selection process, I have come to believe amidst human involvements that it is God who calls, and whether that is true or not, it is only the called that make it to the end and that anyone aided into (if true), would not be aided to live the life of a priest later on. So it would be his own detriment.
As I said earlier, I am not here to tell you what the priesthood looks like, let’s focus on the journey (process). Now, before you eventually get admitted I would like you to understand that it is a life of sacrifice, detachment and of service. It is not enough to be a good Christian, it requires self-giving and more. You are not entering to become people’s God nor to be served like a king in a palace, you are going to be detaching yourself from so much for the sake of your soul and the faith of as many souls as you will be called to lead to God.
Leaving your family or them letting you go is not so easy for families who truly understand the vocation. I watched my father weep for the first time on the 5th of December many years ago: his first son... I recall him saying that morning I was to depart to begin my pre-spiritual year program, “All my life, I have read Abraham’s encounter with God and did not feel what it meant, now I have had a taste of what Abraham went through when God asked him to take his son Isaac to the mountain to be sacrificed”. My mum just sat there crying and wishing me well. It was a sight to behold and which I will never forget until death. In some families your exit may be celebrated, but in the traditional African family, not as the first or only male child. Though I believe my people wept out of joy and goodwill knowing the implication of letting me go. Permit me not to mention the other privileges and opportunities forfeited because I know everyone who has accepted this call must leave something precious behind.
Let me call a spade a spade and not a big spoon. My brother, if you wish to be happy in the journey you are about to embark on, you must first of all be convinced about your choice to follow Jesus. Conviction is pertinent else it would be a hide-and-seek and ‘thou shall not be caught’ game. You must also be a man of prayer. Prayer is your fuel. If you are lazy in praying, you cannot lead a church, you will fail countlessly. It is not a threat but a reality. If you cannot love praying and be a dedicated pray-er, then do not proceed.
Secondly, do not joke with your foundation. How you start matters a lot. The architects have a rule, if a building collapses and the walls fell or the fault came from the windows or the roof or anywhere there is no problem, but if there was a crack at the foundation, they would be held to book. St. Thomas Aquinas in his work, ‘De Ente et Essentia’ wrote thus, “a small mistake in the beginning is a big mistake at the end”. At a recollection in spiritual year, I remember the facilitator cautioning us. He said, “Change does not come so easily. So young men, the Mathematics is simple: whatever lifestyle you choose today multiplied by your remaining number of years in formation would equal the kind of priest you will become tomorrow”.
It is true that your earlier encounters with those in the life or the many loose things you may have been told may tend to spur or decrease your zeal and conception of the life. Whatever be the case, Fulton Sheen would always admonish that we should never judge the Catholic Church by those who merely live by what she teaches, but by those who stand and live by the standards she upholds. We must always pray for our priests. So please, do not let scandals or ‘see-finish’ or any weakness-noticed be a yardstick to celebrate your weaknesses or become reference points or justification for not living virtuously. You are responsible for yourself and you must make sure your foundation is deeply rooted spiritually because though we are open to change, there is an Igbo adage which says, “The way an egg is hatched would show if the chick would live to become a Cock”. Please do not tamper with your mind-set and focus at the beginning. If your focus is on comfort and money, just go and be a business man because I am sorry, you will definitely end up frustrated and disappointed. You will never get enough!
Thirdly, let your focus be heaven and not ordination. If this is in place from the scratch, you will transcend the letters to the spirit behind them. You will see every tribulation as sweet-pains and your happiness will be intact. In this, you must note that while in formation, formators would expect that you be balanced morally, academically, spiritually, socially, psychologically and in all ramifications. Your human and pastoral formation would constantly be in check to avoid extremes. But you must be the number one formator of yourself.
Again, unlike marriages where people choose who to marry and be with, in the priesthood you are not to choose partners to live or work with. You will spend the rest of your life learning to live with whomever the bishop sends you to live with or sends to live with you. So, if you have a problem with living with people or you are too locked up in your own world, hospitality and communion with others which is core in the life would be difficult for you and you will want everybody to be like you else, they would be perpetual suspects.
From the day you are admitted, begin to live like a priest, that is, structure your life to begin to get accustomed to the life of the ideal priesthood. Continue to practice how to keep healthy relationships; how to relate with the opposite sex that would not be harmful to the faith of both sides. Begin to build piety. Begin to prepare to deliver talks and reflections properly and work on the feedbacks you get. Begin to love the language of God (silence), and to keep holy hours. Begin to learn to intercede for people. To curb your wants and quest for material things and to control your tongue, to learn to be a shoulder and not a chest, to learn to listen to others and to build your God given talent and fight your weaknesses. If this is practised for good 10-12 years, relying on the help of God, you will come out a royal diadem. You would be too loaded to seek attention. You will be too needed to be ignored and too relevant to compete or envy anyone. All you need is just to do your work and watch God take good care of you.
Sometimes you will feel like a waste, you will not be appreciated nor encouraged, sometimes you may be misunderstood, accused, betrayed, mocked or even become an object of ridicule for efforts made out of grave sacrifices, people whom you least expected may call you names, but the love of God will surely have a way of rewarding you with a deeper sense of fulfilment and joy! Please never you exchange your happiness for what people would say, you will be betraying yourself and the God who is proud of you.
Whatever career you may add to your vocation as a priest (if you are privileged to), you must always see the priesthood as number one and equal to none. It must take precedence in everything you represent. Be mindful of what you do in public for the sake of those whose faith are still very succulent and more conscious of what you do in private because that is who you really are.
An easy guide to happiness in the hood a priest once advised is this; “if you eventually make it to ordination, when you kneel to submit your will in total obedience to God there in the hands of the bishop, make sure you willingly and wholeheartedly submit your will there. Meaning that from that day forward, you will have no will of your own, your will would be the will of the church for you. That is, where you will work, how you will evangelize, your posting and every major decision should come from the direction of the Holy Spirit through the heads of the church. With that in mind, you will move without complains and do the work excellently”.
In all, you must understand and accept dear aspirant that you must not end up a priest. No matter how zealous and dedicated you may be, always be open to the will of God for you just in case it was never his wish for you to end up a Reverend Father but that he wanted you to go through such discipline and formation so as to end up as someone great in another sphere of life. Until ordination, tell yourself and your family members that you may not end up a priest just in case God may request your service to him elsewhere someday before ordination and they would join the world to think that you are now a failure.
Even if you forget everything, do not forget that it is God’s work and not yours. Do not ever forget that it is not by your qualification that God has called you but out of his mercy. Do not be too busy to have time for God. Do not do the work of God and forget the God of the work. Do not forget that some have died days and months after their ordination, and some have died few days before. Let heaven be your focus. Let the love of God propel you to love his people genuinely. In all, PRAY ALWAYS and do not let anyone discourage you. The Catholic priesthood is a noble (if not the noblest) of all vocations the world could ever offer. No matter what I write, I know that only you my brother understands what you feel is pulling you to the life and you cannot just find words to explain to another. As St. Alphonsus Liguouri once said, "no man can please God whatsoever, unless he fulfils the mission God has inscribed for him through his destined Vocation. He adds, "your vocation is your path to heaven".
Dear lord, thank you for the gift of the Catholic priesthood; help us to believe what we read, to teach what we believe and to practise what we teach in our daily lives. Let your will be done in the life of all aspirants in the world especially this one who has read this and let this piece be enough to rekindle someone’s fire. Amen!
Please feel free to share with any aspirant you know or groups where they could be found. God bless!