By Msgr. Michael K. Magee
Last in a series explaining the priesthood in the Church’s Year of the Priest. Read the entire series and more resources on the priesthood at our web site, cst-phl.com.
“No one takes this honor [of the Priesthood] on himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was” (Heb. 5:4). These words referring to the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ are true also of the sacrament of the priesthood in the Church. There are no self-appointed apostles in the Catholic Church; instead, the Church ordains those who are responding to a call that they did not themselves initiate. That call comes to a man ultimately in the ceremony of ordination, when the bishop announces that he has chosen him for the priesthood, just before he imposes hands on him and invokes the Holy Spirit upon him.
Even so, those being ordained have been responding to God’s call long before the moment of ordination comes. The Lord has been directing them interiorly, leading them to offer themselves for ordination. But precisely because “no one takes this honor on himself,” as the Letter to the Hebrews says, most men are hesitant when they first feel that they may be called.
How, then, does it happen that they summon the courage to go risk several years of their lives in the seminary and eventually to present themselves for ordination? Ask anyone currently in the seminary, and the chances are good that he will tell you that someone encouraged him, saying that he seemed to have the characteristics of a good priest or showed signs that God might be calling him. It might have been a parent, or a neighbor, a friend, a fellow parishioner, a teacher, or even a girlfriend. Sometimes parents may initially resist the idea of their son being a priest, but those who are honest and thoughtful realize that in attempting to stifle a priestly vocation, they would be opposing God Himself.
Although God’s call to the priesthood is ultimately confirmed by the bishop’s gift of discernment, the same Holy Spirit lives in the Church as a whole, and in every member of it, helping all to discern the presence of God’s gifts in each other. It is a duty of all Catholics to invite and encourage those in whom the Spirit helps them to discern a calling to the priesthood. If they are led through prayer to do so, then God may be speaking through them to raise up a new priest for His Church.
Every priest, then, is “called by God, just as Aaron was.” If Aaron has to rely on the prophetic gift of his brother Moses to discern his calling to the priesthood for Israel, the priests of today must rely on the Spirit’s prophetic gifts found in the Church. The bishop’s call in the ceremony of ordination is the confirmation of a calling that will already have come to a man through many channels within a family and a community that knows the importance of the priesthood and looks carefully for those who show signs of being called by God to be priests.
Msgr. Michael K. Magee is the chair of the Department of Systematic Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.