The Call to Priesthood

by Catherine Doherty

The year was 1951. In North America the future seemed bright and the Church in very good shape; vocations to the priesthood were more than plentiful.

In that year, Father Rawley Myers, a diocesan priest and director of vocations, edited a book entitled, The Greatest Calling: A Presentation of the Priesthood by Famous Catholics. The book was 183 pages of North American witness in answer to the question, “What is the priesthood?”

The articles were written by bishops, priests, nuns, a father of a family, a football player, a teacher, an editor—and a few famous folk such as Bishop Fulton Sheen, Clare Booth Luce, and Father Patrick Peyton.

Among them was an article by Catherine Doherty.

In 1951, Madonna House was only five years old. The Friendship House Movement for which Catherine had poured out her life was petering out.

Though the major tragedies involving clergy in Catherine’s apostolic life were in the past, they were still fresh in her memory. But she was already speaking of the priesthood in somewhat mystical terms.

Catherine’s article stands out like a thorn among the roses. Hers is the only one which explains the great crucifixion which was about to come upon the priesthood all over the world.

Catherine not only believed that such a crucifixion belonged to the heart of the mystery of the priesthood but she had already suffered it herself.

Her article is written in the form of a letter.

Dear Friend,

You have asked me to tell you something about the great vocation of the priesthood, because you think you have a call to it, but you are not quite sure and so you want some light on the matter from me.

I feel honored at your request. I know why you are asking me, an ordinary lay woman, to help you, for I remember telling you some time ago of my great love for priests, and of the need this tragic world has for them.

So I will try to tell you what is in my heart about this stupendous vocation. But I will not, for I cannot, wax sentimentally pious about its glories. For one does not go sentimental over a stark cross and a Man crucified to it!

To be a priest is to be indeed called by God, for he says clearly, “I have chosen you; you have not chosen me.”

Do you know what that means? It means that you will be all his, but that your life will be the loneliest lived on this earth, naturally speaking; that you will walk shrouded in loneliness, amidst multitudes.

You will indeed have to “arise, sell what you possess, and follow Christ” (Mt 19:21). Do you understand now, in the flower of your youth, what you are asked to do, to be? Slowly, your life will pattern itself on his. You will walk wearily amidst people, night and day, bringing them the glad tidings of love.

Yet they will laugh in your face and go their way.

Eventide will come and your hands will be empty, and your face covered with the spittle of their derision and refusals.

You will deal in sin all your life. You will know and comprehend better than others, the enormity of just one mortal sin. You will have to steel yourself to face rivers of it, seas of it. It will choke you, engulf you, make you tremble and weak.

You will have to be poor in worldly goods—to defeat the modern idolatry of material possessions. You will have to be poor in spirit and poor in will, for you will have surrendered yours to your bishop; poor in person and in consolations.

In fact, a time will come when you, like your Master, will have to be naked poor; you will follow a naked Christ unto his Cross.

And you will be crucified, too, by the flesh that will still be with you; by the devil who will not let you be; by the lukewarm and indifferent amongst your flock; by the rich and greedy in our front pews; by the unbelievers and the scoffers outside; and by your own weakness and fears.

Then you will be as one dead—a piece of clay—for the Master sculptor to work his masterpiece in you. You will feel the touch of his divine fingers, pounding, molding, hurting the clay that is you. It will be God the Father making you unto the likeness of his Son, the Man of Sorrows.

You will know darkness as few people know it. It will be a palpable, touchable, heavy darkness, that will encompass you on all sides. There will be nary a pinpoint of light in it, and at times it may almost suffocate you.

You will have to keep on walking, living, having your being in that darkness, perhaps for the span of your whole natural life. You will have to walk in it by the light of your faith only. And what is more, while your soul is steeped in this utter darkness you yourself will have to be a light to a thousand feet.

Doubts and fears, temptations and even sin, will try to walk with you. Often you will be misunderstood by those above you, and those below. There will be some who will want to use you as a tool of their own design. Others will stone you with ridicule. And through all this you seemingly will be alone.

But that is not all. In our day and time, you will have to be ready at a moment’s notice, and maybe without any, to lay down your life for your God and your flock.

And what is perhaps more terrible, you may be deprived of this flock and of your Church, and may not even be allowed to die like a man, but perhaps be made to live in the dungeon of a prison or in a forced-labor concentration camp.

Are you ready?

If you are, then yours will be the most glorious life ever lived. You will be Christ’s envoy, for it is said, “Behold I establish thee a minister and a witness.” You will become a living symbol of God, not merely by your words, but by your entire life.

At your word sinners will rise from the death of sin and, who knows, may become great saints of God and his love.

In truth you will bring, not peace but a sword. You will be a sign of contradiction that will make men think and live. You will be a minister of fire, ordained to spread that fire on the earth. You will also be a minister of restlessness, the dispenser of a new hunger and thirst.

You will be poor, and your poverty will enrich millions.

You will be chaste with the chastity of an immense and burning love for a God who has reserved it for himself—from a few—specially consecrated sons.

Your chastity will heal lust in many hearts, and will give you the power to command its demons out of many parts of the world. For you will make your own the words, Deus meus et omnia (my God and my all).

True, you will walk in darkness, perhaps for your entire life, perhaps for a few years of it, or days. But at the same time you will be a light that will kill the tragic, evil darkness men face in our dark days of atheism and secularism.

Loneliness will be your constant companion. Yet your presence will be a blessing to all, and will disperse loneliness in others. You will deal in sin all your life but it will not touch you, for you will walk in the glory of the Lord, whom your hands touch daily, whom your words bring down to us.

You will be hungry with many hungers but you will fill souls and hearts with the Bread of Life. You will slake the infinite thirst of men for God, with the living waters of Truth.

You will pray, and heaven will listen, hell tremble, and death hear.

At your word, a child of sin will become a child of God. A youth will become a soldier of Christ, a sinner a saint. Hungry men will be filled, dying ones sped homeward in peace.

You will open your mouth and teach, and the fullness of Truth will come out of it. The Word will take flesh again and walk amongst men, and many shall arise and follow him.

Your hands will heal, and bless, and help. Your presence will bring joy and peace. You yourself will walk in peace, and be an artisan of its lasting city. You will know much, and be humble.

You will pray much and then pray again. For you will know that prayer is your strength, and that of your flock. You will fast and do penance, and you will be a vessel filled to the brim; many will come to drink from these hallowed waters.

You will be all things to all men. You, like Christ, will be lifted up, for men to see and follow you. But you will not mind being crucified naked on a Cross, because Christ will be on the other side, and you will be lost in the ecstasy of being with him, of being his own.

All this you will be, and all these things will happen to you, if you arise now and answer the mere whisper that your young soul hears, and that you are not quite sure about.

Yes, my dear young friend, that is what it means to be a priest. That is the vocation to the priesthood as I see it.

Humbly, reverently, I pass on my vision of it to you, for when all is said and done, the call you hear is the call to be another Christ, an alter Christus.

Can there be a greater miracle of God’s grace? Can there be a greater vocation? If there is, I do not know about it.

Excerpted from Dear Father, (2001), pp.17-22, available from MH Publications