cleveland catholic priesthood

Seminary Vocation Office

Diocese of Cleveland

28700 Euclid Avenue
Wickliffe, OH 44092

P: 440-943-7660

In the Footsteps of the Saints

Exploring the Priesthood with Saint John Vianney, Patron of Priests
by Fr. Michael Gurnick

Exploring The PriesthoodHaving the opportunity to journey to Ars, France in July 2009 to celebrate the Year for Priests, I learned much about the Patron of Priests: his life, his ministry, his love for God’s people. As a vocation director, I was particularly interested in how this experience might assist me as I walk with many young men who are exploring the possibility of the Catholic priesthood.

As anticipated, this pilgrimage left me with some considerations that I want to share with our readers. Perhaps these comments will help you with your personal search, or aid someone you know who is exploring the possibility of priesthood.

Each reflection begins with a specific question or concern voiced by many of our young men considering the possibility of priesthood. I believe that the Curé of Ars has something to offer in response to each of these questions or concerns.

 

I often thought about the priesthood when I was a child and the thought will reoccur, even today. How do I determine if this is God actually calling me to consider it?

It must be emphatically stressed that one does not just wake up and decide he is going to be a priest. The revelation of a vocation is like a seed being planted. It needs appropriate nourishment and must be properly cultivated. For any vocation, the proper cultivator is a family and a community. Both of these are essential in helping someone discover his call to the priesthood. Of course, the One who calls is God but He has entrusted our vocation to those responsible for us. Childhood experiences are not uncommon and many priests acknowledge their childhood development of faith and religious practice as having been very influential in their openness to the idea of priesthood.

Saint John Vianney grew up in a family who was very conscious of God in their lives and who made the time to pray and to worship Him, even in times of persecution. John Vianney’s parents had a very important role in shaping his understanding of God and the Church.

For the young Vianney, his attraction to prayer, his appreciation of the sacraments, and even his desire to bring peers together to honor our Lord and Blessed Mother surely were indicators that God had blessed him. Since his parish church was closed, due to the government’s prohibition of religious observances during the French Revolution, the young boy made his first Penance in the family living room and, later on, he received his first Holy Communion in the kitchen of a neighbor’s house – one of his fondest childhood recollections. Vianney was also found leading several of the youth in processions as they paid tribute to God and to Mary. He loved to go into fields and prayed for hours. Surely, these dispositions and actions suggest a deep love and affection for God. Because Vianney remained opened to this grace he was prepared to lovingly respond to whatever God would ask of him. And, while he was 15-years-old, as that invitation to become a priest was revealed in his heart, John was ready to say yes!

Perhaps seeds were planted in your childhood and have been growing to the point of bearing fruit. It is all in God’s time. We are simply asked to generously respond when the Lord calls. Now may very well be that time to begin conversations with a parish priest or a vocation director to discern what God is asking of you.

 

My parents are struggling with the idea of me becoming a priest. How do I discern this call while respecting them?

Please know that you are in good company! For the 15-year-old Vianney who announced that he wanted to “save souls for the good Father,” he was met with two strong reactions. Upon reaching the ears of his mother, the news of priesthood was met with great enthusiasm. It was not, however, the case when his father heard of his plans.

John’s father was not opposed to him becoming a priest since he himself had great respect for the Church, but Mr. Vianney didn’t think it practical for his son to go to the seminary due to the financial strains it would create. In addition to the cost of seminary education, another pair of hands would be removed from the already-fledging farm. The elder Vianney, initially, could not give his blessing.

How often we hear of fellow priests tell their stories about being met with resistance, even outright rejection from parents, family members, or friends. Fortunately, a good number of these folks come around and at least accept their son being a priest; for others, the alienation remains.

Being called to priesthood can create problems for the family but, like the holy youth from France, one should pray and persevere – all the while honoring his mother and his father with a patient heart.

 

Priesthood has really taken a beating the last several years and is not highly esteemed in our society. How do I deal with this?

The priesthood of Jesus Christ has never in 2,000 years been without controversy, and as is often the case, without persecution of some kind. After all, if we are to faithfully follow the Lord we know that Calvary is an essential, non-negotiable part of the journey.

Exploring The PriesthoodIn John Vianney’s own day, the French Revolution was occurring and things got so bad that Catholic parishes, schools, and other important institutions were forced to close. Priests and Religious Sisters and Brothers were arrested and even executed because of who they were. The Church community had to go “underground” and worship in secret. This was all happening in Vianney’s childhood and, yet, priests would find any way to come to the people and celebrate the sacraments for them. They were willing to risk it all because they believed in their divine mission! This not only made an indelible impression on John’s heart but encouraged thousands of fellow Catholics to persevere. Strong leaders, holy martyrs, and faithful disciples always carry the Church through one generation after another.

For us today, trials and persecutions still continue. The circumstances may be different but the divine mission remains the same. We need holy and courageous priests to go anywhere, in any setting, to bring Christ to others. It will never be popular to be a priest if     we are truly doing what the Lord demands of us. Our consolation, however, is that He gives us every grace and blessing to do the work.

From among the young men today, who will go and serve as priests? Are you one of them?

 

I am not the smartest person in the world. What if my studies are difficult?

This should never discourage a young man who is considering the priesthood. If God is truly calling someone to make this commitment, He will give that young man all the strength he needs. Saint John Vianney knew this reality very well!

One of the biggest stumbling blocks while being a seminarian is that Vianney could not pass his Latin exams and he became flustered while taking his oral exams before a panel of professors. This was no secret among his fellow seminarians who many, unfortunately, found ample opportunity to openly ridicule the future priest. Not only was he mindful of his academic struggles but he was older than his peers, since his father would not allow him to enter for many years. Two dismissals from the seminary for academic failure and countless temptations to simply quit, the young man was often discouraged but others, including his priest mentor and friend, Father Balley, had confidence in him because they saw the great qualities he possessed.

Our Church’s current position is that a man must be at least of average intelligence and, while, most of our candidates far exceed this minimal standard, not all excel in the area of academics. We need men who are excellent candidates because they possess qualities necessary for priesthood, including good physical and mental health, they relate well to others, they are men of prayer, they appreciate the academic life, they possess a true concern for the sick and the poor, and they are willing to lay down their life in service of the Christ and the Church. Many saw evidence of these other qualities in John Vianney’s life and would patiently work with him. Imagine if his academic performance was the only consideration. We probably would never have met such a wonderful role model for priests throughout the world!

 

I am no angel. I’ve made past mistakes and still struggle with living the perfect Christian life. This must certainly be an indication that God is not calling me to be a priest, right?

Exploring The PriesthoodAlthough biographical information would suggest that Saint John Vianney led a pure and holy life, we would be able to deduce that he, like all of us, was called to master the flesh, as his own testimony spoke of disciplines of fasting and self-mortification. He would fast for several days at a time and spend the night on guard against temptations. He came to realize that the more he poured himself into the work of his priestly ministry, the less he was tempted with other considerations. And, most importantly, the Curé of Ars, always relied on the grace of Almighty God; otherwise, the Curate would think of it as sinful pride.

Priests are human and we have our own human struggles. These may be found in the areas of pride, gluttony, envy, anger, greed, lust, or laziness. Perhaps the struggle is with other issues that can weigh us down. To be sure, many are burdened with past guilt, present struggle, or anxiety about our future. This is why mercy and grace are essential to the life of any soul. Priests are no exception. We are not superhuman beings and we are obliged to confront our human conditions, including sinful or hurtful pasts. While there may be specific issues needing further conversation, the more we are honest about these things, the more we are free to serve others.

John Vianney was a successful seminarian and a successful priest because he had others involved in his life. He knew he could not live the life God called him to all by himself. It takes a holy and wise man to know that, if he is being called to the priesthood, he must walk in the company of others who are there to help him discover what the Lord is calling him to do.

 

Will I be lonely as a priest?

Exploring The PriesthoodIt is a well known fact that a joyful priest might never be left alone. Of course, there are times when any one of us experiences loneliness on some level but generally, for those joyfully living out their vocation, these episodes of loneliness are short lived. This applies to a priest, a married person, a consecrated Sister or Brother, or anyone at all.

The Curé of Ars knew that there was a difference between loneliness and being alone. He wasn’t too concerned about the former and he was extremely grateful for the latter. Being alone was such a rare opportunity for Vianney since he heard confessions for up to 18 hours a day and people would want to seek out his prayerful intercession on many occasions. Solitude did not mean loneliness for the parish priest.

 

What if I’m not a very successful priest?

The question presented here demands that we clarify the word, “successful.” If by worldly means we examine the success of priesthood, we will be gravely disappointed: not everyone has heard the Good News preached to them, not all have become followers of Christ, many have left the flock, and many others mock the very message for which we have given our lives. Certainly we have failed if this is what we mean be success!

Exploring The PriesthoodBut, if we mean “successful” in terms of being faithful, that is something we each will have to account for individually, as a priest or simply as a member of the faithful. Being faithful to God is to love God with our whole heart, our mind, and our soul. It is also to love one another. Each of us can only be successful in discipleship if we are choosing a life of genuine love for God and for others. The holy parish priest in Ars knew this lesson very well. He realized that love is the driving force behind all that he did for his people. From that first foggy day in 1818 when he asked the young shepherd boy how to get to the town of Ars until August 4, 1859 when he took his last natural breath, John Vianney knew he could not be successful in this vocation of loving his people without the assistance of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the great saints who inspired him. He didn’t dare attempt to live this priestly life without them! Note to Reader: Be sure to read “I Will Show You Heaven!” which is also part of this special web section in honor of the Year for Priests: www.clevelandcatholicpriesthood.com.

Rev. Michael K. Gurnick , formerly Coordinator of Vocations to the Diocese Priesthood and Recruiter for Seminaries in the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, now serves the Diocese as Secretary and Vicar for Clergy and Religious. Ordained in 1998, Father Gurnick received his M.A. in Church History and Mdiv. from Saint Mary Seminary, Cleveland.

Click to visit the official shrine dedicated to St. John Vianney in Ars France.