When he went into Capernaum a centurion came up and pleaded with him, ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘my servant is lying at home paralysed and in great pain.’ Jesus said to him, ‘I will come myself and cure him.’ The centurion replied, ‘Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof; just give the word and my servant will be cured.’
For such is the power of great minds, such the lights of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eye; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what was visible.
And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a truth whose authority is accepted by believing hearts enlightened from on high. Throughout the world women no less than men, tender girls as well as boys, have given their life’s blood in the struggle for this faith. It is a faith that has driven out devils, healed the sick and raised the dead.
(Sermon by St Leo the Great)
CHAPTER 1 HEARING THE CALL OF GOD
Vocation in life is something of a mystery. Everyone has a calling in life and each calling has a special value in the sight of God. The most brilliant surgeon is not more important to God than the garbage man; the lawyer is not before the truck driver.
When I was a young boy, I wanted to become many things, depending on my enthusiasm at the moment. In my parish of the Sacred Heart in Irvinestown, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, we had an old priest who loved the Lord. His assistant was a younger, quiet man who spent hours in the church praying before the Blessed Sacrament. So from my earliest days I had Godly men who were great role models of the priesthood. It was around the time of my First Communion that I first thought I might like to become a priest.
Ray McAnally was a great Irish actor who played the role of the Cardinal in the movie The Mission. In his early years he had gone to the seminary to study for the priesthood. I once heard him being interviewed on the radio and he was asked what he thought a vocation was. He gave what I consider to be a very good description of vocation. He said, ‘A vocation is where you begin to suspect that you are about to be called.
My father and mother loved priests and befriended and supported them. There were always priests coming into our home as far back as I can remember. My earliest memory was that of a chaplain from the US Army during World War II coming for dinner at our home. I remember looking at him and thinking that he did not look at all Irish with his black hair, tanned skin and rimless glasses. There were not many tanned people around my home town in those days and there was no one who wore rimless glasses.
In my teenage years, most secondary schools in Ireland were boarding schools. I went as a boarder to St Patrick’s High School in Armagh. St Patrick’s was run by the Vincentian Fathers, a community founded by St Vincent de Paul. Going to this school was a very great grace in my life. I had good teachers, but more than that, the priests really impressed me as men who loved the priesthood. They always talked about faith and about Jesus Christ, even in classes not directly about religion.
An important moment for me, relating to my vocation, was going to Confession to one of these Vincentian priests. His name was Fr Hugh. When I went to Fr Hugh, I thought I was talking to Jesus Himself. I know now, of course, that I was talking to Jesus, who through the ministry of Fr Hugh revealed Himself to me. It was one of the first experiences of grace that changed me. In Fr Hugh, I had met Jesus – the forgiving, loving and merciful Christ. This priest had certainly acted in persona Christi.
Another such moment happened in my senior year in secondary school. One day, walking along the street I saw an old homeless man searching through some rubbish. Just as I was passing, he turned around and stared at me through his poor, gentle eyes. I don’t know why, but at that moment I felt something happen within me and I knew that somehow I had encountered Jesus Christ. When things like this happen, it is hard to describe what it does to you. First, you are not really sure what has happened, and anyway, it is difficult to share it or identify it. The importance of such moments of grace is not in words; it is experienced in the soul, the dwelling place of the Holy Trinity.
It was only later that the Holy Spirit helped me to understand and enabled me to respond to these graces. Unfortunately, people are often told to ignore such graces. They are warned that God does not speak to people. Experiencing God in this way carries with it its own profound conviction. I had experienced God; I just knew it. It changed my life. To say this can’t happen is to deny the very words of Jesus and the action of the Holy Spirit: ‘He will teach you all things’ (John 14:26). These moments of grace are given to many people. It is God who places the consciousness of a vocation into a person’s heart and keeps it there. This is what happened to me. I liked the Vincentians, so I became one and have never regretted it. It is important to learn how to listen with the ears of the heart.
Years later, in the summer of 1968, I went to study at the Catholic University of America to get up to speed with the theology of the Second Vatican Council. Many of us priests who were ordained before the council had to do that in order not to be left behind theologically. At the time, Catholic University was a theological volcano with very many priests and religious abandoning their vocations.
I witnessed much confusion and cynicism about the Church. In the midst of it all, I continued with my daily Eucharist; my devotion to Mary, the Mother of God; the Rosary; and a prayer life that was far from tranquil.
Then the Lord gave me another one of these moments of grace and illumination. It happened like this. In the summer, Washington, DC is hot and humid, so dry cleaning was a regular chore. One afternoon I went down the street to pick up my things from the cleaners. I was dressed for the heat in sandals, T-shirt and shorts. The woman who served me, judging by her accent, was from the Caribbean. When she gave me my change, she looked hard at me and said, ‘Are you a priest?’
I said, ‘Yes, how did you know?’
She stared at me for a moment and said, ‘Because you have the mark of Jesus Christ upon you.’
That ‘mark of Jesus Christ’ she referred to is the character, that permanent indelible spiritual imprint of the Sacrament of Priesthood. It is the very presence of Christ Himself. It is a unique grace that makes the priest ‘another Christ’. If a priest is seeking Christ in prayer, he will begin to desire this transformation. This desire in turn will transform his life and ministry. The more he grows into union with Jesus, the more he will experience the disintegration of his ego and put on the gentleness and humility of Jesus Christ. When the Heavenly Father looks at the priest He sees this mark, this sacramental character in his soul; He sees the image of Jesus, the Jesus of the paschal mystery of our salvation.
Moments such as these are pearls of great price. Jesus can speak to you in a Caribbean accent in order to keep you standing on rock. It was as if He had said, ‘Do not forget what you are. Do not forget that I have called you. Do not forget that I am with you. All those around you may forget and walk away, but you must never forget.’
Years after I was ordained a priest, my mother told me that when I was a small boy the parish priest had called to our home to see her. When he was leaving, he gave her a blessing and, pointing to me, said to her, ‘This boy will be a priest one day.’
‘I never told you this because I wanted you to be what God had planned for you,’ she told me. That too was another assurance from God. I thank the Lord that in all my years as a priest I never once doubted the authenticity of my vocation.
I have been working with Sr Briege McKenna for many years. Sr Briege is an Irish Sister of St Clare who is best known throughout the world for her gift of healing. She describes in her extraordinary book Miracles Do Happen how the Lord first healed her of crippling arthritis and endowed her with this charism.
‘I give you My gift of healing. Go now and use it,’ was what He said to her.
Over the years I have seen the Lord perform many miracles through Sr Briege’s prayers and her ministry. Even people who listen to her recorded prayers over the telephone or internet have experienced healing. How often have I given praise and thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ for reaching out and touching His suffering people through Sr Briege’s prayers.
Not long ago Sr Briege and I went to conduct a priests’ retreat in Lithuania where the Church was persecuted and the priests suffered greatly under the Communist regime. They were without their own bishops for several decades. Thankfully, since the fall of the old atheistic government, they now have their own bishops and a brand new seminary which is producing crops of fine young priests. One of the seminarians came to talk to me about his studies. During our conversation he said, ‘Would you like me to tell you how I got my vocation?’
I love vocation stories, so I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to hear it.’ He told me a remarkable story of how the Lord called him to the priesthood.
When he finished I said, ‘Would you like to write this down so that I may share it with others?’ He agreed. This is what he wrote:
I am a 33-year-old deacon from Vilnius (Lithuania). In 2000 – a milestone in my life – I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree at the Music Academy of Lithuania and had been accepted to study Opera in a Master’s program. I felt very content, because there was plenty of work. For example, I produced different entertainment shows, was a master of ceremonies, as well as a singer and drama teacher. During this time, there was no lack of money or women either.
On 15 September that year, I participated in my friend’s wedding. The beautiful voice of the priest made the wedding ceremony a glorious event. In the middle of the ceremony I heard someone call me by name. I turned around, but couldn’t see anybody. I thought to myself that I had just overheard something and continued to watch the wedding. Then I heard it again: ‘Povilas, Povilas!’ I turned around, but again I could see nobody calling me. I looked at the people standing beside me, but they didn’t look as if they had heard anything. The situation seemed strange to me, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. When I heard somebody calling my name for the third time, I somehow knew that it was God’s voice. He told me, ‘Your life belongs to Me.’
I soon forgot about this event, but two weeks later He spoke to me again. Just as the first time, I heard His voice not in my head or heart, but audibly, just as I can hear different noises like wind blowing or people talking. God reminded me that my life belongs to Him and showed me the direction I was to take in my life. Even though I was talking to God, I didn’t want to agree with His plan as I felt content with my life and didn’t have any desire to change it. God didn’t argue with me. He just reminded me again that my life belonged to Him.
A conversation like that reoccurred a couple more times during the next two weeks, but I wasn’t about to give in. During that year the quality of my singing was rapidly improving and there was hope to make a successful career as a singer. However, at the end of November I started having problems with my voice, and singing became more and more difficult. On the eve of each concert I sang in, the Lord would ask me to answer His calling. I would promise to think about His plan if He healed my voice for the next day’s performance. The next day after the successful performance I would rudely tell God that I didn’t want to hear about His calling. The sickness would then come back.
I am ashamed now to admit that during that year my behaviour toward God was obnoxious. In fact, I was ruder than I have been with anybody else before – even compared to those who wished me ill. I continued being rude and kept trying His patience until 12 January, a day before a special concert given in memory of the events that occurred on 13 January in 1991 (the USSR army attacked the Republic of Lithuania). I was invited to sing live on national television. That morning during the rehearsal I completely lost my voice. My doctor refused to continue treatment admitting that she couldn’t detect the source of my sickness and that my body wasn’t reacting to any medication.
The next two weeks were the hardest in my life. I felt as though I had lost the foundation of my life. I was crying out to God, but He was silent. Finally I understood that God used this situation to talk to me as a way of getting my attention.
Then I promised God that if He gave me my voice back, I would seriously consider His plan; however, if I decided not to follow it, He would stop pursuing me. His agreement to this pact was the last time that I audibly heard God’s voice. While fulfilling my promise to God, I started seriously considering becoming a priest. At the same time I was secretly hoping that I would conclude that this was not my calling. Then I started reading the Bible, which I hadn’t done before. I was shocked to read about the callings of both the prophet Samuel and the apostle Paul. In some ways these were similar to mine. Because of these similarities, for three years I was embarrassed to tell my story to anybody except my parents.
At the end of January 2001, almost a year later, I woke up one day with the knowledge in my heart that God had changed my heart and that His calling had become the way of my life. I immediately shared this with my parents and my girlfriend whom I then loved.
I thought that I was happy before God called me to Himself. But I never even imagined that it is possible to be so happy when you place your life in the hands of God.
Sometimes people who have heard my story ask me why God chose such an unusual way to communicate with me. While praying about it I understood that it wasn’t because I was better than others, but simply because I was ‘deaf ’ to all of His other invitations. God used what it took to draw my attention and to help me hear His voice when I was ‘deaf’.
Thank You, Lord, for Your calling and thank You for Your unlimited love and patience with Your once ‘deaf’ child.
I know another priest who was raised by his parents to be a Communist. He studied in Russia and trained to become a subversive back in his own country. Eventually he returned home and began to work for the Communist Party. He did not believe in God. One day, when he was lying on a beach somewhere in the Mediterranean with his girlfriend, he heard an inner voice say to him, ‘Get up. Go home. I want you to become a priest.’
He told me, ‘I hardly knew what a priest was.’
In any event, he did what he was told and became a priest. Those who insist that priestly vocations come solely from the local Church community need to take account of experiences like these. Jesus continues to call men just as He did in the Gospel when He called the disciples and when He called St Paul on the road to Damascus. The history of the Church is full of examples of people who were called in this way and were given the grace of vocation to the priesthood.