To be precise, a man only “knows” he is called to be a priest when he is ordained! However, there are many positive signs that can point to a vocation, and which can help a man make the decision to enter the seminary and continue along the path towards the priesthood.
The Lord does send signs, but we have to be careful! When we use the word ‘sign’ it may make us think of visions and voices. It is true that sometimes something clear and dramatic helps us, but usually God speaks to us in ordinary ways, guiding us through the events and experiences of our daily lives; through the ‘ordinary’ experience of our Christian faith (which of course is not at all ordinary). Deep down, it is not about signs, but about an ever-deepening personal relationship with the Lord – his love and care for me, his call, what he has created me for; and how I respond to that with the gift of my whole life. But he uses certain signs to call out to us, just as we use words and gestures when we communicate with other people.
Below is a list of some of the initial ‘signs’ that God may be calling you to the priesthood, see if you can relate to any of them.
In your prayer, your daydreaming, your imagination; in your reading of the gospels – you find yourself coming back to ideas about the priesthood. Some scripture passage seems to be directed at you – about the priesthood, or the call of the disciples, or service. These passages seem to stand out for you and have a kind of clarity. You hear a sermon about the priesthood, or read something, and it seems personal; as if a light comes on, or it warms your heart; or as if someone is pointing at you.
You admire certain priests you have met and know. There is a goodness and holiness in their lives. You have an attraction to something they have or represent. They seem to be living a life worth living, in a way that speaks to you. You are drawn to them.
The desire to be a priest. Perhaps you can’t explain why, but you feel you would love to do what a priest does – to celebrate Mass, or preach, to baptize or visit the sick. Maybe you can’t explain why you have this desire – you just imagine yourself as a priest and it seems to fit, even if it makes you afraid or you think it would be impossible. And this desire is different from just an ambition. We can be ambitious for the priesthood – we can turn it into a possession or an achievement: ‘wouldn’t it be great if…’ But this is not the same as a vocation. Ambition in this sense turns the priesthood into an external possession; but a vocation is more like a deep personal desire to become what you feel you should be. There is a joy and excitement when you think about it, a sense that this is the right path, and it will lead to the place you are meant to be.
Some people have always wanted to be a priest: they cannot remember a time when they did not have this desire; they pretended to be priests when they were a child; it seems to be a part of them.
Some people have gradually wanted to be priests: it has grown over time, perhaps as their faith has grown; or it has come and gone, but now seems to be a bit stronger and a bit more enduring.
Some people have always wanted NOT to be a priest: this might sound strange, but there are people who have always been fighting it, resisting, walking away, giving excuses why not; and this is because deep down they have always known it is a part of them; and at some point they realize that, in fact, people without vocations do not normally go around thinking about why they don’t have a vocation!
And some people suddenly want to be priests: they have gone through a life-changing spiritual experience; it has never occurred to them before but now it does; the priesthood is something new, sudden and unexpected, but very real and almost overpowering. This is why the Church asks new converts to have time to settle into their new Catholic life for a few years before seeking ordination.
This can be true even if you do not seem to have any real personal desire. It is a nagging feeling that you should or could become a priest, which seems to come from nowhere, uninvited; an idea you can’t get out of your mind. It might leave you cold, or even repel you – in the sense that your instincts and gut fight against it. It’s as if part of you knows you should; there is an inner sense of duty, or call – even if it is reluctant.
Perhaps you do not have any explicit desires to be a priest, but you are attracted to many of the things that are involved in the life of a priest. You have a desire to serve people in different ways, or to pass on the faith, or to pray with and for others. Maybe you find less satisfaction in your work, not because it is wrong, but you feel it is not enough. You find yourself becoming more involved in the life of the parish as a reader or Eucharistic minister or catechist etc… You are giving your life in service more or helping the poor or the young. Lay people and religious also feel these pulls, but perhaps for you they are pulls to something priestly.
To take the faith more seriously. You just find that you want to pray more and to learn more about your Catholic faith. The Mass seems to mean more to you. You have become more honest about your faults and failings, and desire to go to confession more often than in the past. You are reading more about the faith, or the priesthood – it inspires you; your interest grows. Your love for Christ is growing, and your love for the Church.
Of course this is true for many holy lay-people! But it can often be the beginning of a priestly vocation, even when there is no idea of the priesthood at the beginning. You are not sure why, but you have a feeling that you can’t hold anything back. It is not enough for you just to work and plod along and say a few prayers and be nice to people – you want to give your whole heart, and you are not sure how or why. For some people the idea of celibacy comes to mind even before the explicit idea of priesthood, and before the Church explains how important it is – not because they dislike marriage, but because they feel called to give their life wholeheartedly to serve God and others, in a way that would be difficult within the commitments of marriage and family life. There can be a feeling that for me I couldn’t be free to serve the Lord if I were married with children.
When you talk to people about the possibility of the priesthood, especially committed Catholics, they don’t look as if you are mad. They affirm it, and say, ‘Of course, I could have told you that years ago!’ They encourage you. In other words, in the eyes of others this vocation also seems to make sense – it is not just a subjective sign for you, but it is beginning to be a more objective sign to others too.
This might seem like a paradox, but it can be true. Sometimes, of course, the priesthood is not right for someone, and they know this, and accept it happily. But at other times, someone may have a deep feeling that the priesthood is too much of an ideal for them, that they are not worthy, or not good enough (morally), or not capable enough. These feelings can be a sign of humility, an indication that someone has a healthy sense of their own limitations, and a high sense of the dignity of the priesthood. The feeling of unworthiness may, strangely, be a sign that someone has a true appreciation for the priesthood, and that they will be open to asking for God’s help and the help of the Church. It would be worrying if someone thought the priesthood was easy; or if they thought they could achieve it through their own efforts.
Have you experienced any or all of these? Interested in finding out more? Try taking our Discernment Quiz to explore this more.