Prior to beginning kindergarten, my mother used to take my twin brother Scot and me to daily Mass. She was a constant catechist, helping us to memorize the prayers, to try to listen to God speak to us through the words of Sacred Scripture, and to pay attention to the miracle of Jesus Christ’s coming down from heaven upon the altar.
Early one morning when we were four, I watched carefully as our pastor, Fr. Jon Cantwell, pronounced the words of consecration. I thought that if I were tall enough to be able to climb upon the altar and look into the chalice, I would behold the same type of blood that I had seen flow from the cuts and scrapes on my arms and legs.
Then Fr. Cantwell, who was 70 going on 100, hobbled down the stairs of the sanctuary to distribute the Lord to daily communicants. I watched as, one-by-one, he put his fingers into the ciborium and took out Jesus to give Him to one of the lucky adults who were able to receive him. After he was done, I observed him put the Lord into the tabernacle on a side altar right in front of me.
As he returned to the main altar, my eyes remained fixed on the tabernacle door and Jesus who was behind it. I then said to myself in amazement, “The priest must be the luckiest man in the whole world – capable of holding God in his fingertips and giving him to others.” It was then that I asked Jesus to allow me one day to become a priest.
That desire for the priesthood, thanks to a recognition of the reality of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist, never really left me. While over the course of my youth and adolescence, I also desired, like most of my peers, to be a professional athlete, a doctor, President of the U.S., a husband, father and so many other worthy things, when I reflected on the fact that I would probably have to make a choice among all of those noble livelihoods, I continued to hunger for the priesthood most of all.
I realized that there would be plenty of other good men to be each of those other vocations. The priest was, I was convinced, the single most important person in the universe. I recognized that even if Mary came down from heaven, she would not be able to give Jesus’ body and blood to us again; only the priest could do that. I saw that even if all the angels in heaven tried together to forgive one sin against God, they couldn’t do it. God had given only the priest that authority and power. I knew that for these great gifts of God in the sacraments to help those for whom they were intended, some young men needed to say “yes” to God. I wanted to be one of those men.
After graduating from high school, I enrolled at Harvard. Soon into my freshman year I met a priest off-campus at a center of Opus Dei. He was an ex-hockey player for Harvard and we hit it off immediately.
In one of our conversations, he asked what I hoped to do after graduation. “I think I’d like to be a priest,” I replied.
Normally, when I had said that to priests, priests would respond with a profound smile. This priest merely nodded and then asked, “What do you think God wants you to do?”
The question was a new one and I didn’t know how to answer.
“Wouldn’t God want a good, moral Harvard grad for his vineyard?,” I asked.
The priest reminded me that God needed good men as fathers, husbands, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and so much more. “What do you think God wants you to do?,” he reiterated.
That was the question that occupied my prayer for the next two and a half years.
Eventually vocational discernment began to be about the only thing I was talking to God about in prayer, and my prayer life began to atrophy. It was focused too much on me and my future, and too little on God. Something had to change, and it came during Lent of my senior year. The Lord helped me to abandon myself to his will and I prayed a novena that no matter what His will was — “whether you want me to be a priest or a garbage collector” — that I would do it “with the spirit and fervor of the saints.” Soon afterward, with the help of my spiritual director, I realized that God indeed was calling me to be a priest. A great peace enveloped me and a firmer priestly identity began to take shape.
God tested my vocation immediately, when, in trying to apply to seminary in my home diocese, various obstacles arose and, to my surprise and that of many priest friends, I was not able even to receive an application. I had a great confidence, though, that God was calling me to be a priest and that somehow he would make straight the paths.
Eventually, through a priest friend, I was put in contact with Bishop Sean O’Malley of Fall River, Massachusetts, who received me as a seminarian and sent me to three excellent seminaries for formation — Mt. St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, MD, St. Philip’s in Toronto, and the North American College in Rome. I’m not sure I would have had the chance to receive such a solid foundation for my priestly life unless God had closed the door to my home diocese, validating St. Paul’s teaching that “Everything works out for the good for those who love God.”
Since my priestly ordination in 1999, I have recognized that my original thoughts about the priesthood as a little boy were only part of the great gift and mystery that is the priestly life. A priest’s responsibility to be an icon of Christ — to be his echo in the pulpit, his merciful hand stretched out to sinners in the confessional, the example of his self-sacrificial love in the Eucharist — is something that exceeds any human capacity. In those moments when I am overwhelmed by the mission God has entrusted to this “earthen vessel,” I realize that I am not alone. It’s then that I realize that God the Holy Spirit is bringing to completion the good work he began a long time ago.
There’s a lot more work to do. I hope that if you’re a young man reading this now whom God is calling to the priesthood that you’ll say yes to his call and join me and my brother priests in the vineyard. Then you’ll be able to experience that gift and mystery first hand.
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