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.
Perhaps you can’t explain why, but you feel that 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 that 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, and it seems to be a part of them.
Some people have gradually wanted to be priests. The desire 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 the call, resisting, walking away, giving excuses why not; and this is because deep down they have always known that it is a part of them. At some point they realize that, in fact, people without priestly 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 that 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 that you should. There is an inner sense of duty, or call – even if you are 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 because even when you commit to it, you feel as though 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 often and helping the poor or the young. Lay people and religious also feel these pulls, but perhaps for you they are pulls to something priestly.
You desire to take the faith more seriously. You just find that you want to pray more and to learn more about the Catholic faith. The Mass seems to mean more to you. You have become more honest about your faults and failings, and you desire to go to confession more often than in the past. You are reading more about the faith, or the priesthood – it inspires you and your interest grows. Your love for Christ is growing, as well as 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 they have heard the Church's explanation of 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.
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. This 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 that the priesthood was easy; or if they thought they could achieve it through their own efforts.