When I was about 10 years old I went on vacation with the family of one of my friends to a cabin in Sullivan County, New York. On Sunday, when we went for Mass, we went to St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, New York. This was a Franciscan minor seminary. The building was impressive, nothing like I had ever been in before. The seminarians and the priests were all clad in their brown habits. After the Mass they greeted us, invited us to take a tour of the seminary, and gave my friend and I brochures about the seminary and their way of life. Printed on one of the holy cards was this simple phrase: “Here I am. You called me.” This experience, to two young Catholic school boys both of whom talked often about becoming priests, was awesome. I remember it vividly.
Fast forward eight years when I am in a high school seminary and was preparing to enter the college seminary. The vocation director of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., where my family lived, handed me a holy card on which was a simple phrase: “Here I am. You called me.”
I immediately felt that connection and, even though the Franciscan seminary lived long in my imagination, it did not draw me there, but it did draw me into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, and his Church, strengthening my desire to publicly proclaim: “Here I am. You called me.”
For those reasons known only to God, many years would pass before those memories came rushing back as I stood before Bishop O’Connell on June 1, 2013, to be ordained priest.
The young Samuel whom we encounter in the First Reading does not know really who is calling him when he answers quickly and runs to Eli the priest and prophet. Eli, too, did not at first understand why the boy thought he was calling him, until he discerned that it must be the Lord. Samuel’s response to God was the beginning of a long and important period of his service to the Lord and the people of Israel.
As the two disciples of John the Baptizer witnessed his testimony to Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God,” they left John to follow Jesus. They were inspired not so much by a call but by a direct instruction to follow Jesus.
For some reason, we often imagine the call to priesthood, religious life, or the diaconate, as a mysterious adventure, yet the fact remains that God always calls us through some experience and through someone. While many of us intuit God’s call, it often needs to be an Eli or a John in our lives who point us in the right direction.
It is a good and necessary practice to plant seeds of a vocation in the minds and hearts of the young, and even these days, among the not-so-young. There are those who long for that sense of direction, who might be ready to respond, but they don’t know how.
We used to take it for granted. I had a conversation with a young man a couple of years ago who is very active his parish community as a reader and a youth group member. People in the parish talked about him. So I asked him one day if he had ever thought about becoming a priest and I found his response quite jarring. “I didn’t know it was possible. I don’t know where priests come from. Is it something I could do?” He is still in college. We still speak about the possibility of priesthood. Maybe someday it will be God’s will for him. Perhaps he, too, can stand before the bishop and say: “Here I am. You called me.”
Let us pray for him, and let us also never be afraid to be Eli or John, pointing in the direction of the Lord who calls us.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.