“Who’s Calling, Please?”
By Reverend J. Ronald Knott
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!” —I Samuel 3.
I have two jobs. One of my jobs is one of the easiest jobs on earth, and the other one is one of the hardest jobs on earth. My job here at Bellarmine is a real pleasure. No matter how tired I am some Sunday afternoons, a burst of energy fills my body and soul when I drive into the parking lot at the top of the hill, and it grows as I walk down the isle to begin Mass. You “turn me on!”
In a world where many people assume that young people today have given up on religion, I find that untrue among you. There are some serious spiritual seekers on this campus, and the long hours I spend preparing my homilies are well worthwhile. Doing what I do here is the light of my life.
My other job, vocation director for the archdiocese, is one of the hardest jobs on earth. While I try to promote all vocations, I specialize in recruiting young men for the priesthood. When I’m really discouraged, I feel like I am trying to sell refrigerators to Eskimos or tickets to the Titanic! One good thing about this job is that I don’t know anybody who is out to take it away from me. I do get discouraged. Last year certainly didn’t help. Why do I stay with it? For one reason and one reason only: Regardless of what people may think about my job, I still believe I have one of the best jobs in the whole wide world. I still wouldn’t trade with anybody!
My job is described in our first reading today. I represent Eli in that reading. Samuel represents all the young people I listen to throughout the year. Eli (whose name, by the way, means “uncertain”) was an old temple priest who lived at a time when things looked bleak in Israel. The temple priests were corrupt, and there was no prophet in the land to speak for the Lord. Eli was assisted by a young man named Samuel. Samuel, we are told, was like many young people of his time: he was not familiar with the Lord.
It is precisely in this terrible state of affairs that the call comes to this young man. Samuel keeps waking up thinking he hears someone calling his name. He presumes it is the old priest Eli. Twice Eli tells him, “It’s not me; go back to sleep.” The third time he is awakened, Eli realizes that the Lord is calling him and tells Samuel, “If you hear the voice again, tell the voice, “Speak, your servant is listening.” God takes Samuel and makes him into a great prophet “not permitting any word of his to be without effect.”
Like Eli, my job as vocation director is not to talk anybody into anything but to help young people, like Samuel, figure out what God is calling them to do. I don’t call people to ministry. God does. My job is to encourage young people to listen for God’s call and to answer, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Let me say a few things about what I have learned about “calls.” First of all, all of us have a “call.” By our baptisms, all of us have a call to holiness as Disciples of Christ. We are called to grow more like him by carrying on some part of his work and ending up living together in communion with God for all eternity. That’s the first call we all need to “wake up” to! Within that baptismal call, some of us have second calls that carry the dignity of another sacrament. The sacrament of Holy Orders (bishops, priests and deacons) and the sacrament of Marriage (spouses and parents) are both geared toward the salvation of others. They are sacraments of service to all the baptized.
Within our same baptismal call, some of you have vocations to various other professions. The hard part, like Samuel, is to discern when God is calling and what God is calling us to do.
There are several factors that are common in this discernment process. I will speak later about marriage and other vocations, but today, on Vocation Sunday, let me speak about the calls to priesthood, religious life and full-time lay ministry. Don’t turn me off just because you feel it is not your call. The work of promoting religious vocations is just as much your responsibility as it is mine. Even if it is not your call, you have a responsibility to encourage others in that call if you see it in them. After all, someday you will need to be married, have your babies baptized and confirmed, have your confessions heard, attend Mass, be anointed when you are sick and dying, or be ministered to by religious and lay ministers in countless ways.
If you have the following qualities, or know someone who does, God may be calling you to priesthood, religious life or full-time lay ministry. Before we begin, let me say that anxiety and doubt are normal and healthy when one discerns a call from God. As a vocation director, red flags go up my head automatically when someone comes to me and is too certain about God’s call. More times than not, it is their own voice they hear, rather than God’s.
That said, what are the signs of a possible vocation to priesthood, religious life or full-time lay ministry? Assuming the person is a healthy, well-rounded person of faith and practice, he or she should have a fundamental openness to people. We don’t need priests, religious or lay ministers who are unbalanced religious fanatics or who cannot relate to people of both sexes. He or she should have a disposition to compassion and justice, with a desire to be of service. Most of all, he or she should have a capacity for healthy introspection and contemplation. If he or she cannot be quiet sometimes and listen, we don’t need them!
Secondly, a priest, religious or full-time lay minister should carry at least the potential for a lively and creative intellectual life. This is especially needed for the ministries of preaching, counseling, spiritual direction and pastoral leadership. The members of our church deserve the best and brightest to serve. Along with these qualities is the aptitude for community, whether it is shared living or shared ministry, as well as the capacity for sustained commitment and delayed gratification. They have to be able to “go the distance.”
Thirdly, a priest, religious or full-time lay minister must have a capacity for rising above self-interest in the service of the gospel, the ability to surrender his or her life to something bigger than himself or herself.
Some religious priests, sisters and brothers live “set apart” in monasteries and convents. Others of us, along with full-time lay ministers, live “in the world.” Both those who live in the world and those set apart are equal members in the household of God. Some are not better or “higher” than others. They simply serve in different ways. Diocesan priests, like myself, choose to live in the world. I own a house, cut my own grass, do my own laundry, shop at the grocery and cook my own food. I pay off car loans, try to take vacations and save for my retirement. Diocesan priests live in the world so as to serve those who live in the world.
Today is a day to appreciate and pray for priests, sisters, brothers and lay ministers. Today is a day to call forth from the community of believers new people to carry on their ministries into the future. If you, or anyone you know, would like to know more details, call me. I wrote some “how-to” books about it, and they are free for the asking. I will be retiring in twelve years. Which one of you is going to take my place?