When I announced to my family in 1952 that I had decided to study for the priesthood, my mother said that she had known for a long time that this was the right thing for the eldest of her four children to do. She said she was proud and grateful and that she wished me well.
My father, not as fully Catholic as his wife, was obviously bothered by the idea of my entering a seminary and going on to priesthood. He said, “Son, you’re only 21. You’ve had little experience in the world outside of home and school; you’ve never had to support yourself or anyone else. Why not take a year or so to work at maturing? How about some long trips to see the world? I’ll gladly make that possible. And after that, if you’re still inclined to become a priest, you’ll have my total support.”
And I recall answering, “Thanks, Dad. What you’ve said makes a lot of sense, but I’ve been thinking this over for a long time, and I’m certain that this is what I should be doing.” He backed down and never addressed the subject again. (Six years later, he was a happy and proud father at my ordination.)
After an extra year of college and another year of classical languages in Massachusetts, I entered the seminary in Darlington, New Jersey, and from that time on never had the slightest doubt that that was where the Spirit of God wanted me to be and to do.
This little part of my story is related to that well-known conversation between Jesus and a young man whom he called to follow him. The man doesn’t definitely decline; he merely says that this is not the right time for him to make such a change in his life. His meaning: “This is a big commitment you’re asking of me, Jesus, and you know how it is in families, especially between a father and a son. My father is bound to object to my following you and taking up your lifestyle. He would consider that a waste of my life and of my heritage. But someday, when he is no longer living, I’ll be free to do as I please. And, yes, I think I’d be inclined then to join you and your group.”
It seems to me that it would be hard to find fault with the young fellow’s reasoning. Family bonds are always to be highly respected. Jesus knew that, and my guess is that he admired this considerate son.
But the lesson in Christian living that I see here is that, when we painfully arrive at a decision we are convinced is the right one, all others having been carefully considered, we must pursue it even if that means disappointing or hurting those we love.
Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the fledgling United Nations back in the late 1940s, was, as you may recall, a deeply spiritual man, a Protestant Christian, and very prayerful. His famous book, Markings, he described as the record of his negotiations with himself and with God. In that post-World War II period, he so appreciated the significance of what the U. N. was established to accomplish that he prayed constantly to be open to divine wisdom and direction, knowing how limited our human intelligence and human love are, beginning with his own.
We are all cut from the same cloth, filled with astonishing potential and also burdened with enormous weaknesses. Optimum good comes into our lives, enriching us and others, in the same way for all – with the surrendering words, “Spirit of God, what would you have me do?”
And the answer comes, not normally in personal apparitions, but through the usually painful ordeal of honest, patient, charitable, expectant dialog.