(Father Ross Epping is chaplain for St. Ambrose University in Davenport and diocesan director of Vocations.)
I was celebrating our 4:30 p.m. Tuesday Mass on campus at St. Ambrose University in Davenport not long ago. Those daily Masses are a highlight of my day. A time set aside when students, faculty and staff can leave our work behind, if only for 20 minutes.
As I was holding the chalice and speaking the words of consecration, I looked up and out at the faces of those who had come to root themselves back into the Word of God for the day. On the edge of my vision knelt a student silently mouthing the words with me.
I was transported back to my younger self. When I was a small child, I would mimic Father Mark, our parish priest, while my family and I sat in our usual front pew. When I was a college student, taking my own discernment a little more seriously, I would silently do the same thing, rolling the words around in my mouth as if trying to get a sense of what it would feel like to actually speak them aloud.
“Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant…” As a priest, I have thought those were my lines, and they are. I won’t diminish my role in the Mass. But those words turned out to be this student’s as well, if just for that day, for whatever reason God had placed on their heart.
My own family has always been supportive of my vocation to the priesthood. I am well aware this is not the case for all young men and women discerning a call to religious life. I don’t pretend to know all the reasons for this, although I can guess any number of them. Some of those reasons may be more justified than others, although most of them severely diminish the role that God plays in our ongoing discernment. I mean this as a fact, not a judgment. It can be a difficult reality for some parents or families to hear that their child is discerning such a call.
All of this has been on my mind as we approach Mother’s Day and Good Shepherd Sunday. These words aren’t meant for moms so much as all of us, though. Some years ago, I was having a conversation with a father whose son had shared that he was discerning a call to the priesthood. Dad wasn’t thrilled with the prospect, which he made clear to me. “You don’t get it,” he said. “You don’t have children of your own.” He was right, of course, but only a little right. It would have been imprudent of me to offer a rebuttal, so I didn’t. I let his words linger, long enough for the silence between us to become deafening.
There’s something about the discomfort of silence that begins to shatter the pretense of security we hide behind. Silence is one of God’s surest signs that he is present, which means that it is one of our surest ways of encountering him. “I’m afraid he’d be so lonely,” the dad whispered to me out of that silent God-moment.
There it was. The reason. The fear of loneliness from a dad who cared deeply for his son. As humans, we can’t do a whole lot with other people’s fears except maybe listen as they’re shared. In that listening, perhaps we’re doing more than we think.
This was the first time the dad had expressed his fear, which meant it was a sacred space that allowed God entry into a place that had been blocked off and hidden away.
I can tell you that being a priest does come with loneliness, at times, as do all walks and manners of life. But I am reminded of something Bishop Thomas Zinkula shared with me as I dealt with my own fear:
“No human being can ever be totally present to us. All of us are human and fallible; we hurt each other and let each other down; loved ones get sick and leave us. Only God can be and is with us always, fully and forever.”
Only God is with us, fully and forever. A good reminder for all of us who fear that which we do not fully comprehend: a parent whose son is discerning the priesthood, a young person attempting to figure out where it is that God is calling them, a future full of “what ifs.”
Whether that young student silently mouthing the words with me at Mass is discerning a call to religious life is between that student and God. However, if they happen to share that with me, or you, or their parents, remember that the revelation is coming from a sacred space, the holy ground that God has cultivated in their heart. We are called to listen to them, keeping in mind that our fears or our dreams for their future are just that — ours. That is a humbling realization, the reality that my dreams for my child, my sibling, my friend may not be God’s dreams for them.
Only God is with us, fully and forever. Let us be challenged by that reality, cultivating a faith that allows for discernment, a faith that places God’s desires above mine and above yours, a faith that embraces vocation as one of God’s greatest gifts.