By Fr. Thom Hennen
Recently a friend of mine shared a story with me about someone she met who had returned to her practice of the faith after some time away. In telling the story of how she came back to the church she mentioned one incident in particular that seemed to have a lasting impact.
This young woman had been a shy girl with low self-esteem and few friends. She was an altar server, but always tried to be “invisible” before Mass. She remembered serving at a Mass some years ago at which the seminarians for the diocese were present. She recalled that one of the seminarians had come up to her before Mass and engaged her in polite conversation, not ignoring her as she might have secretly hoped. As my friend recounted the story, “he spoke to her like no one else did, like she mattered.” Because of this simple interaction, she recalled how she “felt like a whole human being that day.” While she did later leave the faith, this experience never left her and may have played a part in her return to the church.
These kinds of stories are “music to my ears” as a vocation director, even if I wasn’t the vocation director at the time this took place. It reassures me that the men currently in formation for our diocese are already touching people’s lives in profound, if sometimes hidden, ways.
This story instantly made me think of one of my favorite prayers, entitled “Some Definite Service,” taken from the meditations of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. It’s worth looking up, but a couple of lines in particular stood out in light of this story. Cardinal Newman writes, “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. [God] has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling.” The prayer concludes, “Let me be thy blind instrument. I ask not to see; I ask not to know; I ask simply to be used.”
The seminarian in this story likely has no recollection of his conversation, let alone any idea how meaningful it would be for this young woman. He was simply a “bond of connection between persons,” doing God’s work “in [his] own place, while not intending it,” by simply acknowledging this young girl’s humanity. He could not know or see, but God was able to use him nonetheless.
On difficult days in the seminary, seminarians often console themselves with the line “Remember, you don’t have a vocation to seminary,” meaning that while seminary is important, it isn’t the end goal; priesthood is. If a man has indeed been called by the Lord to the priesthood, then seminary will end someday. Of course, seminarians should not shirk their formation or look at it as a series of “hoops” through which to jump. And yet, there are certain aspects of seminary life that must simply be endured.
As I thought of the story of this young girl and her conversation with that seminarian, it made me think that this seminarian’s vocation, his calling, at least for that particular moment was simply to be a good seminarian. In a sense, our seminarians aren’t waiting for their vocation; they have a vocation now. God is using them now. Their vocation to Christian holiness isn’t paused just because they have not yet received Holy Orders. They will go on to ordination or discern that this is not God’s calling, but every moment along the way is important for the work of the Gospel.
Of course, their vocation doesn’t end with priestly ordination. Within that vocation they will have different assignments, some they never would have imagined or chosen for themselves. They will have to be continually open to the promptings of the Spirit to discover how God is calling them to serve. Ordination isn’t a treasure found so much as it is a treasure hunt begun.
The same is true of every life. In pursuit of our calling each of us already has a calling. And what may seem less important, an ancillary mission along the way, may shape our lives and the lives of others in ways that we can’t see or know this side of heaven.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)