Depending on the man’s age and educational background, it takes between four and eight years to become a priest. That might seem like a long time, but there are good reasons for it. The intellectual formation needed to learn philosophy and theology is taken very seriously by the Church. Adequate training in both of those fields requires years of study.
Moreover, priesthood is a serious commitment that entails significant sacrifice and public promises. It is important that a candidate for Holy Orders has plenty of time to grow in knowledge of God and himself, to develop a solid life of prayer, and increase in virtue. These things are crucial to good discernment of God's will for his life. At the same time, the Church must also have adequate time to discern the suitability of a candidate for Holy Orders and determine whether the call he perceives is authentic. The years required for priestly formation are for the good of both the candidate and the Church.
A religious order priest belongs to a community of men bound together by faith and the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Poverty means that they do not own things individually but rather as a group. Chastity means that they refrain from sexual activity and do not marry. Obedience means that, after appropriate consultation, they do what their superiors ask them to do. It is not necessary to be a priest to be a member of a religious order. Such members of religious communities are called brothers. The priests and brothers of a religious community may engage in any kind of work for the Church and the good of humanity. They often specialize in certain kinds of work such as education, ministry to the sick or poor, or service in foreign missions.
A diocesan priest does not make the solemn vows that religious priests make, but he does make promises of prayer, chaste celibacy, and obedience to his bishop. Perhaps the most striking difference between him and a religious order priest is that the diocesan priest lives a life more like that of his people. He buys his own clothes and car, he pays taxes, he may own personal property. That is why a diocesan priest is sometimes called a secular priest (from the Latin saeculum, a word that means roughly “this world of time and space in which we live).
A diocesan priest belongs to the body of priests (called the presbyterate) of a local diocese, which is a particular territory within a state or country. The Diocese of Bridgeport is contiguous with Fairfield County, or the southwestern part of the state of Connecticut. A diocesan priest normally serves within the boundaries of his diocese under the authority of his bishop.
The call to the priesthood usually isn’t accompanied by a bolt of lightning or a voice from the clouds. It tends to be subtle, a deep movement of the heart in response to the beckoning of the Holy Spirit. But there are signs one can notice in his life to help him recognize whether or not God is offering him a share in His priesthood. Here are a few examples:
God has placed in your heart a desire to be a priest. Surveys of recently ordained priests have found an interesting trend: most priests say they first started thinking about the priesthood at eleven years old or in eleventh grade. It has become known as the 11-11 rule. If Jesus has placed a desire in your heart for priesthood, no matter what your age, don’t ignore it. Talk to a priest you admire about how you feel.
You have a deep love for Christ and His Church. A priest functions in persona Christi capitas—in the person of Christ, head of the Church. Thus a man who wants to be a priest must love Jesus Christ above all else. And like Jesus, he should have a deep love for the Church, the Bride of Christ. In general, a man who wants to be a priest will find himself drawn to Church teachings and “all things Catholic.”
Other people have mentioned that you would be a good priest. Often other people will notice a “priest’s heart” in a young man and say to him, “Have you ever thought about being a priest? I think you’d make a good one.” In fact, many men report that they grew tired of people making such comments. But sometimes the Holy Spirit uses other people to point out what we ourselves do not see or are not ready to acknowledge.
You desire a life of virtue and prayer. One of the things that people expect from their priests is that they are men who have cultivated a relationship with Christ through prayer. Thus, a good candidate for priesthood is a man who attends Mass, prays frequently, receives the sacrament of Confession, serves others, and strives to grow spiritually.
You want to help others grow closer to Christ. A priest brings Jesus to people and people to Jesus. For this reason, a man who wants to be a priest must have a deep concern for the people of God. He is a man who recognizes that we live in an age of re-evangelization. He wants to help others grow in holiness through the sacraments and lives of prayer and service, to teach them the truths of the faith, and minister to them during the trials of life. The vocation of priesthood is about leading others to heaven.
This list is obviously not exhaustive, but is intended to help a man who the Lord perhaps is inviting to the priesthood recognize some of the signs of a vocation. If you think God is calling you to the priesthood but you’re not totally sure - that’s fine. Give the Vocation Director, Fr. John Connaughton, a call and he will help you try to figure out if you would benefit from entering a formal discernment program like St. John Fisher Seminary, to engage the question of God’s will for your life.
God loves us and desires our happiness. If we seek to do the will of God in our lives we will know happiness. Of course, this does not mean that our lives always will be easy. But if we strive to be faithful in our vocations with the help of grace the Lord will grant us the deeper happiness of the peace of knowing that we are doing what He desires for us.
The truth is that the overwhelming majority of priests are extremely happy in their vocations. And this is because they are doing what the Lord intended for their lives. Most priests will cite administering the sacraments, preaching the Word, and helping people and their families as great sources of satisfaction. Ultimately, the source of happiness for anyone is his or her relationship with Christ, and the priest is given the privilege of acting in the person of Christ at key moments in the life of the Church.
Studies consistently show that priests are very happy in their ministry, in far higher percentages than those studied in virtually any other life work. A good resource that examines the findings done through extensive research on the lives of priests is a book entitled: Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests by Msgr. Stephen Rossetti. It offers a very accessible and interesting analysis of Msgr. Rossetti’s work with priests over the years.
Celibacy is one of the most radical and misunderstood aspects of Roman Catholic priesthood, especially in this day in age. It’s not uncommon for those who feel drawn to priesthood to express their concern about the celibacy requirement. Perhaps some of these thoughts are familiar to you:
"I really like girls!"
"I have not always lived a chaste life. Can I still be considered for the seminary?”
"I struggle with purity, so I’m not sure I possess the holiness that is required for a commitment to celibacy.”
"Celibacy seems like a life of loneliness. Can I be happy alone?”
"I think I would like to be a father.”
Fair enough. But it is important to have a clear understanding about what priestly celibacy is versus what it is not. In his wonderful book To Save a Thousand Souls, Fr. Brett Brannen of the Diocese of Savannah wrote insightfully about priestly celibacy:
“The requirement of celibacy is certainly one of the greatest sources of anxiety and fear in a man who is discerning priesthood. This is especially true in a sex-saturated society and culture. The message we receive from the media and culture is very clear: no person can be happy and fulfilled unless they are having a lot of sex. But this is simply not true.
“The good news is that God’s grace can accomplish all things! With the power of Jesus’ cross, a man can overcome sexual lust and live his life peacefully in his respective vocation. It can be done. It is possible. There is much evidence. For example, there are approximately four hundred thousand Catholic priests worldwide. The huge majority of these men at one time said these or similar words, ‘I can never become a priest because I like girls too much.’ Well, all four hundred thousand of them are priests now. God will never send us where His grace cannot sustain us.” (To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to the Diocesan Priesthood, pp216-19)
But the question “why does the Church require celibacy of its priests?” is a good one.
Practical reasons are often cited – for example, that an unmarried man can more easily dedicate himself to the work of the Church. While this is a valid reason that has roots in scripture (1 Cor 7:32-35), it is by no means the most important reason. More important are the spiritual realities signified by celibacy.
Celibacy configures the priest more closely to Christ, the great High Priest, who forsook earthly marriage for the sake of the Kingdom and for the sake of uniting himself more perfectly to his heavenly Bride, the Church. It also marks the priest as a man consecrated to the service of Christ and the Church. It shows in a concrete way that he is not merely someone who exercises a set of functions or who holds a certain office but that he has been changed on an ontological level by his reception of the sacrament of Orders. As someone who stands in the place of Christ, offering the sacrifice of Our Lord to the Father on behalf of the Church, it is fitting that the priest show in his own person (albeit to an imperfect degree) the purity and holiness of his unspotted Victim. Celibacy reminds us of heaven, pointing to the coming of the Kingdom when marriage will no longer exist.
Chaste celibacy is a gift from God which opens a man’s heart so that he can embrace all of God’s children in a very powerful way. His healthy and holy inclination to be married and have a family is transformed into a supernatural fatherhood that renders his ministry, if he is faithful, fruitful beyond all expectations.
Celibacy is not a denial of the priest’s sexuality. It is in no way a condemnation of his sexuality, as if human sexuality is somehow bad or sinful. Human sexuality as intended by the Creator is, of course, a great and beautiful good. No priest would tell you that it is always easily lived. Then again, neither is marriage. But with the help of grace and the priest’s own growth in virtue, the celibate life can be a tremendously joyful and fulfilled one. It is vital for the priest to develop a solid prayer life, healthy lifestyle, good friends, and prudent judgment about persons and situations. These qualities allow the priest to be generous with his life, dedicating in a privileged way his whole life for the sake of the Kingdom of God, for his brothers and sisters, and for the Church.
Sometimes the concern is expressed, often by parents of a man discerning priesthood, that the priesthood can be a lonely life. But it is important to keep in mind that there is a difference between aloneness and loneliness. In the life of a priest, moments of solitude or aloneness are required for prayer, reflection, homily preparation, and rest. Many priests experience aloneness without feeling lonely. Further, in the midst of his ministry, a priest interacts with hundreds of individuals a week.
Human beings are social creatures. We cannot survive in isolation. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Our Lord Himself called the Twelve to "be with Him." The Lord Jesus had friends, and called them such. And this is why the capacity for friendship is an essential characteristic of the candidate for priesthood. Healthy friendships, especially with his brother priests, are essential.
Because the truth is that no vocation - including marriage - is immune to loneliness. Therefore, a priest must always be vigilant in maintaining healthy relationships with family, friends, brother priests, religious, and parishioners.
Not every man who enters seminary goes on to become a priest. When a man enters into a program of priestly discernment in good faith with a heart that is open to the will of God and concludes that the Lord is not calling him to be a priest, that should never be considered failure.
Rather, it is a success. There is nothing shameful about withdrawing from a program for this reason. The time spent in formation should never be considered a waste since through his experience in the seminary a man will have grown in holiness, self-awareness, and personal maturity through the entire process of discernment and the experience of formation. Having engaged the question of vocation, he should be able to go forward with his life and live it with greater virtue as a Catholic layman in the world.