Page 9, 13th April 2007

13th April 2007
Page 9
Page 9, 13th April 2007 — Our vocation is to share in God's happiness

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Locations: London, Cambridge


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Our vocation is to share in God's happiness





HEARING THE CALL In the Church, we sometimes say that everyone has a vocation. But that's not quite right. It's mom accurate to say that everyone is a vocation. We often think that our existence is a bald fact. But it isn't. To exist at all is to be called by God. A star would not exist if God had not called it into being. There is a lovely passage in the Book of Baruch where God sees the stars and they joyfully cry out: "Here we are! Here we The stars say "yes" to God. And everything that exists — including our own apparently insignificant lives — is a "yes" to the God who calls.

What's odd about human beings is that we don't just say "yes" by existing; we also say "yes" with our words. God speaks a word to us and we reply with words. And that, in fact. is why we were created: to answer God's word. This human vocation, which we all share regardless of our particular calling, is expressed in the beautiful Hebrew word hineni, which means, "here I am". When God calls Moses from the burning bush. Moses replies: "Hineni." When Isaiah hears a voice asking "Whom shall I send?" he replies: "Hineni. Send me." So, the human vocation is to say "here I am" when God calls.

We live at a time when there is an awful loss of confidence in the meaning of human existence. We have no idea what the future of humanity holds, of what disasters and violence lie ahead. of whether we shall be blown up by bombs or drowned by the rising sea or fried by global warming. But when we say "here I am" to God, we recognise that we are called by Him and going to Him.

Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are a sign that every person is living a story that leads to God. They are signs to people who see their life going nowhere. They may be stuck in boring jobs. Their marriages might be going wrong. They may have been diagnosed with cancer. When they reach these moments of disaster, they ask: "What is the point?" The lives of priests and religious offer an answer. They say: "I have put myself in the hands of God, because I believe my life is heading towards him." Such vocations are a tremendously vital sign to anybody who feels their life is disintegrating.

Some people say they first heard God's call as children. The prophet Jeremiah said: "You call me from the womb." He recognised that God was calling him even before he was born. So it's quite possible that, as a child, you might have glimpsed that you are called to God and that to be alive is to be setting out on that journey to God. But that's rare. I certainly didn't spend my childhood building altars in the back garden and never had any desire to be a priest until I left school. I spent my school days smoking behind the cricket pavilion and escaping as often as I could to the nearest "safe" pub. An early religious experience doesn't automatically mean you are called to the priesthood or religious life.

One of the more common ways God calls people is through other people. That's why it's important that if you think someone is possibly going to be a priest or religious that you tell them so. A lot of people have just never considered the possibility. Fr Donald Cozzens once noticed a pious young man coming to Mass each day. After a month or so, he went up to him and said: "Have you ever thought you might be called to be a priest?" The young man looked steadily at him and answered: "Well. .1 think I may be called to be a bishop."

I remember meeting a bright young Dominican who had just got his doctorate from Harvard. I asked him how he had met the Order. He replied: "I became a Dominican because somebody proposed it to me." I asked him who it was. And, to my great surprise, he answered: "It was you." We had never met before, but eight years earlier I had had lunch with a cousin. She had brought along an American friend, who told me one of his children was about to become a Jesuit. As a joke, I said: "He can't do that!" I sent the young man a postcard on which I wrote: "What's this nonsense about becoming a Jesuit? Join the Dominicans'." And he did. If you are lucky, you will be able to hear God's call through your family. It was a blessing for me that my parents said: "If you want to try your vocation, that's fine. If you leave after a bit, it's not a failure." That's the most important thing my family gave me. because there used to be a terrible tradition of people looking down on what they called "spoilt priests" — men who had tried seminary but left. That was a terrible burden because people didn't feel free to say: "Well, maybe I have a vocation. I want to try." My father also wisely arranged for me to have dinner with a family friend who had left the seminary. so that from the beginning I got some idea of the challenges.

Sadly, there are parents who resist their children's vocations. When my mother's mother's grandfather. George Lane-Fox, became a Catholic, his father at first tried to persuade him to take blue pills, which were then believed to discourage conversion to Catholicism. When he refused, his father disowned him. But, in my experience, the opposition to vocations softens when parents see their child is happy and flourishing as a priest or nun. That really reconciles them to the idea.

Happiness is an intrinsic part of the priestly and religious vocation. You can't be a preacher of the Good News if you're miserable. I don't mean that kind of charismatic happiness where you have to smile because Jesus loves you, which I find profoundly depressing. True Christian happiness is unusual in that it includes sorrow. Christian happiness is sharing God's happiness, and God's happiness is His being. It's the happiness of God being God.

The seed of my vocation was probably the unexpected joy of a Benedictine great-uncle of mine. He had been wounded in the First World War. He had lost an eye and most of his fingers, but was filled with happiness. And I guessed, even as a child, that the origin of this joy was God, that all this religion is actually connected with God's desire for us to be happy.



Some priests' vocation stories have made me envious. They involve winning through to ordination, despite obstacles and deprivation. I must warn you that, by contrast, my story involves opportunity and plenty. I was born in East London into an Irish family. Our area, our parish and my primary school were full of my aunts, uncles and cousins. I had been born into a clan and it championed the Catholic faith. Many of my earliest and strongest memories involve Church: Masses, First Holy Communion and Benediction.

The parish priest of my boyhood was Fr Michael Hopkins. Like my father, he was a big, craggy Irishman. He had served in the Army and carried with him its nononsense attitude. Fr Hopkins could be austere and sometimes inappropriately republican but he was always faith-filled and dependable. He showed me early in life that among the many possible life choices priesthood was manly and noble. Seeds of vocation, even if their growth is ignored. are sown young.

For secondary education, I went to the London Oratory School. This was a great blessing. The school placed solemn celebrations of the Church's Liturgy at the heart of its life and it taught the intellectual credibility of the Catholic faith. I was a boy who delighted more in the cerebral than the sporting life. It mattered to me greatly, I now realise, that the faith I had been born into was rational and defendable, majestic and beautiful.

Nevertheless, what of my relationship with the Lord and his vocation for me? Since my first Holy Communion, I had served Mass every non-school day, I prayed daily for my needs and I took myself to Confession at least once a month. Yet my behaviour and sense of vocation was no different from any other typical Catholic boy. My family, parish and schools had laid down the firewood of faith but it seemed to be not yet burning.

Then my mother died. I was 16 years old. Her death was dreadful: for my father and me, she was our rock. I had thought of priesthood as a possible future; now, I distanced myself from the idea. In my mourning, 1 clung to God more than ever, but my faith was also in mourning and I wanted life. Her death, however, left me with two stabbing questions: "Since I now know life is short, what is the point to it?" and "Since anyone can die. who can I rely upon?" These were the unsurprising thoughts of an adolescent Christian mind and self-centred teenage heart but they were further seeds of vocation.

At Cambridge, I threw myself into university life. Yet, despite its excitements and promises, I could not escape from those two questions or their inevitable shared answer: God. More than that, I felt that, as God was the answer for everyone, when it came to me, He answered those two questions by calling me to be a priest. I applied, therefore, to my home bishop, to follow the model of priesthood that had inspired me as a boy — secular or diocesan priesthood — not fully aware of the reality of Christ's priesthood.

I was accepted. I was 21. But before I was ordained a priest, at 28, I had two purifying crises. At seminary, I became fearful. Would I be bored in parish ministry? Would it satisfy me, emotionally and intellectually? By my fourth year at the English College in Rome, I could not ignore this question, so I spent a year in a parish. I loved it. I discovered, somewhat late, that Christ's priesthood is the service of God through the service of others and is joyful. If that service is embraced by the called man, it will satisfy. It did.

The final purifying crisis lasted as long as my diaconate. For all my life, more than I had realised, I had been attracted to priesthood, but was I fulfilling God's call? Was I following myself rather than Him? My anguish as I struggled with this question forced me to place my trust in Him. I had to say, again and again: "Your will be done!" It was for Him to light the firewood of faith. In this act of trust, I was ordained and priesthood has been wonderful — thank God!

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