St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church, says every vocation to the priesthood must begin with a divine calling; this was true even for Jesus Christ.
“No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. In the same way, it was not Christ who glorified himself in becoming high priest, but rather the One who said to Him: You are my son; this day I have begotten you” (Heb 5:4-5). This is because the priesthood is not a career one simply chooses or can change. It is from God and is eternal: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 7:17).
But how does one know if he is called? Although he may not know with certainty at first, every man called to the priesthood will experience some concrete signs from God. One of those signs, according to St. Alphonsus, is purity of intention, a pure desire in wanting to be a priest.
The desire to be a priest is often a supernatural sign from God. Every man should have a desire to serve, but not every man has a desire to be a priest, to shepherd souls, and to give the sacraments to the faithful. The desire to live a life of sacrifice and prayer — a life devoted to God — needs to be taken very seriously by a young man. It is not natural to want to live a life of sacrifice and prayer, since that goes against man’s natural inclinations of comfort and self-will. Nor is this desire demonic, for what does hell gain by putting on a man’s heart a pure intention to be a priest and to save souls? So, this desire to do the things that a priest does, to lay down his life for the sheep, is often a supernatural sign from God.
However, just because a man wants to be a priest does not mean he is definitively called by God. There are impure desires to be a priest; for example, the desire to receive honors or to not want to disappoint his family. He who does not have a divine calling and becomes a priest with an impure intention “does not enter a sheepfold through the gate, but climbs over elsewhere and is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1). Such men receive not a blessing from God, but a malediction, according to St. Anselm.
Men who force themselves into the priesthood have taken upon themselves a dignity, a gift, an honor, that God did not want to bestow upon them, for their vocation was not to be a priest. I can’t help but think of those clergy who have committed the most egregious of crimes, whether these men were really called by God or if they wanted to be priests simply for their own pleasure.
That is why it is important for priests and bishops to know the man who is about to be ordained, to find out if he has a pure intention to approach the altar of God. In our diocese we have a bishop and many priests who know our seminarians well, including the men thinking of joining the seminary. This helps to raise up men in our diocese who have the purity of intention of becoming a priest of Jesus Christ. One of the many reasons I am very proud to be a part of the Diocese of Fort Worth is that I have noticed among our seminarians, and the men thinking about joining the seminary, a pure desire to be shepherds of souls.
Although he still needs the ability, the acceptance from the Church, and a holiness of life, a man called to the priesthood will always have a purity of intention of becoming a priest. This desire should help inspire the young man to take that leap of faith, trusting in God’s providence. In a time where priests are looked down upon, or at least seen as suspicious by the general public, a young man’s pure desire to be a priest should give him further encouragement that this desire is not natural, but supernatural.