“This is not about me. My vocation story is all about God.” These words of Bishop Michael C. Barber, S.J., were spoken at a Magnificat Prayer Breakfast that I attended in Oakland, California. His testimony, along with nineteen other clergy is now published in a new book titled, Holy Orders: A Collection of Inspiring Clergy Testimonies.
Bishop Barber’s vocation story is filled with surprising twists and turns in a tumultuous time of the Church. He was faithful to what the Lord asked along the sometimes-confusing way. In the end, he was ordained into the Order of St. Ignatius and St. Xavier.
From the time when he served as military chaplain to the Marines:
We flew to the Middle East, and the war began shortly thereafter, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003. It was one of the best times of my life as a priest. I was needed! We were on the Kuwait side of the Iraq border. I had my own convoy to attend to the soldiers who were dug in along the border preparing to invade. When I arrived, the men stopped their war plans. The colonel gathered everyone together.
“I am a Catholic priest,” I said, “and I have been sent here. The battle will begin soon, and I would like to say Mass.” Everyone attended. “If it is not your time to die no bullet will find you,” I told them. “If it is your turn to die there is only one thing that will keep you from getting into heaven, and that is mortal sin. But we have the sacrament of Confession that can wash away any sin—any mortal sin. I will not leave this camp until everyone who wants to confess can.” There was a huge line. All the Marines—even the Protestants—came up and said, “I’m not a Catholic, but I have got to get this off my chest.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s (USCCB) website states, “National Vocation Awareness Week (NVAW) is an annual week-long (November 5-11, 2017) celebration of the Catholic Church in the United Sates dedicated to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.”
Vocations to the ministerial priesthood, diaconate or consecrated life are central to life of the Church for the salvation of souls. It is the duty and privilege of the entire Church to intentionally pray for vocations, since it is a divine mandate: “He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’” (Luke 10:2).
In my work for the Foundation of Prayer for Priests apostolate, and on Radio Maria programs, I interviewed several seminarians and priests. It’s fascinating to hear how God knocked on their heart, shook up their plans, stretched their imagination, and tugged on their soul to say “yes” to His call on their life. Their yes required Goliath courage, and a breathtaking leap of faith as evidenced in the following excerpts from the book.
Fr. Donald Calloway, M.I.C., “I didn’t know how to pray. I couldn’t remember ever having said a prayer in my life. I didn’t realize that I had hung the image with the heart of Jesus right above my dresser. As I looked at that picture, trying to pray, suddenly I snapped. I realized that Jesus was truly God and that He wanted me. I looked at His heart, and it was on fire. His hands were in a gesture of invitation. I began to cry uncontrollably. It was pure contrition and repentance. I was so sorry for all my sinfulness, all my perversions, all my wretchedness—all of the wrong things I had done in my life.”
Fr. Raniero Cantalmessa, OFM, “It was as if Jesus stood beside me and gently said, ‘Do you want to give Me the reins of your life?’ There was a moment of panic. I understood this was serious. But at the same time, I immediately realized that no one can be in control of his or her life, so I said, ‘Yes, Lord, take the reins of my life.’ I must confess that later on sometimes I tried to get back control of the reins. This is why we have such a merciful Lord, always ready to forgive us.”
Fr. Harold Cohen, S.J., “The two years of my novitiate were the hardest in my life. I was homesick, and I threw myself into scrupulously obeying the rules. I had tremendous temptations against my faith. Thoughts such as, ‘This is not worth believing’, etc. came to mind. I thank God for my novice mater, Father Mangiacina, who became both father and mother to me. Without him I would never have made it.”
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, “My father’s leadership in our family helped me to understand the importance of father in every family, especially their effect on children and their relationship with Christ. One of my earliest childhood memories is of those few times when we started dinner before my father arrived home. While sitting at dinner table, my little sister and I would hear his footsteps coming up the stairs to the back door; we would push our chairs back from the table, jump up, and turn to the back door waving our arms and yelling, ‘Daddy!’ No matter how tired he was, our father had enough strength to pick us both up at the same time, one in each arm. That memory of my own father has stayed with me vividly, and mirrors such a powerful image of the love and tenderness of God our Father.”
Msgr. Stephen Doktorczyk, “The decision for me to move forward toward the priesthood came in 1998 during a retreat where I assisted. I enjoyed my involvement in the confirmation retreat, which was held in the mountains of San Bernardino, California. Near the end of the retreat, I asked one of the other helpers what he planned to do once he finished his advanced degree. He mentioned that first he would need to better consider ‘this priest thing.’ I believed the words coming out of his mouth were intended for me. I was the one who needed to consider ‘this priest thing,’ and without further delay. I could not continue to run from the Lord and delay giving an answer. Enough was enough. I soon took the proper steps—finding a good spiritual director and making an appointment with the director of vocations—before submitting my application to the seminary. We don’t know what the Lord has in store for us when we are obedient to His will. For seminarians, priests, and deacons, the Lord works through competent superiors. One who holds on too tightly to his own will and plans may miss out on the many surprises from God.”
Msgr. David Toups, “One seminarian shared the story of his calling. It impacted me, and I was deeply moved. …’My heart was burning within me.’ The bishop walked by. Knowing my family as he had for years, he paused and gave me one of those nice Italian slaps on the cheek like in “The Godfather”. He looked at me and said, “Jesus told the apostles, ‘Drop your nets and follow Me.’”. Then he walked off.” …The Holy Spirit had been saying this to me already in a deep and profound way. But to now have a successor of the apostles calling me out was life changing. I looked at the seminarian next to me and felt myself turn white as a ghost.”
USCCB Prayer for Vocations
Hail Mary, full of grace; all generations call you blessed. Hail Mother of God; when asked by the angel to bear the Son of the Most High, filled with faith, you responded: “Let it be done unto me.”
Holy Mother of Jesus, at the wedding feast at Cana, you prompted your Son to perform his first sign. Be with us as we discern our life’s work and guide us in the way we are called to follow in the footsteps of your Son.
Holy Mother of the Savior, at the foot of the cross you mourned the death of your only Son. Bless and embrace the loving parents of all priests, deacons, brothers and sisters.
Holy Mother of the Good Shepherd, turn your motherly care to this nation. Intercede for us to the Lord of the harvest
to send more laborers to the harvest in this land dedicated to your honor.
Queen of Peace, Mirror of Justice, Health of the Sick, inspire vocations in our time. Let the word of your Son be made flesh anew in the lives of persons anxious to proclaim the good news of everlasting life. Amen.
Author’s note: Magnificat, A Ministry to Catholic Women published Magnificat Proclaims: Holy Orders: A Collection of Inspiring Clergy Testimonies. The fifth objective of Magnificat is to imitate the Virgin Mary in her spiritual motherhood of priests. The book is available at www.magnificat-ministry.org or on Amazon.
For more resources on vocations, priesthood, spiritual motherhood and fatherhood of clergy, visit www.foundationforpriests.org.