By the time I was a sophomore in college a bothersome inner-voice which had been with me since senior year in high school crescendoed, telling me to think about a vocation to the priesthood. I did all I could not to give it attention nor to act on it. I was focused on my studies, my social life, considering a career, yet this thought of the priesthood kept returning to me. I tried unsuccessfully to dismiss it, yet it kept coming back.
Finally, I summoned the courage to speak with the priest chaplain at the college. His patience, understanding and advice were so helpful. He counseled me not to be afraid to go with the thought of a call to the priesthood. He also helped me understand that my attempts to dismiss the voice were normal. The call to be a priest of Jesus Christ is daunting, even frightening.
He wisely suggested that the voice returning again and again was a sign that God would continue to hound me until I responded. The thought that God was after me not only made me laugh but encouraged me to respond.
Father Burns suggested that I read Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven.” Thompson, a 19th century English poet, uses the image of a hound pursuing a hare in a hunt to portray that God seeks us. The poem begins:
“I fled Him down the nights and down the days. I fled Him down the arches of the years. I fled Him down the labyrinth way of my own mind and in the midst of tears I fled from Him….”
I connected with those words the minute I read them. I knew that I could no longer flee from the Hound of Heaven.
The day I spoke with my parish priest I thought we would begin a conversation about a vocation to the priesthood. He listened intently and much to my surprise picked up the phone as we were speaking to arrange an appointment the following week with the Board of Admissions at the Archdiocesan seminary. Father seized the bull by the horns. “You’ve got to do something about what you are hearing,” said he. I’ll never forget his decisiveness compared to my indecisiveness.
Then I had to tell my parents what was going on. I waited until I had them together and I told them about this bothersome voice which would not leave me and about my conversations with the priests. My dad preferred that I finish college and then decide about entering the seminary. My mom encouraged me to follow the “will of God.”
Despite his reluctance with my plans my father drove me to the seminary for the interview. He knew I was nervous and encouraged me to “just be yourself and it will go well.” I met individually with four priests of the seminary faculty. I don’t recall much of what they asked or what I said. A week later I received a letter informing me that I was accepted and instructing me when to report and what to bring.
My father took me to buy a trunk which was a required item and my mother purchased the other things on the list, such as sheets, blankets and towels, and she patiently sewed name tags into every item of my clothing. Three cassocks were required and a napkin ring. Being from the Bronx, I didn’t know too much about napkin rings. We used paper napkins at home except on holidays when the Irish linen napkins made an appearance on the table! My dad purchased the napkin ring for me on which he had my name engraved. It was quite beautiful and I suspect it was costly. That napkin ring which I used for six seminary years became for me a sign of his approval of what I was doing. My father died six months after I entered the seminary.
“If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts,” prays the psalmist. I would counsel any young man who can’t get rid of that nagging voice of invitation to the priesthood to do something about it. Make an appointment to speak with a priest. God is hounding you. Don’t be afraid to respond. You have to test the call and that begins with a conversation with a priest who will help you.
I ask each reader of this column to pray that young men will have the courage to consider a call from God to the diocesan priesthood. Courage is a gift of the Holy Spirit who will help you. Get your hand on our vocation prayer card, which is available at your parish. If not, call my office and I’ll see that you get one. On one side of the card there is a photo of myself with many of our seminarians seated in a boat. That boat represents the bark of Peter, the Church. My prayer is that many young men will get into that boat and one day serve the Church in South Jersey as diocesan priests.
On the weekend of November 11-12, I have asked our parish priests to include during the homily at Mass a few words about their vocation stories. In some of the parishes our seminarians will speak. With your prayers and the pulpit stories that will be told, I pray that any young man who is hounded by God’s call will respond generously.
Most Reverend Dennis J. Sullivan, D.D.
Bishop of Camden
Bishop Sullivan is pictured in the photo above (second from right in second row) with his 1971 Seminarian Class at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.