In my parish of Corpus Christi, in Canberra, Australia, there is a young priest by the name of Fr Constantine Osuchukwu who has created such a tidal surge of spiritual revival by way of his joyful ministry that he is a living breathing example of why the Catholic Church is in such dire need of a new generation of young, energetic priests to fill this increasingly yawning gulf prevalent in the wake of plummeting numbers of young men joining the priesthood.
The Catholic Church has hit critical mass. There have never been fewer priests ordained as in recent years and the numbers continue to dwindle. However, in spite of declining ordinations in recent years, statistics clearly reveal that seminarian numbers since the Jubilee year have risen marginally from those of the 80’s and 90’s. Further to this, some developing countries such as Fr Constantine’s homeland of Nigeria continue to experience a vocation ‘boom’. So I bring to you this precious insight into Fr Constantine’s spiritual calling in the hope that any young man considering a spiritual vocation might be encouraged, emboldened and animated to action by his powerful testimony.
I asked him what had prompted him to take that vital, fundamental step from faith as a way of life (as a lay person of faith) to faith as a vocation, to which he replied with eloquent simplicity – divine inspiration. He outlined that his calling from God started with the seed of exposure to a very benevolent parish priest, a true shepherd of his flock, back in his home town in Nigeria who visited his parishioners regularly and strove to make faith in Jesus Christ a daily reality and not just a token hour every Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist at Mass. He was awed by his parish priest’s leadership role and considered this man a role model of true spiritual stewardship.
This childhood awe germinated into a genuine intrigue and root-bearing understanding of the mysteries of the Christian faith that lay beyond the mantel of the man in the vestments as he grew to a youth and then matured into a personal and profound relationship with the True Shepherd, Jesus Christ, in adulthood. His Catholic upbringing (one governed by involvement and not just attendance) laid the foundation stones of his faith but he credits the hand of providence, his direct and unmistakable calling to serve God and humanity, and the desire to glorify the name of Jesus Christ and to bring His love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness to others with galvanizing his desire to become a priest.
Fr Constantine celebrates a Mass that is at once deeply reverent and yet transparently joyful. He describes the joy of celebrating Mass as incomprehensible, a gift. “It is a joy that springs from the fact that every Eucharist transforms our humanity at a deeper level so that we are capable of the life of God. We receive the Lord in the Holy Communion so that ‘we can become what we eat’, men and women capable of loving the way Jesus loved.” He explained that putting on the vestments to celebrate Mass is an inexpressible privilege and a source of unfathomable wonder, for he is not putting on mere ceremonial robes, but rather putting on Christ, the very same Christ that is immediately present in and through him, the Eucharist and the body of believers present. He outlined that a great source of delight to him is the denial of the self in the celebration of Mass, for personality is not a factor, individualism is irrelevant and the collective body of believers – the Body of Christ – is a true flock, a congregation, and not a mere collection of individuals. This unity, he cites, is inspirational and heartens him to carry on the work of God, share with his parishioners in the wonder of the mysteries of Christ, and continue in his earthly mission to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.
There is indescribable joy, peace and purpose to be found in the priestly calling to serve God, but there is immense hardship as well. Priests are, after all, men and bound to a world rife with war, largely dismantled by exploitation in all its forms, seduced by consumerism and materialism, and governed by secularism. But by far the greatest obstruction to the divine mission of any priest – as it was in the time of Moses, the time of David, the time of Jesus and the time of Paul – is opposition. Unbelief and the ‘self’ walk hand in hand. The culture of dismissing all beliefs that don’t endorse the primacy of the self (and that self’s immediate and self-serving needs) and the widely cherished misconception of the individual’s right to self-gratification on every level have taken the form of disregarding and dismissing faith in Jesus Christ as delusional on one sweep of the pendulum swing. More sinisterly, the opposite swing of the pendulum takes the form of active persecution, prosecution (and in some areas of the world, resultant execution) against those advocating and taking a stand for Christ as a priest. Priests also face opposition in the form of gross mischaracterization and stereotyping. Many believe that the crimes committed by the few necessarily justify condemnation of the many – as many priests who have faced the hostility of those who believe that all priests molest children and the vulnerable have encountered.
Priests face opposition and vilification in so many forms and from so many sides. But it is not merely the external struggle of priesthood that presents hardship but the internal grapple with not only juggling all of the responsibilities (both spiritual and temporal) but all of the burdens of ministry. Priests are not recused by virtue of their vocation from the struggles and dialogues with sin that plague the rest of mankind, and because they are held to a higher standard of moral, ethical and spiritual conduct than others, and because they are highly visible members of our society, these battles place an even heavier yoke of burden around the neck of a priest because they have not only a personal but very public and social responsibility (as the mouthpiece of Christ, as his representative here on earth) to set the benchmark for right judgment, right living, right values and right example. As Fr Constantine explained to me – the fulfillment and the hardship of the priesthood, while two sides of the same coin, are like the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is the experience and/or expression of pleasure and contentment but it can be fleeting, affected, and is entirely dependent on circumstance, attitude and perception. Joy on the other hand is a state of being, it is a euphoria stemming from immersion in a profound state of spiritual elevation. One can be joyful and yet unhappy (as many of the disciples discovered in their ministry following Christ’s Resurrection – they suffered the misery and dejection of persecution, severe physical hardship, and alienation and yet they remained abundantly joyful in their apostleship because of their deep and unwavering adoration of the Lamb of God).
But it is this eternal joy in a relationship with Christ and not the temporary happiness of temporal circumstance or personal sensitivity that Fr Constantine denotes as being the driving force behind his ability to recommit the whole of his life and self to Jesus Christ every day and thus to the carrying out of the original mission that began in the Holy Land 2000 years ago.
So what does it take to become a priest? How can you know if you are truly being called to the holy office of the priesthood? Fr Constantine described a three step process critical to assessing the nature of a priestly vocational calling.
1. Discernment: Discern the calling through prayer and with the learned counsel of a Spiritual Director. He advises that a person’s initial response to the calling can be either misguided or selfish, or both. Aspirations to social status or a personal agenda other than the singular desire to serve God and humanity need to be examined, assessed and addressed. But with the grace of God and committed prayer, a man can discern the true nature of his calling according to the will of God.
2. Spiritual mentoring: This element is essential in the proving process of any seminarian’s spiritual growth. If Christ is the yeast in the dough of our faith that makes it rise and swell, a spiritual mentor is the fire in the brick bake house. Without the application of heat, bread cannot be transformed. Without a mature spiritual guide, a fledgling faith cannot ripen into a spiritual wisdom. A spiritual mentor is also invaluable in preparing a young priest for the realities of the indivisible burdens and joys of the journey of priesthood.
3. Purification of Intention: This is perhaps the final and most critical element of discernment – the sloughing away of all notions of self and individualism and embracing the singularly noblest ideal of priestly calling. Purification of intention is a process of self-examination that every seminarian must necessarily work through to ensure that his intention – his motivation to do the work of God in the world to the exclusion of all other personal goals or gain – is purified through prayer, holy meditation, reflection on the Scriptures and true commitment of the heart to Jesus Christ.
When I asked Fr
But it is the purpose of priesthood that he outlined as his driving force in this world. Christ’s resurrection was necessary to fulfill the words of the prophets, guarantee our salvation, and carry out God’s will. Priests, Fr Constantine disclosed, are icons of Christ acting in persona Christi caputis – in the person of Christ the head carrying out Christ’s ongoing work of healing, sanctifying and teaching the people he bought with his blood. At the grass roots level of it all, this is the mission he felt called to continue as so many priests before him have and so many after him will – to continue the holy commission of Christ.
If you are a young man entertaining the notion of a vocation to the priesthood, Fr Constantine urges you to earnest prayer and to seek out spiritual counsel - your local parish priest, a Christian friend or neighbor. The road to priesthood and beyond is not without its trials and tribulations but, as Fr Constantine would say, “The pay isn’t great, but the superannuation is out of this world!”.
I would like to conclude this with a prayer: Heavenly Father, your apostles throughout the ages have endured hardship and persecution in their divine commission of continuing the work of your Son. But they also experienced the matchless joy of knowing Christ and the inexpressible wonder of sharing in the mysteries of the sacraments with your children. May those considering surrendering their lives to you come to know the unfathomable depths of your love and be compelled to bring your Word to the world. May the numbers of our Catholic priests swell from this day forth, bringing a holy army of peacemakers into a world groaning in need. Lord, we keep your priests ever in our daily prayers and with earnest affection and devotion we will endeavor to do all we can to support and encourage them. May your grace fill their spirits and your love envelope them utterly. We ask this through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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