Christopher Pinto had his life all mapped out, a career in medicine, a wife, and lots of kids—or so he thought.
The talented young doctor had a partner and was on his way to becoming a gastroenterologist, a decision inspired by the death of his dad from cancer. Throughout his university years people would often remark that he’d make a good priest.
He would politely laugh off the compliment, saying, “thanks but no thanks.”
In time, it wasn’t just friends and family considering him a good candidate for a priestly vocation. He began hearing a persistent voice in his own head, telling him perhaps he was made for more.
Despite his comfortable life, he decided he couldn’t continue without responding to the call and this year joined 16 others entering Sydney’s Seminary of the Good Shepherd.
In the largest intake in its history, the willingness of young men to consider holy orders is a sign of hope for the Church in Australia.
“I was doing my HSC and felt a lot of anger over what had happened to dad. I really had to work on myself and in doing so discovered a new awareness of my faith.”
In the wake of years of sexual abuse scandals—not to mention long hours, modest wages, loneliness, and a retirement age of 75—it’s not what you think would appeal to the average 28-year-old guy.
But answering God’s call and serving others in the church offers peace a worldly life can’t give.
“I was raised in a Catholic family but wasn’t fervent with my faith until my dad’s cancer diagnosis in 2009 and his passing three years later,” Mr Pinto told The Catholic Weekly.
“I was doing my HSC and felt a lot of anger over what had happened to dad. I really had to work on myself and in doing so discovered a new awareness of my faith.
“I fell in love with Our Lady, she became my great refuge and comfort, and it was through her that my relationship with Christ became so strong.
“During the time dad was unwell God sent some very good priests into my life who challenged me in good ways to reconnect with my faith, especially through the sacrament of confession.
“They encouraged me to connect with the Sydney Uni Catholic chaplaincy, where I was introduced to adoration and daily Mass, among other devotions, which had a huge impact.
“Looking back, when I first had a reversion to my faith, the thought of the priesthood seemed quite foreign. I was in a relationship and had a strong desire to get married and have a family.
“Medicine in itself is quite vocational, and I thought once I started working as a doctor those thoughts would die out.
“But I was very surprised to find the opposite, the voices started getting louder.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, what are you doing God? I’ve studied for seven years, I’ve just started a career with great aspirations to be a gastroenterologist—and now you are calling me?’
“God then put another spiritual director in my path. Despite knowing I was in a relationship he began asking if I had considered the priesthood, as I would be a great candidate.
“My heart started racing but one thing I’ve learnt is that it’s not always about discernment of the priesthood, it’s about discerning the next step and for me the next step was to apply for seminary. I had to give it a go.”
“I continued to work as an intern and a resident at Concord Hospital, which I really loved, but couldn’t ignore the voice in my head.
“So Fr Anthony put me on the spot and told me to make a decision which, looking back, I am grateful for.”
“My heart started racing but one thing I’ve learnt is that it’s not always about discernment of the priesthood, it’s about discerning the next step and for me the next step was to apply for seminary. I had to give it a go.
Seminary rector Fr Michael de Stoop said Good Shepherd provides complete freedom to discern God’s call in the first year of studies, called the “propadeutic” or “spiritual” year.
“The seminary has designed the propadeutic stage of its formation program in such a way that the students in their first year feel free to discern their vocation, without being subject to the expectations of anyone else,” he said.
“Rather, they are provided with resources that help them to be attentive to their deepest desires, which are in response to, and indistinguishable from, God’s desires for them.
“Such discernment enables them to explore if they want to advance to the second stage of the formation program or use their gifts in a lay state of life in the church or within the workforce in society.
“That not every seminarian becomes ordained is a good sign because it confirms that they have been afforded the autonomy to do otherwise.”
The seminary encourages men to stay the course for the first year and see what God has in store for them.
Mr Pinto said that people would ask if he was going to become a priest and he would reply, “‘No. I’m discerning what God wants of me’.”
“Just because you are in the seminary does not mean you’ll become a priest,” he said. “I prayed to our Blessed Mother, telling her I didn’t know what God wanted of me, left it in her hands and applied.
“There were a lot of challenges thrown my way but because I made that promise to Our Lady, I wanted to see it through.
“There have been temptations to pack my bags and return to a very comfortable life, but I’ve chosen to stay as I’ve seen God at work here.”
“It’s day 30 (but who’s counting?) and I oscillate—some weeks I think the priesthood might really be what I’m called to do, and then I have other times when I think I’m called to marriage. That’s what I’m here to find out.
“In my head I know 30 days is not enough to really discern God’s calling.
“There have been temptations to pack my bags and return to a very comfortable life, but I’ve chosen to stay as I’ve seen God at work here.
“They are a great group of guys and they’ve all brought their gifts and strengths with them.
“I need to be here and disconnect from the world to be able to properly hear God’s voice and discern if this is really the life for me.
“The best thing I can do right now is to remain in the present and take each day as it comes.”