It’s a question faced by everyone starting a career … what’s my calling? Some refer to it as a profession, others a vocation.
For those who want to devote their lives to the Church and be ordained to the priesthood, what drives them to promise to a life of obedience and celibacy in 2021?
In the wake of years of sexual abuse scandals, along with long hours, modest wages, loneliness and a retirement age of 75, it’s not what you think the average millennial would opt for.
Yet despite the challenges, there are now 50 seminarians in formation, more than ever before in the history of the Good Shepherd Seminary at Homebush.
People often see the priesthood as a very restrictive way of life, but according to those answering God’s call it offers a true sense of freedom. After years of discerning and wrestling with the idea of entering the Seminary, finally making the decision offers an enormous sense of inner peace.
This year, seven men entered the Seminary and while all have very different backgrounds, the common thread through their vocation is seeking their purpose and truth, discerning if God wants them to become priests. Particularly challenging in our loud, distracted, media-saturated world, all agree silence is necessary in order to listen and understand one’s own heart.
So why did the class of 2021 enter the seminary? Here are some of their stories.
“I never felt the same desire that my colleagues had in terms of practising law. They had a certain drive or temperament that I just didn’t have.
I loved the Church, to be honest that was my passion. I went on a retreat during law school and while I was there praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament I thought I heard the potential call to the priesthood.
It was as simple as ‘Matt you could be a priest’.
When I heard that I thought wow that’s something I had never thought about. My older brother had just entered the seminary which in itself initially surprised me but then I just felt very proud of what he was doing.
I had never considered the priesthood for myself let alone anybody else. So when Sam joined perhaps that’s when I first opened my heart to the possibility to a vocation. Marriage and kids were always part of my long term plan, I was very much in control of my life and how I wanted it to look.
And now that needs a complete re-shift because me deciding my own vocation is completely antithetical to the calling of a vocation which is the surrender to the direction to where God is calling you.
“I had never considered the priesthood for myself let alone anybody else. So when Sam joined perhaps that’s when I first opened my heart to the possibility to a vocation.”
So at this stage of my discernment journey I seek to open myself up completely to what God is calling me to do and discerning the priesthood exclusively.
To me the priesthood means full service and full sacrifice and the massive task of representing Christ to the people which is all part of the appeal. When Pope Benedict listed the many roles and responsibilities of a priest it made my heart leap for joy because I think wow that’s the true heroism that society needs.
As a young man that’s very attractive to me. The sacrifice is big but I feel that reward of that closeness to Christ is bigger. Right now I’m feeling very confident in my discernment and feel great peace in knowing I am exactly where God wants me to be.”
“Growing up in a very religious family the possibility of a vocation was always there but it wasn’t until I started at Sydney University and got involved in the Catholic Society that I started to consider it quite seriously.
The uni chaplain, Fr Mannes Tellis, made a huge impression on me and when I saw how this young Dominican priest’s ministry helped so many people including myself grow in their faith I thought this was something I could do myself.
About half way through my teaching degree I went on a vocations retreat and soon after broke it off with the girl I was seeing. It obviously wasn’t an easy decision as I had always planned to be a teacher, get married and have kids.
But for me the retreat was something I needed to decide if I should enter the priesthood or take the relationship further. About a year after we broke up she said to me ‘I always knew you’d end up being a priest’.
I guess I’ve always felt a little guilty about saying ‘sorry I’m going to the priesthood’ but she understood so I’m glad things didn’t go any further and her saying that she saw that in me really touched me.
I spoke to the Vocations Director at the Sydney Archdiocese when I started my post grad and he advised me to keep studying, finish my degree and teach for a little while.
“About a year after we broke up she said to me ‘I always knew you’d end up being a priest’.”
Teaching allowed me to see what everyone in the parish was going through and rather than go straight from school, to uni and the seminary, I got to go out in the real world.
When I told my parents about my decision initially it was very hard for them.
My brother was a lay English teacher working with the Marist Brothers in Cambodia and died a couple of years ago from heart failure so facing the reality they wouldn’t have grandkids was emotional but at the same time they were very supportive and happy for me.
Walking through the doors of the seminary for the first time I felt I had made a mistake, I kept thinking ‘what have I done’ but I can now say I am happy where I am.
My mind has cleared and I remember why I came here. At the moment I am quite sure I’m going to make it to ordination but that’s the whole point of being here … to discern my vocation.
I know some men who have been in the seminary for 4 or 5 years and then realised God doesn’t want them to be a priest so they’ve left and got married and are perfectly happy as they’ve found what God wants them to do.
From time to time I do think about everything I’m giving up, I find myself imagining what my life would be like to have a wife and kids but that’s ok. We have to be completely honest about it, you just have to be grounded in your own emotions and face it honestly and sincerely, there’s nothing wrong with that.
“If you are thinking about the priesthood and can’t decide what to do I would say keep praying, talk to a Vocations Director because God will look after you. If he doesn’t want you to be a priest then you won’t be.”
“I was studying to be a Jesuit back in Vietnam but decided to take some time away and look at the motivation behind my vocation.
I had never really experienced living in the secular world as a lay person as I attended a minor seminary from the ages of 12 to 19 and then studied English at university before entering the major seminary when I was 23.
I decided to become a Jesuit as I was attracted by a Jesuit priest who was very holy, spiritual and intellectual.
Saying goodbye to my brothers was the most difficult part of leaving but when I left I kept praying, attending daily Mass and discerning my vocation.
I began working in human resources but very quickly realised I still felt empty. I was feeling a deep hole in my heart, one that money or an ‘ordinary life’ just couldn’t fill.
My family are very religious, my mum was a candidate of a religious order in Vietnam but she couldn’t enter because her family were very poor and couldn’t afford the money to join so she prayed that when she got married she would surrender or dedicate any of her children to God and if it was his will live a religious life.
I have six siblings, one a diocesan priest, two nuns and now me a seminarian.
“When I entered the seminary that hole that I was feeling in my heart felt full. I discovered I need intimacy with God, an intimate relationship with God and to serve his people.”
During that time while I was working, Fr Joseph Nguyen, a Parish Priest from Wollongong Diocese, and the Vicar General Fr Bernard Gordon, came to Vietnam to interview some potential candidates for the priesthood.
Fr Joe knew my brother who told him about me and he contacted me to see if I wanted to have a chat.
I didn’t know anything about Australia except for kangaroos and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I sat down and spoke with them both and they invited me to Wollongong to have a look and talk about what I wanted to do.
At that time I thought if God wants to call me again it must be a sign so I said Yes. I truly think it’s a miracle that God has called me twice and believe this is God’s way to lead me here. When I entered the seminary that hole that I was feeling in my heart felt full. I discovered I need intimacy with God, an intimate relationship with God and to serve his people.
Looking back he hasn’t just called me twice, he has called me many times since I was a child. He put the desire in my heart and I feel I am where I am meant to be.”
“I was going through a ‘low moment’ in my life and I can always remember the words Fr Dan McCaughan said to me that made everything make sense and brought about my reconversion to the faith.
He said ‘God thought it better that you exist’ and in that very simple yet profound sentence everything started to make sense and gave meaning to everything I was doing. I was working for Transport NSW and at uni doing a double degree in engineering and commerce but was lacking direction and seeking some sort of purpose to my life.
I’d been involved in parishes for many years through music ministry and it was while I was doing this at St Charles Borremeo at Ryde that the then assistant priest Fr Dan breathed life into me and my faith.
He knew I was doing it tough and lacking identity and direction and that one simple sentence really stopped me in my tracks. I can’t describe it at an intellectual level but it gave my whole life meaning because it reminded me that my life was a gift from God and my purpose is fulfilled in the words from
St Augustine said that our hearts will always be restless until they rest in you.
I realised that my one goal, my one mission of being on this earth is to one day see the face of God who created me.
“[S]omeone said to me if you are unsure of what’s next, pray ‘Lord what is your will for my life’ and I’d never had a prayer answered so explicitly.”
I was writing my thesis and exams and after having gone to the Youth Leaders Evangelisation School run by the Archdiocese I started going to daily Mass and delving deeper into my faith.
I was thinking about what I would do at the end of my degree, I could travel the world, get a job, I could do whatever I wanted and then someone said to me if you are unsure of what’s next, pray ‘Lord what is your will for my life’ and I’d never had a prayer answered so explicitly.
Within a few weeks I had friends, family and even colleagues at work coming up to me asking if I’d thought about the priesthood. It was very overwhelming and I was quite weirded out by it, but when I took a step back and really listened I got some direction.
About a month later Sumner House opened and I remember going along to the open day not really knowing much about it but it all seemed too much of a coincidence so I moved in. Sumner House gave me the freedom to make the decision to join the seminary and the vocation God has called me to.
Being here is allowing me the freedom to say yes to the priesthood but also to say no. Being where God is calling you and being at peace with it. It’s your choice, it takes two to tango, God is always calling us in that vocation but it’s also our Yes and when the two combine, well, it will happen.
If you think you are being called ask the Lord ‘what is his will for your life’, and then sit back and wait … you’ll get an answer, God will speak to you, you just have to have an open heart to let God enter.”