So you want to be a priest
So you want to be a priest? Or to put it more precisely, you are thinking that God may be calling you to the priesthood and you want to respond to this call? First off, good for you. The openness to this supernatural call from God is the first and most important step, and for some, the absolute hardest. This article is designed to provide an overview of the process from where you might be now up until the point the bishop will lay hands on your head at your ordination. It’s a long process, but one designed to form you into a man ready to take on the responsibilities and duties of being a priest of Jesus Christ. The article will look at the process for formation for becoming a diocesan priest. The process of formation for becoming a religious priest will have a lot in common but have some very distinct differences that depend on which religious order you might be joining.
The absolute first thing you must do is begin to, if you have not already, establish a steady and consistent prayer life. Prayer is the lifeline of a priest and also the lifeline of one preparing for the priesthood as a seminarian. I would recommend making the Liturgy of the Hours the basis of this prayer life. As a priest you will make a promise to pray these Hours for the Church and so why not start now? Ask a priest or somebody else who knows how to pray these prayers to teach you and begin to pray them yourself.
Get a spiritual director. Be open and honest with him. If you do not know somebody to ask to be your spiritual director you can ask the vocation director of your local diocese. Which brings us to the vocation director.
The vocation director is the person, usually a priest, assigned by the diocese to accompany men as they discern the priesthood and serve as the official liaison between them and the diocese. Your vocation director is very important and being open and honest with him is important. When you contact the vocation director you are not committing your life then and there. You are simply saying that you think that God may be calling you to the priesthood and you would like to explore this avenue. It’s akin to going on a first date. You are certainly not committing to marriage, but simply exploring if this might be where you are being called.
Once you have talked to the vocation director, they may have a number of things you may need to do depending on your circumstances before they determine that you are ready to apply to be accepted to the diocese as a seminarian. Once they determine that you are ready you will receive an application. It is long, as it should be. Often it will ask for a written spiritual autobiography to give you a chance to share your life story and share how God has been moving in your life to bring you to this point. The application will also ask for a work and school history as well as several letters of recommendations from people who know you from various capacities. It may be long, and it may take a few weeks to completely fill out, but it is not too difficult. Again, as you go through it if any questions come up, ask your vocation director the question. He is there to help you.
Once you have filled out the application you will probably have an interview with the vocation director and a few other people, almost always including the bishop of the diocese. Again, be open and honest here. The people interviewing you don’t expect you to be perfect, but they expect you to be honest.
A little side note here- many people ask why a diocese would have such a long and stringent application problem? Don’t we have a vocations shortage? Shouldn’t we accept anybody who wants to apply? But the discernment of a vocation is not a one way street. While you may be discerning the priesthood, your diocese is discerning whether or not you are actually called to the priesthood and whether you are a good fit in the diocese. Just like in a dating relationship both sides are discerning, so in the formation of a man to the priesthood both sides are discerning whether this relationship should continue moving forward.
If you are accepted by the diocese, the bishop together with the vocation director will determine which seminary you will attend. Some dioceses use multiple seminarians, some use only one. It is ultimately the decision of the bishop where you will go and he has his reasons why he may choose to send you to one seminary or another. Once he has decided which seminary to send you to, you will need to apply to the seminary itself. This is a much shorter process than applying to the diocese and your vocation director will assist you. It will look very similar to a cross between the application for the diocese and applying to a college. You will probably be asked to submit the personal spiritual autobiography that you submitted to the diocese.
Once you are accepted to the seminary it is time to move in and begin your seminary formation process. Seminary will consist of a lot of study, a lot of prayer, and a lot of meeting with your spiritual director. Seminary takes a long time. We live in a world in which people want things quickly, but the seminary does not work like that. Seminarians often remark that people want formation to work like a microwave but it rather works like a crockpot. Slowly, consistently, with time the formation offered through the seminary will begin to help you be ready for ordination.
If you do not have a college degree seminary often lasts for 7 to 8 years of academic work and if you have a college degree perhaps 5 to 6 years. Essentially you will be studying theology at the graduate level and in order to do this you need to have the requisite philosophy as a background. These classes are not much different from classes you may have had while as a “regular” student. Assigned reading, presentations, papers, and final exams will become very important. But remember that more important than this is maintaining and deepening that habit of prayer.
In addition to school work and prayer you will also be assigned some pastoral work at various places. This may include working alongside chaplains at a hospital, working in a parish helping with RCIA, or working with some other Catholic organization. This work will not only help you determine if you are called to the priesthood but help you develop skills you will need as a priest.
Some dioceses and seminaries recommend what is known as a pastoral year. This is a year of living and working alongside priests in a parish. This way you can further discern if this is the life you may be called to while also learning the ins and outs of the way a parish functions. It can be invaluable to not only your discernment but to your formation as a parish priest.
As you approach the end of your third year of theological studies, the second to last year of your academic work, you will begin to prepare for ordination to the transitional diaconate. It is at this moment that you will make your lifelong promises of celibacy and obedience. It is also the moment at which your diocese will commit to being responsible for you for the remainder o your life. Thus is it a huge moment that may involve further meetings with not only your vocation director, but also your bishop so that together you can determine is this is really where God is calling you.
Once you are ordained a deacon, your pastoral work may shift away from a hospital to being assigned to a parish where you will serve as a deacon- proclaiming the Gospel, preaching, baptizing, witnessing marriages, etc. all the while keeping an eye on the priest knowing that you are about year from doing those things as well.
The final year is full of responsibilities as a deacon as well as finishing your school work and completing the degrees you are working towards. At the end of the year, you will graduate from the academic work and together you and your bishop will determine if you are ready for ordination to the priesthood. Very shortly after graduation from the seminary you will be ordained as a priest and have a short time until you begin your first assignment as a priest at a parish, celebrating Mass and hearing confessions.
This may seem like a long process and when you look at it all together it is. But when you look at it one step at a time and just take the next step in the process you begin to realize that it is quite manageable.