Penn State University and the surrounding town of State College, PA will always hold a special place in my heart. God shaped my life dramatically during the four years I spent at college there, and several weekends ago when I went back to visit April 11-13, He changed my life yet again with another major moment that shot right to the heart of my discerning becoming a Catholic priest.
My reason for returning to my alma mater was to join my friends and family for an extravaganza known as Blue-White weekend. The entire weekend is decked out with school colors and events for students and alumni alike; one of the biggest events is a scrimmage for the football team where half of the team wears blue and the other half wears white. Since graduating in May 2012, my alumni friends and I have made it back to Dear Old State for both Blue-White weekends (in addition to several other classic Penn-State events). The whole weekend was a blast – it was great to catch up with my friends, and a conversation stood out that is truly worth sharing…
I spilled the beans to all my friends on Friday night at a large group dinner that I am seriously discerning becoming a priest. Everyone was asking each other what was new, and that was a big new thing for me that I wanted them all to know – I had to share! No matter who you’re talking to, it is always fun to tell people you are discerning the priesthood and watch their varying reactions. My friends knew me as a person with very different behavior in college compared to the way I live now, but there has been no condemnation or accusations towards me as I have grown in faith since graduating. Thanks be to God, I have loving, lifetime friends from Penn State, and I love them back. :) They were intrigued to hear that I am discerning the priesthood, although a few of them already knew, and they unanimously supported me and asked to hear about how it progresses.
Now for the story that I have been holding over your heads:
Later Friday night, aware that men who don the title of priest also marry in some denominations of Christianity, one of my female friends asked as our group conversation turned to the topic of faith, “Would you be a celibate priest?” I enthusiastically responded, “Yes, I would!” and the group conversation continued. The night drew to a late close (‘cuz, hey, it’s college) with everyone looking forward to more fun on Saturday.
My Saturday was filled with tailgating in beautiful weather, attending the football scrimmage I mentioned earlier, more tailgating, and enjoying the company of dear friends and family throughout the day. That night, after a period of rest (‘cuz, hey, we’re tired old alums now), we gathered back together again at an apartment to have drinks together and enjoy each others’ company some more. As we were hanging out, my friend who had asked about celibacy started talking to me about relationships while she, her boyfriend, who was one of my roommates at Penn State, and I were sitting on the couch. She forwardly asked if I had ever dated and been intimate with anyone, to which I truthfully answered yes, I had. She continued, “Okay, so you’ve been in relationships before. Since you’re thinking about becoming a priest, I have another question: How do we make God happy? I mean, God knows everything, and He knows when we’re going to sin, but it still happens, so how do we make Him happy after we sin?” Feeling the Father’s love well up in my heart, I warmly replied, “All you have to do is say, ‘I’m sorry, God. Please forgive me.’ It’s that easy.” She was struck by the simplicity with which the Lord loves us. I continued, “But the thing that makes God happiest is having a personal relationship with us. He wants to know you, and He wants you to know Him.” She replied, “How do you have a relationship with God?” I answered with a question, “Consider your relationship with your boyfriend or family or friends – how do you have any relationship? You do things like talk to the person, listen to them, do things with them, and do things for them. Do the same with God.” She replied, “Okay, but with a person, they are there and can respond to you and you can hear them. It is not easy to hear God.” I responded, “It is true that God often speaks to us quietly, and to better hear Him usually requires entering into silence in our hearts, but one way that God speaks to us is through scripture – through the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God.” She volunteered, “Yes, I believe the Bible is God’s word.” I said, “So in my experience, I read the Bible every morning before I eat breakfast, and I pray before I read and I ask God to help me have an open heart and to speak into my life. Then as I read I pay attention to the things that stir my heart or speak to the situations I am facing at that time.” She paused in thought for a moment, then asked, “So basically, it’s like the things that stick out to you are how you know God is speaking to you?” I answered with a smile, “Basically, yes.” Her face lit up in a bright, beautiful smile. “I get it!” she said, “I finally get it!” She turned and punched my friend, her boyfriend, in the shoulder and exclaimed, “We need to start a Bible study like yesterday!”
I cannot fully describe the deep, satisfying joy that I felt in that moment. My spiritual director, Fr. John Rapisarda – a humorous, down-to-earth, passionate priest – once told me as we discussed my discernment, “Zack, there is nothing like the joy of being a priest.” He wore the type of smile that makes you know when someone is speaking from the truth of their heart. His words came back to me in that moment, and I distinctly remember thinking: if this really is the joy that a priest feels almost every day, I think I can live with that.
My friend turned back to me and said, “You know, all weekend since you first mentioned you were thinking about becoming a priest, I have been wondering why? Why would someone choose to live a life of celibacy? Why would someone give up a spouse or a family?” She answered herself, “But I think I understand now: You love God and you care about people, and you want them to be happy.” She hit the nail square on the head. :)
Discerning the priesthood is a difficult thing to do – you find out a lot about yourself, and you find many knots in your soul that you have to wrestle with. But I know that God equips the called, and I interpreted this moment as a sign (among many others) affirming what I have started believing in my discernment: that God is calling me to be a priest. It is scary and I will face uncertainty, but I keep feeling a stirring in my heart that I can’t ignore every time I read the scripture Fr. John once assigned to me as penance:
Hebrews 5:1-6 Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and the erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make offerings for himself as well as the people. No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. In the same way, it was not Christ who glorified himself in becoming high priest, but rather the one who said to him: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you”; just as he says in another place: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”