One of the most challenging things about discerning priesthood is often the discernment of the life that goes along with it: the life of celibacy. For many young men considering the priesthood, it may very well be that celibacy is the obstacle that seems insurmountable. I recall my own discernment of priesthood and find that wrapping my head around this life of celibacy was indeed a challenge for me as well, though not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
For me, it wasn’t the idea of not having a wife and a happy marriage that gave me pause, though marriage certainly is a wonderful gift. Rather, I struggled with the idea that I would never have the gift of having children of my own. I wouldn’t have a son to teach how to throw a baseball or a daughter to teach how to ride a bike. I wouldn’t have little league games or dance recitals to go to, to be able to take pride in my children’s accomplishments or to be a person of comfort and consolation in their struggles. As I struggled with this reality, however, one figure came continually into my heart and mind as a model and an inspiration for the type of fatherhood to which I have found myself called: St. Joseph.
In the Litany of St. Joseph, he is referred to as “Foster Father of the Son of God.” This statement reminds us that, though St. Joseph raises the Christ child as his own—indeed, Jesus was often known as the carpenter’s son—Joseph was not Jesus’ natural father. Yet, that did not stop Joseph from offering Jesus and his mother every fiber of his being in love, care, and protection.
It did not stop Joseph from ultimately taking Mary into his home. It did not stop Joseph from getting up in the middle of the night to lead Jesus and his mother into the uncertain safety of Egypt. It did not stop Joseph from looking with anxious concern for the child Jesus left behind in the Temple. It did not stop Joseph from teaching Jesus the carpenter’s trade and the value of human work in providing for one’s family. It did not stop Joseph from being a physical representation, almost a living sacrament, of the Father’s love.
In St. Joseph, then, each priest finds his inspiration and model of spiritual fatherhood. Like St. Joseph, we too come to take great joy in the people entrusted to our care, rejoicing with them in the greatest moments life has to offer. We feel the same pride as the father of the prodigal son when one who has so long been lost is welcomed back into the merciful embrace of God. Our hearts break at the tragedies endured by those we have come to know, to serve, and to love.
St. Therese of Lisieux in her prayer for priests asks of God: “Bless their labors with abundant fruit, and may the souls to whom they have ministered to be their joy and consolation and in Heaven their beautiful and everlasting crown.” Priesthood lived to its fullest depths, can be immensely fruitful in producing spiritual children for our Heavenly Father to call his own. Just as Jesus remains the joy of St. Joseph, when a priest comes to the halls of heaven, it will be the souls that he has cared for in the name of God our Father that will be his greatest pride and joy.
I will never be called “Dad.” But each and every day I find new joy and new hope in being called—and being—“Father.”
By Father Chris Ford, Vocations Team Coordinator