By FATHER JOHN O’HOLOHAN
The story of my priestly vocation? It is known above all to God. At its deepest level every vocation to the priesthood is a great mystery. It is a gift which infinitely transcends the individual …. A vocation is a mystery of divine election. Christ says, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you.'”
That is how Pope John Paul II begins his book, Gift and Mystery on the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in 1996.
He describes how his realization of that call grew stronger. “Meanwhile, in fact, a light kept shining more brightly in my consciousness — the Lord wants me to become a priest. And this awareness filled me with great inner peace.”
Many priests would have experienced the essence of their vocation in that growing consciousness of Jesus whispering in our souls, inviting us to share in his priesthood.
In chapter four he describes the many influences on his vocation from his family to his war experiences. This account is written in a simple, rather charming style, full of gratitude to so many people. It was a tailor with apostolic spirit who introduced him to the works of St. John of the Cross and St. Terese of Avila. Those saints helped him develop his deep contemplative spirit so obvious to those close to him. Another big influence on his vocation was a painter, Brother Albert, who sacrificed everything to help the poor and underprivileged. John Paul rewarded him with the halo of canonization in 1989.
On his way back from Belgium to Rome in 1947, not long ordained a priest, John Paul visited the little old church in Ars where St. John Vianney heard confessions, taught catechism, and gave his homilies. He tells us, “It was an unforgettable experience for me …. It was his heroic service in the confessional which particularly struck me. That humble priest, who would hear confessions more than 10 hours a day, eating little and sleeping only a few hours was able, at a difficult moment in history, to inspire a kind of spiritual revolution in France, and not only there. Thousands of people passed through Ars and knelt at his confessional. My encounter with this saintly figure confirmed me in the conviction that a priest fulfills an essential part of his mission through the confessional — by voluntarily making himself a prisoner of the confessional.”
Ever afterward the future pope was devoted to hearing confessions. Even today he likes to sit in the confessional in St. Peter’s Basilica. At a time when confession attendance has dropped, this witness is very compelling.
In chapter eight the pope asks the question, who is the priest? He writes, “In this personal testimony, I also feel the need to go beyond the mere recollection of events and individuals in order to take a deeper look and search out, as it were, the mystery which for fifty years has accompanied and enfolded me.”
He goes on to the deeper theological questions on the meaning of the priesthood, based on St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 4: 1-2 and Luke 12: 41-48. The priest is the steward of the mysteries of God. He is “another Christ.” He acts in Persona Christi. There can be no Eucharist without the priesthood.
In chapter nine there is a very shrewd description of what is implied in being a priest today. Above all he stresses the call to holiness. He says, “Priestly holiness alone is the soil which can nourish an effective pastoral activity.”
“I cannot end these reflections in the year of the Golden Jubilee as a priest, without expressing to the Lord of the harvest my deepest gratitude for the grace of priesthood, for priestly vocations throughout the world.” He adds, “Thanks be to God, a certain crisis of priestly vocations in the church is gradually being overcome.”
Jesuit Father John O’Holohan is in residence at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Simpsonville.