When someone says, “I have decided to be a priest,” it is cause for caution. Too often those who desire to be priests “want to stand and pray in the synagogues … so that others might see them” (Mt 6:5); or, “love places of honor” (Mt 23:6), or “the salutation ‘Rabbi’ [Father]” (Mt 23:7). There can be an excessive concern with “phylacteries and tassels” (Mt 23:5), the perfect Roman collar, the right cassock and surplice, the most appropriate chasuble, and the proper liturgical rubric. The self-chosen desire for priesthood can be an attempt to improve one’s state in life.
The call to the priesthood comes from God. It emanates from the outside, from God to the person, and not the other way. Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John – and Paul. He called each one individually, and he called them by name. It was not their choice. It was Jesus’ choice. Jesus was the “Hound of Heaven,” relentless, in pursuit of them until they submitted their will and obeyed. Each apostle was unworthy, but Jesus called them anyway. Jesus calls mere mortals, sinners, the undeserving, and he asks them to be his personal agents and to serve and lead in his name (see Lk 5:8,10; Jn 18:15-18,25-27; 21:15-17; 1 Tim 1:15b; Acts 9:15).
The call to ordained ministry can also come through the community. God can call directly, but God often calls through intermediaries. When Peter and the first apostles needed assistants, they asked the community to help them identify individuals who had good reputations and appeared to be filled with the Spirit and wisdom (see Acts 6:3). The community is very capable of surveying its own membership to identify individuals with the character traits appropriate to ordained ministry. Anyone in the community, a parent, teacher, catechist, or fellow parishioner, can invite someone saying, “Have you ever thought of becoming a priest? You seem to have the heart of Jesus. You have many virtuous qualities that would be a good fit with the priesthood.”
If someone applies to the seminary and reports that God is calling, it may be true, but it is the duty of the community to confirm the call, for seminary officials and the laity where a seminarian is training, to verify that he has the spiritual qualities needed for priesthood.
When it comes to spiritual prerequisites for priests, humility stands at the forefront. Hebrews says that a priest is “beset by weaknesses” (Heb 5:2). Priests, like everyone else, are vulnerable, subject to temptation, and fall to sin. Any priest who aspires to holiness is keenly aware that he has offended God and has hurt his neighbor by his misdeeds, and as Hebrews says, he “must make sin offerings for himself” (Heb 5:3). The priest is no better than anyone else. He, too, is in desperate need of God’s mercy. As he stands before the congregation leading them in prayer, he is praying not only for them, but he is also praying repentantly for himself.
The other spiritual quality that the Letter to the Hebrews stresses for priests is compassion. A priest should be able to deal patiently with the ignorant and the erring because he himself is beset by weakness (Heb 5:2). How can a priest be hard on anyone else after all of the poor choices he has made? After all of his missteps, he should be merciful, lenient, and give others the benefit of the doubt. If a priest wants God to go easy with him, the priest should go easy with others.