"When [the shepherd] has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice." (John 10:4)
So there I was, a teenager doing things that teenagers do, when out of the blue, the Lord, the Good Shepherd comes calling. Since I arrived at this parish, many of you have asked me about how I decided to become a priest. Well, it goes something like this: it is a story about getting to know the Good Shepherd, learning to recognize his voice, and ultimately becoming the shepherd.
Getting to Know the Good Shepherd:
I have said many times that my attraction to the priesthood began while I was on missions in Mexico during my high school summers. I would see a priest come out to a village once every 2-3 months. During that visit, he would hear everyone's confessions, celebrate loads of baptisms, marry a few couples, hold first communions, and celebrate the only Mass the people would attend until he returned. It was there that I truly learned how important a priest was to the people of God and how much we needed priests. Yet, since I was a teenager, I ignored this inclination towards priesthood because I had not yet learned to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Recognizing His Voice:
A teenager is lured by so many voices that tell him/her what they should and should not do. I was a typical teenager, albeit more square than others, but with the same insecurities and anxieties. When I was a senior in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Yes, there was a tiny little voice in the back of my head that said "priesthood," but I kept ignoring it. That is until my family's spiritual director, through my parents, asked me a very pointed and direct question: "What are you waiting for to enter the seminary?" When I heard that question, it was truly a "bolt of lighting" moment. I needed to literally retreat and find out if indeed this was the voice of the Good Shepherd and if this voice was calling me. At the time, my parents attended a yearly silent retreat where they would spend four days in silence. There was a men's retreat coming up and even though it was full, my father took me there and told the old Spanish Jesuit, "My son is thinking about becoming a priest." "This is what this retreat is for," the holy Jesuit said proudly. On the second night during my confession, I told the holy Jesuit how I was feeling. Behind him was a cross with these words inscribed that I've used in many of my homilies: "What have I done for Christ...What I am doing for Christ...What will I do for Christ." Against this backdrop, the holy Jesuit told me quite simply: "Tomorrow morning, when you are in prayer, simply ask the Lord what he wants you do." So the next morning after the first talk, I walked into the tiny chapel. Behind the altar was a small tabernacle and high above the tabernacle where three small stained glass windows. The first at the apex had the Greek Alpha and Omega letters inscribed on it. Slightly below the center one and on either side of it were two others. One had grains of wheat and the other window had grapes: both symbols of the Eucharist. As I stared up at those windows, it was that time of the morning where the sun was peering through them. I began to hum to myself the song, "Here I Am Lord," and all of the sudden, without warning, I began to cry. I looked up at the symbols of the Eucharist. I looked at the tabernacle. I looked at the altar. It became very clear to me what the Good Shepherd was calling me to do. Up there...that is where I belonged. Yet, being young and still a tad doubtful, even though I was overcome with emotions that morning, I didn't tell the holy Jesuit priest what had happened. I was still in some state of denial that Christ would dare choose me. So the afternoon of our final day when we were finally allowed to speak, the holy Jesuit walked up to me when we were having lunch, and asked for everyone's attention: "I want everyone to know that something momentous happened during this retreat. This young man decided to become a priest!" "Huh?" I answered. Even though it was quite clear to me the previous morning, it was still hard for me to hear someone say it out loud and confirm the call of the Shepherd. Even when I told my parents on our ride home, I felt very sheepish telling them what I had decided even though they knew. "I'm thinking about entering seminary," I told them. I still couldn't bring myself to say out loud, "I want to become a priest." Oh but did that change quickly. As soon as I threw myself into the arms of the Shepherd and submitted to his calling, it became very clear to me as I started seminary and as more people confirmed and supported my calling that Christ indeed was calling me to become a shepherd.
Becoming the Shepherd:
Seminary was long. I mean really long. I wanted to be out ministering to people, preaching the word, bringing lost sheep home, but I had to study. I had to read. I had to write papers. I had to pray. I had to learn how to become the Shepherd, how to conform my life to the image of the Good Shepherd, and how to minister to the flock. It was a long nine years, but when the day finally came when I prostrated myself on the beautiful marble sanctuary of our Cathedral, I wept again. You see when the Good Shepherd calls your name and you recognize his voice you are overcome with emotions because you see God's hand very clearly shaping your life. But even though I was ordained a priest on May 11, 2002, I still had much to learn about being a priest and a shepherd. I learned that the shepherd is restless. He is always worried about his sheep. He worries about the lost ones, and he worries about how to bring the ones in his fold closer to the Good Shepherd and into greener pastures where they experience the Lord's peace, love, and mercy. My restless heart led me from my first parish to my second and quickly thereafter to work as Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese where I had to find more shepherds to lead his flock. And then two and half years ago, when the Archbishop told me that I was going to a place called Parkland to minister up there, I was confused. I enjoyed my time as Vocations Director. I did miss parish life, but why was I going so far from my hometown and from family and friends? I had forgotten what I would tell my seminarians over and over again, that the Good Shepherd sometimes calls us to unknown pastures, and it is there where we find peace and joy and a great flock waiting to be fed. I realized that in my heart I had not changed that much from my mission days as a teenager. I was still a missionary called to serve wherever the Lord needed me and called to recognize his voice and answer his call whenever it came. And that call came again last week, when a delegate of the Archbishop called me to tell me that I would be transferred to another parish next month. I was initially taken aback by this call, but then a sense of peace overcame me. If that is where God is calling, that is where his servant will be. It does not make leaving this pasture for another any easier. Here I have found a home. Here I found a family. Yes, we do fear the great unknown of what the future may bring, but if we need comfort, all we have to do is look to today's psalm that so beautifully tells us: "Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side (Psalm 23:4)."
This restless heart has spent two and half joyous years endeavoring to bring you closer to the Good Shepherd as I strive each day to live up to the lofty image that Christ left for us. Now He calls me elsewhere. Of course it isn't easy to leave, this is the reason why as priests we always need your prayers. Today the Church celebrates World Day of Prayer for Vocations which is why I shared my vocation story with you. There are so many young people who cannot hear the voice of the Good Shepherd because as our Holy Father tells us, the Lord's voice is being "drowned out" by the voices of the world. As Catholics, we need to pray each day that the Lord will call young men from our families to get to know the Good Shepherd, recognize his voice, and ultimately become a shepherd by saying "yes" to Christ and becoming a priest. We need priests desperately, and as I leave next month to minister in new pastures, I ask for your prayers not only for me, but for all priests and for more priests! Our priests aren't getting any younger, and our Catholic population isn't getting any smaller. And as you pray me, don't be saddened by my being called away by the Lord. Trust in Him that he will provide. I always like to say that I like to walk into a classroom, a prayer meeting, a Bible study, or in this case a parish, set a small fire and bolt out the back door. Don't let the fire burn out. As I priest, I allow the Lord to light it through his unworthy servant, and now it's up to you to keep it burning. It's time for this restless heart to go shepherd in other pastures. He will provide for me as he will most definitely provide for you, for as we hear and repeat five times in today's liturgy: "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want."