By: Rev. Gregory Rannazzisi
Domus Porta Fidei
Telling one’s vocation story isn’t uncommon for a priest. During seminary and shortly thereafter, a lot of people want to know the answer to the same question: What made you want to become a priest? I suppose this question is even more pressing given our world today. A generation or two ago, it was very common for young men to enter the seminary. I remember the Irish side of my family joking that it was typical – if not expected – that one son become a fireman, another a lawyer and the third a priest. While that’s certainly not the case these days, answering that question is just as important now as it was then: What made you want to become a priest?
I’ve remarked before that I don’t really have a “vocation story.”
That’s because the story of my vocation is inextricably linked to my life story.
That’s because the story of my vocation is inextricably linked to my life story. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a priest. Or to put it more precisely, I’ve always been fascinated by the priesthood and at some point in high school it became an actual desire. Some priests describe two general types of vocations – cradle and college. If those broad categories suffice, then mine was certainly the former.
My childhood was a very characteristic one for anyone born and raised on Long Island. My family was the very typical Italian/Irish/Catholic one. I use that term ‘typical’ not to imply bland, but to describe how natural faith was in our life. We weren’t particularly zealous in our practice of the faith, but being Catholic was as natural to us as the reality of going to school. Mass every Sunday was non-negotiable; grace was said before meals; we never imagined going to a wedding reception without going to the church ceremony; we were all involved in ministries and groups in the parish; and priests were not just pastors, but friends of the family. My brother, sister, and I went to our parochial school until eighth grade. I continued in Catholic education through college.
The earliest memory I have of expressing an interest came in Kindergarten. I remember distinctly one day our teacher, Mrs. Jenson, asking us to draw what we might like to be when we grew up. My friend Marshall was drawing and astronaut (he eventually entered the Navy) and Mike was drawing a police office (scarily enough that prophecy was fulfilled, but that’s another story).
I was drawing a man in a black suit with a white square under his neck. I’m not really sure I even knew what that meant but that’s what I was drawing because, I suppose, it somehow captured my imagination as much as an astronaut or cop could.
I was drawing a man in a black suit with a white square under his neck. I’m not really sure I even knew what that meant but that’s what I was drawing because, I suppose, it somehow captured my imagination as much as an astronaut or cop could. As my understanding of priesthood evolved over time, so too did my fascination with it.
By fourth or fifth grade, my understanding of what a priest does was limited to what I saw on Sunday. Priests were up in the front of the church, wearing funny looking outfits, and everyone loved them. Why wouldn’t anyone want to be a priest?! Eventually I started to see priests beyond the hour or so I was at church on Sunday. In middle school, I was asked by one of our priests, Fr. Brian, to help him prepare for and serve the larger Masses throughout the year, especially Holy Week and Easter. This was my first real glimpse into the life of a priest “behind the scenes.” Again, seeing priests in the office, interacting with staff members that reminded me of my own parents, and doing the mundane work of answering phone messages, making photocopies, and creating schedules, made me become more intrigued into the real life of a priest. By the beginning of high school, I got a job as an evening/weekend receptionist in the parish office and eventually was a weekend sacristan. This was perhaps the most formative part of my early vocation. At this point I got to see what priests did for the 95% of the time they weren’t saying Mass. Now I saw priests heading to the hospital to anoint someone who was ill or dying, meeting with couples planning their wedding, having meetings with groups and ministries to plan activities, counseling people I could tell were having a rough time, and so much more. This is where my vocation went from intrigue to excitement.
I was also blessed to have other structures around me to nurture not only my vocation, but more fundamentally, my faith. The youth group at my home parish was – and still is – one of the most dynamic ones in our diocese. I made friends and forged lasting relationships that were based on a desire to grow in love of the faith. Additionally, I attended a Catholic high school run by Franciscan brothers who placed a very high premium on one’s development as a Christian disciple along with being a well-rounded student. Later in college at Fordham University, I continued to deepen my love not only for priesthood, but also for the Eucharist and the study of Theology. During the course of these years from high school to college, I can’t really point to any one moment and say, “That’s when I decided to be a priest.” It was more a series of confirmations of this abiding desire in my heart to commit my life fully to the service of God and the Church.
By the end of college, I was convinced that God was calling me to be a priest. I remember telling my roommates that this is what I wanted. I was very nervous, thinking that they would be shocked or react in a negative way. In fact, when I told them, I was shocked at how utterly unaffected they were. Their basic sentiment was, “Yeah, Greg, we knew this. Of course you should be a priest.” Yet again, I took this as a confirmation that God was indeed calling me to be a priest. Those I had come to know well over the course of years as well as my family and friends from childhood were all very comfortable and supportive of me becoming a priest, which made the process that much easier.
This is not to say, however, that there weren’t doubts within my heart. Many times I found myself asking not should I be a priest but could I be a priest. That is to say, my concern was whether or not I could faithfully live out the priestly life. When I’ve told people that I always wanted to be a priest, they often respond that it must be nice to know early on what I wanted to do; and it must’ve made life easier. Not so. As I was drawing nearer to submit my application to seminary, I started to question myself – this is all I’ve ever wanted to do, to be. Am I not open to other possibilities? Am I limiting myself and not exploring all the other options for my life? I had worked as an EMT for an ambulance squad, come to like the academic world and gained interest in law and politics. Was I closing off some of these fields as viable options for my professional life? But in the end, I consistently returned in prayer to the image of Jesus calling the first apostles and asking them to drop their nets and followed him. That’s the image I return to very often as I live out my priesthood.
I started this brief reflection by asking the question posed many times before – what made you want to be a priest. But in fact, that’s not the correct question.
It’s not what made but Who asked you to be a priest. A vocation isn’t a command; it’s an invitation. God has a plan for each one of us. Sometimes we have the grace to feel an inkling early on in life tugging us in a particular direction. For many, it takes years to properly discern what God is calling us to.
It’s not what made but Who asked you to be a priest. A vocation isn’t a command; it’s an invitation. God has a plan for each one of us. Sometimes we have the grace to feel an inkling early on in life tugging us in a particular direction. For many, it takes years to properly discern what God is calling us to. But that’s life: a series of invitations from God to respond with a generous, open heart to look for ways to love and bring life.
I’ve been a priest for four years now. I’m still overwhelmed when I think about what God has invited me to do. Being a part of people’s journeys in the joys and sorrows of life is the most fulfilling life I could imagine. From wakes to weddings, Mass to confession, counseling to serving – being a priest is about bringing Christ’s hope, life, and love to a world often shrouded in darkness. Indeed, that’s the vocation of us all – to be people of hope – in whatever way God invites us to do so.