Jesus saw me, and I saw Him seeing me, beckoning me to follow Him in His priesthood priesthood 60 years ago today, 24 June 1962, the First Class Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (and also this year the First Class Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus). The call from Jesus to His priesthood came to me most appropriately during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass when I was just 28 months old, not even 2½ years old.
Formation faculties at seminaries today disdain reports of such vocation events especially at such a very young age, for they instead want to feel useful, and have “conversations” about “the process” of discernment, creepily digging into feelings and such. Consistent with that, the useful ones kept repeating that we would know we had a vocation when our names were called by them at the Ordination Mass. Nice ecclesiology, that. But I tell you I suddenly knew absolutely that I had a vocation at 28 months old in the presence of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament. There was no process at all: I didn’t choose Jesus; He chose me. It’s one of those “Let the children come to me” things. He drew me to His Heart. It’s His fault!
It was a beautiful but hot Summer’s day both outside and inside Saint Paul’s Catholic Church on the northern side of Saint Cloud, Minnesota. The church building looks the same today as it did on that day, 60 years ago.
At the time, there was a magnificent High Altar at the center-back of the sanctuary, behind altar rails, of course. The Tabernacle was in the center of that High Altar, where Jesus Himself was enthroned. Jesus utilized those logistics the Most Blessed Sacrament in calling me to His priesthood before it all disappeared.
It would only be a few years later that I was devastated to see and hear that the church had to be closed for police investigations and repairs. This took many months. That’s when the family started “church-hopping,” a term coined later, in post Vatican II chaos. What had happened is that the backside of the High Altar had suffered from an arson attack, say, in 1964 or 1965, and then was quite severely wreckovated, which did much more damage than the fire did.
It would be more than 3½ decades later, in the late 1990s, when, over in Rome, I told a papabile Cardinal friend my vocation story. He was instantly angry with me, reprimanding me sternly to impress the point: That means you’re especially responsible for every moment of your priesthood. Take His priesthood seriously! I objected that everyone should take seriously whatever vocation they have from Jesus whenever they get it. My snarkiness didn’t go over well. He was angry. Anyway…
Every vocation does have a lived context in which Jesus makes His call to follow Him. My vocation event happened 3½ months before the opening of the Second Vatican Council later that year, 11 October 1962. Mind you, preparations for the opening session were well under way and, just when Jesus was calling me, the “too traditional” schemas of the documents for the Council were being rejected while a general rebellion against doctrine and morality and reverent liturgy and proper instruction on the spiritual life was being prepared.
Excuse the lack of subtitles in the video below. Just the scenes are well worth the few minutes to situate you back in those waaaay too optimistic, heady, self-congratulatory times. Believe me, subtitles would be a bit frightening. Some were well intentioned, but others worked for the demise of the Church.
Back to the vocation event where even the fine details are important, and, yes, I remember everything when I was kid. I’m still able to describe, like I’m seeing it now, the house we lived in until we moved, when I was still just one year old. Anyway…
I remember with a perfectly clear memory, clear as a bell, seeing right now, as it were, the white fiddleback Roman Mass vestments on that Sunday of my vocation, 24 June 1962.
I was with my entire family on the central aisle side of the long wooden pew, the second from the back of the church, on the Gospel side. I was next to dad, my brother on the far side of him, with both sisters being surveilled by mom on my other side. I was straining to see through the jam-packed crowd of everyone in their Sunday best, with all their flowered hats and veils for the women, and suits, despite the day being so hot, for the men. Yes, churches were jam packed, standing room only, back in 1962.
I was trying to behave, but, being in the midst of the terrible twos as I was, mom had to keep repeating that I should just stay seated. But by the time the first reading was going on over on the Epistle side of the High Altar, ad orientem, of course, I was on my feet, standing tippy-toe on the kneeler, both hands on the top of the pew in front of me, hanging on for dear life, with me just being able to see over the top of the pew and between the shoulders of the two people in front of me. I remember the person in front of me on my right leaning a shoulder hard on my fingertips – ouch! – claiming their space. I stood my ground. I was interiorly compelled to see what was happening up in the sanctuary of the church, some 170 feet away (I just did a google-maps check).
The priest had now made it over to the Gospel side, pausing in the middle of the High Altar for the prayers of purification before the Gospel, even while the Missale Romanum was brought over for him. When he finished the Gospel, he took off what I now know is a maniple, and he placed it over the Missale Romanum. Then, and this is allowed by the rubrics of the time, and because it was such a hot day, he proceeded to take off the fiddleback vestment for the preaching.
Poor guy, he hadn’t untied the strings that hold it in place. I know that now, using such Roman vestments all the time. All I saw back then is that he was really struggling. He had flipped the vestment over his head, which is where it stayed because of it still being tied on. Both deacon and subdeacon came to his rescue. I felt sorry for him, but I was also a little scared, even at that distance, because he was really quite flustered by the time he was freed of his entanglement. In anger, he crumbled up the vestment and then placed it in a ball on top of the maniple and Missale.
He made his way down the steps and went to the pulpit and began to preach. I was trying to pay attention, not to what he said, for I was too young. It’s that I was interiorly compelled to pay attention, but I didn’t know to what, to whom, but I had to pay attention. Then it hit me that there was something, that is, Someone else who was drawing my attention, namely, He who is the One, the only One, back at that High Altar, in the Tabernacle, with me not knowing anything about God or the Blessed Sacrament, but for me, right then, right there, I recognized Him who was recognizing me, looking upon Him who was looking upon me, His powerful, majestic, personal, loving Presence, beckoning me. I was agape, bonded to Him. Let me be clear, without seeing anything or anyone with my physical eyes, I most certainly saw Him seeing me. I was transfixed. Suddenly self conscious, I quickly looked from side to side for reassurance, only to see the Styrofoam bored looks one might expect to see during a boring homily on a super hot Summer Sunday morning in church. I quickly looked back at Him whom I saw seeing me, looking right into my soul, and I was all the more taken, enthralled.
What Jesus saw was the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity in my soul by way of the sanctifying grace from my baptism. That grace, reflecting God Himself, was not besmirched, for I was too young to commit any personal sin. The call was clear as clear as clear can be. He wanted me there, with Him for my whole life, at His Altar of Sacrifice. Not that I knew this was His altar of Sacrifice. Not that I knew what it meant to be a priest other than to be totally available Him, dedicated to Him. He’s the One. He’s the only One. I don’t know how to describe this adequately, but there was a fast bond established right then, right there.
And there’s another aspect to that. It’s like I was directed to understand that there was an analogy to be made of that priest with myself, again, not on any intellectual level – I wasn’t even 2½ years old – but spiritually, and before Jesus, and in view of that ever so personal bond I now had with Jesus. I perceived that the priest who was preaching was inept, unworthy of being in the presence of the One, the only One, but so was I. I was in objection mode with a sense of not being worthy, but that being dealt with by the One calling. That’s on Him. From the get go, I perceived that humble thanksgiving to this Majestic One was the only way to proceed. The emphasis was and still is on thanksgiving, without losing sight of knowing I’m unworthy. Being in solidarity with that priest has always been an aspect of the priesthood for me, trying to be available to other priests, sometimes for friendship, sometimes for the sacraments, giving and receiving, and sometimes that’s for offering reprimands, or in getting reprimanded. :-)
Look. I get it. We don’t hear much of that kind of experience happening with an infant. Granted. But I’m not saying that my reflections on the experiences had all the intellectual descriptions with refined vocabulary back in the day. That I’m making those descriptions now with all my present vocabulary is simply speaking to an experience as personal and alive now as it was then, that steadfast bond of love and truth being unchanging, as if it were happening right now, and it is, and it still the same Jesus, still the same call, still the same bond that He creates. On the level of love, this is absolutely possible back in the day just as it is right now, filling me with joy. The least of the brethren, mere infants, have souls that are wide open to the goodness and kindness and truth of God even at a very young age. Children are drawn to real goodness, real kindness, to Him who is Truth, and can absolutely assent to that bond of love that is created by the One, the only One who calls.
But, one more thing to say about this: my guardian angel witnessed Jesus calling me to His priesthood, and this added to this great angel’s burden to light, to guard, to rule, to guide, also in view of the chaos that came my way and has come my way throughout my life, with much that chaos being how the gangsters hijacked the Church already way back in the day.
Finally, this call from Jesus is the foil I use for an examination of conscience. Jesus’ call obviates that I am not up to living up to that vocation. That’s with me constantly, but that also spurs on the thanksgiving. Jesus is very good. Jesus is very kind. I’ve known that, been convinced of that, for 60 years.
8 responses to “Jesus called me @28 months old to be His priest 60 years ago today. I saw Him seeing me.”
WOW!!! GOD IS SOOOO GOOD! Thank you for making God your All. Thanks for sharing… sooo beautiful!
WOW!!! GOD IS SOOOO GOOD! Thank you for making God your All. Thanks for sharing… sooo beautiful!
So grateful to God for sharing you with us. Without faithful priests like you, Father, any of the flock that survived the wolves would surely starve.
I love every bit of this!
Thank you for sharing your vocation story, Father. I think children can experience things on a much deeper level than we realize. When I was five, my sister told me about Jesus dying on the cross, right before I went to sleep. I then had a dream where I was right at the cross, looking fully upon Him. I remember what He looked like, and I remember waking up crying and crying and crying, with such a deep sorrow in my heart for Him. I’ve never forgotten that, and feel that it is a true gift that God gave me, even though I now don’t feel that sorrow. I wish I could.
Wow Fr George What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. Please keep me and my family in your prayers. I remember you in my daily rosary.
You answered the call – literally. How beautiful and compelling it is to be chosen by Christ so early in life. God bless you Father George. May you have many more years to share your calling with the world…
How amazing is our God! He let you recognize Him and His call. I love that you listened with your child heart and we reap the rewards of it!