On the road to priesthood in the company of a faithful God

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Image: The author’s family gathers for a Farewell Mass for his father.

No vocational discernment is easy. I remember vividly the image a priest used at a vocation workshop I attended in high school: walking through clouds, trying to find his way. Later, another priest told me something I shall never forget: “As I look back to those years of trying to discern what God was calling me to, I see just how abundant God’s grace was for me. God is faithful.” 

I’ve been a priest for 12 years, and I’ve kept a journal since I was 14. I now find myself looking back on my youth, gently reliving that experience of God’s personal fidelity. Of course, it was often difficult for me to see that faithfulness at the time, but the same was true for the followers of Jesus in the gospels.

What follows are snippets from the journals I have kept for more than 30 years, along with some of my own reflections. These are my own little testimonies about how an awesome God has been unwavering—faithful beyond my wildest imaginings. My experience is echoed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuits, who was fond of saying, “God will never be outdone in generosity.”

The author with his parents at ordination.
 The author with his parents at ordination.
Especially among my early notes, I find many instances of feeling frustrated or inferior, a little ant crawling on the vast face of the Earth. I now understand that these feelings, especially as experienced in youth, are normal. Yet I think the references to the presence of God in my life are significant.

In the mid-1970s, I was a sophomore in high school. While I was attracted to the priesthood, I was also waking up to all the other glories that make up God’s universe. I started feeling that the two were incompatible. I thought choosing priesthood meant that I was saying no to life, that abundant life was a distraction from the “perfect following of Jesus.”

In my heart of hearts, though, God was calling me to find him in all things and all things in him. When I was 16, I wrote:

I feel down sometimes. In my life I meet oppositions and clashes of personalities. Yet I fail to see God in every man around me. That longhaired hippie, that pretty girl on the bus. That pesky brother or sister, that old lady sitting next to me. I often wonder what God has in store for me, and how should I prepare for it. At times, I really feel God’s life in me, but there are other times when I wonder where he is. He is the only one who has never left me, or laughed at me, or put me down. He’s always willing to listen to me.

As I read this entry now, I see that typically in our earlier years we focus a great deal on ourselves. We often fall into the trap of thinking that we “make ourselves,” a trait to which we North Americans are particularly susceptible. God’s formative love in family and friends can easily be overlooked. In my eyes, as the following words reveal, faith was going to bring me certainty and make me more sure of myself. Yet, to use the image of Saint John of the Cross, the “cloud of unknowing” circled me lovingly.

My January 14, 1974 entry reads:

In Ethics we were given an assignment to write “What does faith mean to me?” Here it is. . . . At this point in my life, faith means the world to me. Faith is all I have that never fails me or lets me down. Though I still battle with the understandings of faith, I know the truth is in there somewhere. Faith is a guiding light that flickers but never goes out. The answer to troubles is not always visible, but through faith there is some hope. My faith is a challenge thrown out to me to live a special kind of life. My faith is a consolation when the world rejects me or when I fail in the eyes of men. Since it means all these things to me, I feel I must guard it and make it grow. I never feel that I have perfected my faith, so there are always goals to be met. As a student, I see people whose faith is on its edge. I wonder if I’ll end up this way, and so I struggle to strengthen my faith as a young man and become sure of myself in all my understandings and yet-developing dreams.

Incredible treasure
My college years in the deep South brought even more uncertainty when I was exposed to other world religions besides Christianity. My training in sociology, psychology, and philosophy taught me that reality was much more complex than I had ever imagined. Ancient Hindu texts, such as the Vedas, contained much wisdom, as did the writings of several philosophers we studied, despite the fact that some of them were atheists!

In the spring of my freshman year in 1977, I wrote the following for an assignment titled “My Religious Autobiography”:

Something definitely seems to be occurring. Having had religion taught to me since I can remember, I thought I had covered most aspects. Yet, now I’m beginning to see just how complex the whole universe can be. Having gone to Catholic schools all my life, and always being in contact with priests, brothers, and sisters, it seems that I developed a self-complacency toward my beliefs. If I was ever in doubt, I went to them for answers and often walked away contented. Maybe that was fine then, but now I feel a surge to hear other points of view. I’m not trying to stereotype religious life, for it is as varied as the individuals who are part of it. Yet, there is a lot out of the church, as I am realizing from this class, that is worth pondering. There must have been something very real that moved these men [and now I would add women!] to do the things they did. For example, maybe Marx’s ideas weren’t so bad after all. He deeply felt the suffering of the people and sought to bring about reform. He seems to be very concerned with actual facts, not metaphysical truths.

The irony is that during those years, the very Catholic Church I was starting to question was also providing me with the intellectual and spiritual tools to broaden my horizons, thus developing further the sense of compassion that my family had instilled in me.

My spiritual director at the time kept taking me back to Christ. By his gentle listening, Father Joe McGill taught me that true faith rests in someone, not something.

The power of the Word of God to transform our lives came home to me one day in his office after I had painfully poured out my anguish to him, telling him how weak and empty I felt. During that year, at the age of 18, I had left the security of family and my Mexican American Southwestern culture and entered a very different world, that of the deep South. I felt like a fish out of water, at times painfully reminded by peers that I was “different,” an “ethnic,” not like them, “true Americans.” I never realized that I had an accent (of course, so did they!). I resented the fact that my identity weighed so heavily on me. How could I ever be sure of anything or help anyone if I did not even know who I was?

Father Joe opened his Bible (and I can still see his compassionate eyes through those thick glasses he wore) and read from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians:

My grace is all you need; power comes to its full strength in weakness. . . . Hence I am well content, for Christ’s sake, with weakness, contempt, persecution, hardships, and frustration; for when I am weak, then I am strong (12:8-10).

Only years later, after years of embracing the bicultural person God made me, did I realize what an incredible treasure I had been given. Since my early years of growing up in El Paso, Texas, on the United States-Mexican border, my family had taught me that there was always more than one way of being. My homesickness and struggle for identity kept me close to the Lord, for when I was weak, I was strong.

My journey
I entered the Jesuit novitiate at Grand Coteau, Louisiana in 1980. The journey there had not been easy. Besides my cultural quest, I had also thought and prayed plenty over what it meant to choose this seemingly strange way of life.

I felt as if I were betraying my family because I was going so far away. It was one thing to go away for college, but for the rest of my life? The plan of studies seemed so long, and I wondered if I would lose touch with the real world. In a culture where wealth bestows status, what did it mean that I was choosing to make a vow of poverty? In terms of vowing obedience, I feared I would simply become another cog in a giant institution.

Finally, the thought of living a celibate life seemed foreign to my rich experience of family, dating, and companionship with several close friends. Why would Christ, “who came that I might have life in abundance,” now be calling me to this supposed negation of life?

During the two years of my novitiate, I struggled endlessly with these questions. But living the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience brought me a great deal of peace, a fact my family undoubtedly perceived. I felt new energies beginning to surface. Laughter and companionship were not opposed to silence and contemplation. All were essential. Chastity did not mean “not loving” but rather loving passionately in a different way from married people. Obedience meant trusting in how God’s will becomes evident in a faith community.

It’s not all about me
In 1992 I was ordained a priest in my home town of Ysleta, an old mission town outside of El Paso. That night, at the big fiesta that my family threw for the event, as I was being carried around the parish hall by old friends, I realized that I was still, and would always be, one of the people of God. As a priest, I would now be in a position to celebrate with this holy body the fact that we are a priestly people.

The years that followed, however, were not easy. I could never have imagined the change this vocation made in the eyes of so many. Once again, I felt inadequate and weak. I did not have the answers I was once sure I would have. So what good was I as a priest? Professionals are supposed to have the answers!

Yet, God was never far away. In a gentle, real way, God was reminding me that “it was not all about me.” During the following spring I wrote:

I have felt flooded with a feeling of gratitude. To you, above all, whose love I can never earn. To my family, my brother Jesuits, and to so many people whose heroic struggles to lead a good Christian life leaves me in awe.

Yet, amidst all this, there are these nagging distractions. Should I pay attention to them? For example, I cringe at how proud I can be sometimes, particularly after that retreat went so well. I have felt impatient with one of my Jesuit superiors, tempting to hold back on what’s really going on in my life.

It seems that I go through a typical pattern in my life. I am given wonderful gifts by you, but I doubt and fear. You call me forward gently and I take steps in that direction. You steady my steps, and before you know it, I’m flying! But then comes the temptation to think that I’m better than others. I hate that about myself! I’m embarrassed, my God. I’m embarrassed because I feel the weight of my own sins. Is there hope for me?

“A voice I did not know said to me: ‘I freed your shoulder from the burden; your hands were freed from the load. You called in distress and I saved you’” (Psalm 81).

Now I see how, in the words of the great Christian humanitarian Dorothy Day, God “was not asking me to be successful but to be faithful.” Ministry and community-building are very complex matters that do not bear fruit immediately. In the rush for “success” we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that we, not God, are in charge of building the kingdom.

On a pilgrim road
But community-building and ministry were not my only challenges. In July of 1997, my father was called home to God. The events of his sickness and dying was not the horrible experience I had feared it would be. God was faithful. As we—his many children and grandchildren and my mother—gathered around his bed to accompany him into the loving hands of a God whom he had experienced as someone muy grande (“very great”), we felt the ecstasy one feels at the birth of a child. As he took his final breath, my brother Julian led us through his new version of Kumbaya: “Someone’s rising, Lord. Be with us.” Terry, my younger sister, joyously remarked, “We have to tell everyone about the great thing that has happened to us.”

As I reflect on my life, I realize that it was my family who first taught me that God will be faithful. The beauty of responding to a call is that we can be sure that God will always give us the grace we need to do our little bit in the great vineyard that is the reign of God. God’s in charge, not me. In looking to the future, I like to remember a quote that appeared two days before my father’s death in an inspirational calendar my sister had given him:

“We’re on a pilgrim road. We can lift our eyes and see the unseen: a celestial city . . . a welcome and an ineffable face. We shall behold him. That makes a difference in how we go about aging.”
—Elisabeth Elliot
Father Eduardo C. Fernández, S.J. is an associate professor of pastoral theology and ministry at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, a graduate school at Santa Clara University.




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