“I have called you by name; you are mine.” – Isaiah 43:1
Have you ever had the experience of a confessor who was able to read your soul – who revealed something that you have never disclosed to anyone? I did, and my call story is inextricably linked to that experience.
The year was 2002, the location was by the shore of Lake Ontario, Canada; it was World Youth Day (it turned out to be Pope St. John Paul’s last) and the organisers had temporarily renamed the park as Duc in Altum park, turning it into a huge open-air confessional with adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. I had gone early for confessions, hoping to use the rest of the day for some browsing and shopping. I picked an English-speaking confessor with the shortest line – the Priest was unknown to me but there was a sign that indicated that he could hear confessions in French/English. Confessions were heard face-to-face, so once I settled in my chair before the Priest, I shut my eyes tight and confessed my usual sins, as I usually did, expecting that he would do the confessor’s usual bit and quickly send me off.
Except that he didn’t. After confessing my sins, the Priest was silent, and he was silent for a long time, perhaps as long as a minute. By then I was as much annoyed as I was embarrassed. Did I make a boo-boo and go to the wrong line? Perhaps because my eyes were shut, he couldn’t tell me that he didn’t understand a word I had said? I opened my eyes, and there was the Priest in front of me, his head bowed, seemingly in prayer. I didn’t know what to do – I was about to pick up my bag, get up and look for another confessor. But at that moment, the Priest spoke. And what he said shocked me to the core: for the first thing he said was nothing about my sins, instead it was about something that I did not mention during my confession – in fact, something I had never spoken of to anyone before – about my tussle with my mum regarding my vocation. I recognised immediately that only God could have revealed it to him. I broke down and cried, my first-time crying uncontrollably at the celebration of the Sacrament. Try as I did, I just couldn’t stop my tears flowing – if others nearby thought that I was a terrible sinner overwhelmed by the mercy of God, they wouldn’t be too far off – for that was my first experience of how merciful our God is – He knew the tensions I was struggling with and He cared enough to tell me that He knows in such an expected way. At the end of the confession, the Priest said to me “God has given you a compassionate heart – use it in the service of His people.”
Now a bit about my mum: she is a very good, prayerful and holy Catholic woman. It is largely to her credit that I enjoy both the gifts of life and of faith. For I am the third child in my family and I was born at a time when families were encouraged to have only 2 children – from the Government’s perspective, I simply should not have been. So I am grateful to my mum and dad for giving me the gift of life, despite their poverty, despite the state policy. And my own faith was kindled by my mum’s deep faith in Jesus – she was active in the Charismatic movement when I was a young boy. So when my mum told me, as I was preparing for Confirmation at St. Michael’s, that God was not calling me to the Priesthood, I happily accepted that as God’s direction. I wasn’t thinking particularly of the Priesthood anyway – I wanted prestige, honour, power. I was blessed to be able to read Physics and Mathematics at Cornell University, USA, from 1999 – 2003, and I was fixed on becoming a teacher after I graduate and dreamt of climbing the Public Service ladder.
So what changed? There’s a line from the Prophet Jeremiah that describes what happened to me very well: You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced (Jeremiah 20:7 NABRE). Just a year before my World Youth Day experience, in 2001, I took part in a Catholic studies programme with a group of American students, and at the end of the programme was a mini-retreat. At that retreat, I heard, for the first time in my life, a little voice that said to me: “Simon, there are no coincidences in your life, everything that is happening to you is part of my plan”. The thought of Priesthood came into my mind and that thought never died down. The more I thought about it, the more it grew, yet my mum was still saying that God was not calling me to the Priesthood. My mum was way more prayerful than I was, so I was getting frustrated within and with God. This was the context for the World Youth Day experience.
Now you might have thought that I was raring to join the seminary after this God-encounter. I admit that I was afraid and I didn’t, thankfully on hindsight, ride through rough shod over my mum’s objection. I used my time of service as a teacher as an excuse to God that He had to wait. And boy can God wait patiently. I loved my work as a teacher, but eventually God was the stronger and He prevailed, and I had to explore this possible call to the Priesthood, despite my great love for teaching, despite my mum’s continuing objection.
I am going to end my sharing with some words about how God worked on my mum. By 2012, my mum was aware that I was seriously considering a possible call to the Priesthood, and one day she asked me to read Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 3:16. If you don’t know what it is, you’re not alone – I didn’t either. But when I opened my Bible, I was disappointed, even hurt, by what I read there. And I asked God what He meant by this – I was angry with Him and with myself. But in mid-2012, my mum, who still keeps up her prayer-life, felt quite certain that God was asking her to do something to glorify Him. My mum was then nearing her 70s, and she was having her own set of health problems, so she couldn’t understand what God was asking of her to glorify Him – surely she couldn’t take part in Charismatic healing services as in yesteryears? She spoke with Msgr. Francis Lau about her inspiration, and I remember what she reported as Msgr. Lau’s answer to her: “Don’t worry. In good time, God will reveal to you what it is He is asking of you.” Around the third quarter of 2012, my mum received further clarification in prayer: she felt certain that God wanted her to do something to glorify Him, and she could do so without having to leave the house. It was only gradually that my mum was able to link this gentle request from God with my possible call to serve Him in the Priesthood. It wasn’t easy for my mum to let me go, for I was my mum’s primary care provider since I returned from the States, but I see the time from when my mum finally gave me her blessings to join the seminary on the Feast of Christ the King in 2013 till now as a time of growth and grace in which God is working.
The journey in the seminary hasn’t been a bed of roses. There are ups and downs, joys and sorrows. But through these, or rather, because of these, I have been strengthened in faith in God’s presence and endless love for me – He is the One who is guiding and forming me through all the twists and turns. And I am humbled and overawed that God, the Creator and Master of all that is, should have looked upon me, a mere creature with so many weaknesses and sins, and pursued me with such care and tenderness. Who am I that I should be invited into such an intimate friendship with my Creator? What am I, with all my weaknesses, that He invites me to bear His burden with Him? How does it happen that the Lord asks me so gently to allow Him to bear my own burdens?
And so I ask you, my dear friends in Christ, to pray for me – that my little heart will be so inflamed with the love of God that I will be a worthy Priest for you, a true shepherd after the Sacred Heart of our Good Shepherd. Humbled by God’s boundless love. Proud to be called.
Oh, Lord my God.
You called me from the sleep of nothingness
merely because in your tremendous love
you want to make good and beautiful beings.
You have called me by my name in my mother’s womb.
You have given me breath and light and movement
and walked with me every moment of my existence.
I am amazed, Lord God of the universe,
that you attend to me and, more, cherish me.
Create in me the faithfulness that moves you,
and I will trust you and yearn for you all my days.
– “You Have Called Me by Name” by Joseph Tetlow SJ