Reflections on the Discernment of St. Joseph
St. Joseph, Cockeysville
February 27, 2021
A Word of Greeting and Thanks
First, good morning to all of you . . . and thank you! Thank you for making yourselves available for this discernment retreat, a time set aside simply to listen to voice of the Lord, a time set aside for us to say to him, “Lord, show us the way!”
Experience has taught me that prayer, reflection, and discernment are powerful. I became aware of my calling to be a priest when I was very young, in grade school. Even so, at every step of the way, I needed to pray and to reflect on that calling, to test that calling, to see if it was real and if my response was genuine and wholehearted. Indeed, a priestly vocation often begins like a flickering flame, a flame that could so easily be extinguished by winds of culture and personal desire. Prayer, reflection, and discernment help keep that flame from going out, and if the call is real and your response is genuine, that flame will grow stronger. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will set your hearts aflame with love for the Lord, so that you will readily respond to whatever it is our Savior might be asking of you.
St. Joseph’s Vocational Story
As you have probably already discovered, the path of vocational discernment is not always a wide and smooth path. We might think it would be nice if the Lord sent us text message outlining the path our life would take – I assure you, it would take at least an email! But the Lord respects and loves us too much to treat us as if we were robots. Rather, all of his gifts must travel the complicated highways of our hearts and the winding paths of our lives. The Lord is not looking merely for external compliance with his wishes but rather a response of love that is at once obedient and authentic. In a word, an alignment of our will with his will – something easier said than done.
That is why you and I must pay attention to the vocation stories of others. Every vocation story is unique but there is much to learn from others’ experience, for example, the vocational journey of a pastor or a current seminarian. Their experience – including the ups and downs – offer us encouragement to engage in our own discernment with great trust in the Lord who calls us.
For that reason, I wanted to spend a few minutes reflecting with you on one of the greatest vocational stories in the history of Christianity: the unique and beautiful vocation which St. Joseph received and accepted, the vocation to be the husband of Mary and the guardian of Jesus. Although Joseph was not called to the priesthood—Jesus had not yet instituted it – he was called to undertake a mysterious and challenging role in salvation history. We can learn a lot, both from his calling and from his response.
St. Joseph’s Plans Upended (ours too)
A first lesson we may learn from St. Joseph’s vocational story is that his initial plans, good as they were, were not what God had in mind. As we read in Scripture, Joseph had planned to take Mary as his wife. Perhaps Joseph had already mapped out in mind and heart what their life together would be like in the home at Nazareth and I am sure he looked forward to their life together with happy anticipation.
In fact, the first stage of their betrothal was already underway when Mary was found to be with Child by the power of the Holy Spirit. This deep truth of our faith was something that Joseph did not yet understand. To his great sorrow, it appeared as if his future wife has done a grievous wrong and the only solution this just man could think of was to divorce her quietly, and because he loved her, to do what he could to spare her public shame.
Those are the bare facts as presented by the Scriptures, but we can imagine that, behind these words, were anguished conversations, perhaps moments when Joseph wanted to believe what Mary told him, yet, even in his faithfulness, could not comprehend that the Child of Mary’s womb was really the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Scripture does not elaborate on the anguish Joseph must have felt, but we can be sure that he did not easily reach the decision to separate from Mary.
Clearly, the Lord’s plans were not the same as Joseph’s plans. Perhaps some of you have had the same experience. You may have envisioned a future for yourselves very different from the priesthood. You may have thought of getting married or planned for a specific career. You may have imagined what a good life might be like for you and your family. Then, perhaps suddenly, the thought of being a priest puts a hole in those plans. Or else, the lingering thought that just perhaps God is calling you to be a priest just won’t go away, just keeps hanging on, no matter what plans you are entertaining. When our plans fall apart right before our eyes, we naturally feel upset. Uncertainty has a way of making us feel unmoored, adrift, even lost. For sure, this is not everyone’s experience – indeed, it was not my experience – but it is not uncommon that the Lord will upend our plans. No wonder Pope Francis speaks of “a God of surprises!”
How God Communicated with St. Joseph (and with us too)
Amid the anguish and uncertainty that St. Joseph must have been feeling, Joseph must surely have prayed to the Lord. There is no evidence that Joseph went on a discernment retreat but there is plenty of evidence that, as an observant Jew, he prayed the Psalms, including those Psalms that in which we cry out to God from the depths of our hearts and beg the Lord in his goodness and love to show us the way forward.
In fact, Joseph was much more than an observant Jew. He was among the devout remnant of Israel that fervently expected that God, faithful to his covenant, would deliver the people of Israel. Without a doubt, Joseph prayed to God with all his mind, heart, and soul.
Thus it was that the Lord communicated with Joseph in a dream. Now when we think of dreams, we may say to ourselves that these are not real. These are the jumbled-up images that dance around our minds while we sleep. And if we had spicy food for dinner, the images are more jumbled-up than usual! But some dreams are different, I think you will agree. Many people, even today, have poignant dreams that are full of meaning. For example, we may experience in a dream the presence of a deceased loved one or we may indeed awake from sleep aware with a clarity not of our own making.
It is this sort of a dream – only deeper – that Joseph may have experienced. For in his dream, the Lord spoke to Joseph and told him to have no fear in taking Mary as wife, for her Child was indeed of the Holy Spirit, the Child whom God has promised would come and deliver his people from their sins. Sometimes this scene from Scripture is called, “St. Joseph’s Annunciation” – it is the moment when Joseph received his unique vocation to be the husband of Mary, the Mother of God, and the earthly guardian of Jesus. Scripture simply says that when Joseph awoke from his dream, he did as the Lord commanded, that is to say, he embraced his unique vocation.
And we may say, wouldn’t it be nice if I had a dream tonight in which the Lord laid out my vocation for me in high resolution images! To which, I need to respond, “Not so fast!” Joseph could easily have awoken and said, “What a strange dream! I’m glad it wasn’t real! Time to get on with life!” The reason Joseph didn’t do that was because he was a good man who sincerely sought God’s will every step of the way and wanted to conform his life to whatever it was that God wanted. Thus the importance of his being a man of deep faith and a man of prayer. Without those two traits, few people end up discerning what the Lord is asking.
The lesson here is clear for your vocational discernment. It’s not that the Lord will necessarily announce your vocation to you in a dream. But the Lord will indeed communicate with you if you are in communication with him. What is prayer, except a two-way communication between God and ourselves? In prayer, God speaks to our hearts, or as St. John Henry Newman’s motto would have it, “Cor ad cor loquitur” – “Heart speaks to heart” – God’s heart to our hearts and our hearts to God’s heart. To discern our vocation, we do not have to be at the pinnacle of prayer and holiness, but we do have to be men of faith who, even if we stray, are on the path of holiness. The Lord may communicate with us at unexpected times and in unexpected ways, but if we are open to the Lord in prayer, we can be sure he will speak to our hearts.
The Adventure of Accepting a Vocation
Saying “yes” to a vocation is, of course, only the beginning. When we utter our “yes”, we never fully understand what lies ahead. When two people wed, they have some idea of what life will be like but they do not know what joys and also what sorrows and challenges lay ahead. For example, my parents had no idea that my older brother would have special needs, and all that his condition would require of them over the course of years. When a man begins formation for the priesthood, he has some idea what that will entail but it’s not like a Google map! So too when a man becomes a priest, he has some idea of what his life will be like, but you can take it from me, that there will be all kinds of surprises along the way. When I was ordained, the plan was to assign me to a seminary faculty as a professor. I was happy about that plan, finished my post-graduate studies, and was set to go. It never happened.
Could it be otherwise that a vocation from the Lord plunges us into mystery? When St. Joseph awoke and did as the Lord commanded, he truly had no idea what his unique vocation would demand of him, How could he have imagined journeying from Nazareth to Bethlehem, walking alongside his pregnant wife as evening shadows deepened? Or that there would be no room in the inn? Or that his wife would give birth in a crude stable? Or that, in the midst of such desolation, God’s glory would be revealed? Or that he and his family would have to flee to Egypt? St. Joseph faced such challenges with manly courage and virtue. His words are not recorded in Scripture, only his deeds. But his deeds speak of his quiet strength and steady virtue.
Here is why St. Joseph’s life and example is relevant for you as discerners, and for me, in my continued service to the Church. Sometimes, we anticipate the future with great anxiety. We wonder how our life will unfold, whether we will be happy, or if we will be asked to do difficult things, or whether our talents will be used. We may have anxiety about the state of the Church and what it will be like to serve as priest decades from now. We know that there are divisions within the Church (as there are in society), and so we wonder if we’ll be assigned someday with an ideological opposite. Anxieties such as these can lead us to look for guarantees in our discernment, or perhaps to play “Let’s Make a Deal” with God (whom we hope is amused).
We do not know what the future holds but we do know that the priesthood is a most worthy and challenging vocation. Like St. Joseph, we need to trust in the Lord, but also respond to the Lord with quiet strength and with manly virtue. When St. Joseph accepted his unique vocation, he did not know what the future held. All he knew is that God had intervened in his life and that his life was forever changed. If we truly trust in the Lord, perhaps that is what all of us really need to know.
Hard and Steady Work
One thing was not a surprise to St. Joseph: hard work. Joseph knew that, to support the Holy Family, he would have to work hard. From all we know, Joseph plied his trade as a carpenter with skill and diligence and taught carpentry to his Son Jesus – imagine having one of his creations today! St. Joseph taught us that while vocations have their dramatic moments, mostly they are lived day by day with steady virtue and hard work.
Over time, I have had the privilege of knowing many excellent priests. Their personalities and approaches may have differed but they had this one thing in common: they were hard workers. They didn’t clock their hours and imagine how much or how little they were paid. Rather, they gave of themselves generously, sometimes around the clock, because of their deep love for the Lord and for the Church, the People of God. And while not every priest loves every aspect of his work (for example, many priests are not overly fond of administration), most all the priests I know work hard and give of themselves generously. A vocation demands of us good, hard, steady work.
Come to think of it, though, we actually have several advantages over St. Joseph. For one thing, St. Joseph’s vocation blew in like a summer storm. Although he was prepared for his special vocation by his life of prayer and virtue, nonetheless, he discovered what it was to be suddenly , with little or no warning. For the most part, God deals with us more gently and gradually. Most of us discover our vocations gradually, over time, with multiple influences. All of us have opportunities for discernment, such as this retreat, and for the formation of every dimension of lives, which is what happens at seminary. Along the way, we have mentors, advisors, spiritual directors, and professors, not to mention good friends among our peers with whom we can talk things over.
A second advantage is that, unlike St. Joseph, we have something of a playbook. No one before or after St. Joseph has had the same exact vocation. But there have been priestly vocations throughout the history of the Church. There are multiple examples of priestly virtue and of the priesthood well lived from which we can gain both inspiration and direction for our lives. Further, you embrace this vocation, not merely on an individual basis, but together, with your peers and with the priests who have gone before you, and in a formative setting, a seminary, designed to help you to respond the many graces the Lord is and will be sending you.
There is a third advantage. As wonderful as the Holy Family was, imagine poor St. Joseph’s predicament. When something went wrong in the daily life of the Holy Family, who got the blame? The Incarnate Son of God? The Immaculate Mother of God? St. Joseph was the fall guy! Though not really, for in God’s Providence, there is no such thing as a fall guy, unless it is the Lord himself who took upon himself our sins to redeem us. As a priest, you would share in the Lord’s ministry in a most wonderful way – extending the Lord’s healing touch and the power of his death and resurrection, and applying these to the wounds of human existence that are all around us. There is no telling where a vocation like that could lead us except for this: a vocation like that will bring us joy on earth and eternal happiness in heaven. May God bless us and keep us always in his love!