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Vocations: When did you know you were called to the priesthood?

by Father Stephen Durkee
Image: Young audience member raises her arm during a concertThis is one of those questions that priests are asked all the time:  “Father, when did you finally decide to be a priest?” What I find interesting is people are always surprised by the answer. I usually respond that I probably decided to be a priest in my third year of seminary.
I think most priests would say something similar. You may wonder why it took that long. Many would ask,
“Don’t you know before seminary that you are called to be a priest?” In fact, the reality is most young men who go to seminary do not know they are called to be priests. Rather, they go because they are open to the possibility of being a priest. They are not only willing to be a priest, but they are willing to ask the
question, “God, have you called me to love in this world as a priest?” All vocations are vocations to love others. Married men and women give their lives in love to their spouse and their children. Priests and religious give their lives in love to God and his people.
This month, I will accompany several young men, ages 16-24, to St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. They are going on this trip to ask God the first question, “Are you calling me to go to the
seminary?” This question is not: “Have you called me to the priesthood?” I think what is important for any
young man discerning the priesthood or young lady discerning religious life is honestly asking, “Is it
possible that God is calling me to that vocation?” And, if so, “Is my heart open to actively discerning that vocation in the seminary or in a religious community?” The time for decision will be later, while in formation.
I’ll never forget this moment for me. I was mowing the lawn at my parents’ house. It was the beginning of
the summer after my freshman year of college. I was reflecting on my vocation in life and God’s plan for
me. I cannot express adequately enough this moment in words, but I’ll never forget it. I remember feeling convinced that God was saying to me, “Stephen, I’m not asking you to commit to priesthood right now. I’m only asking for a chance; will you go to the seminary and consider the priesthood?” My response to the Lord was simply, “Will I be happy?” In a moment of total grace, I experienced the greatest peace. “Stephen, whatever vocation I give you will bring you great joy. Come, follow me.” This was the moment I knew that I needed to go to the seminary. I was not sure I’d be a priest. I only knew that I would never know that answer until I gave God a fair shot.
To all young people in our diocese: God has a specific plan for each of you. He will never force you to accept it. The vocation each of us receives from God is meant to be a gift to us and a gift of love for others. Praise God for the young men in our diocese who are opening their hearts and are willing to consider a vocation to the priesthood. Praise God also for the many young women in our diocese who have opened their hearts to discern with religious communities. Here’s my encouragement for all young people discerning their vocation: Simplify the question. Rather than asking God if he is calling you to be a priest, religious or spouse, simply resolve to have an open heart to the vocation God may be calling you to. 
Father Stephen Durkee is associate director of priestly vocations for the Diocese of Grand Rapids. He also serves as parochial vicar at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Rockford. Contact Father Stephen at