Last week, I concluded my column by describing my confused state of mind at the beginning of the summer of 1969.
by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In society at that time, there was a great deal of upheaval as a result of the protests to the Vietnam War, the race riots in many cities, the sexual revolution, the drug culture, and some of the unintended consequences of the reforms of Vatican II, e.g. a significant number of priest and religious abandoning their ministries.
In the United States, a youth culture had emerged that encouraged my generation to question all author- ity and not to trust anyone over the age of 30.
It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I had graduated from the seminary high school and completed the first two years
of the seminary college program. I was not only confused about whether I was called to be a priest, but about much more fundamental questions: Did God exist? If there was a God, was Jesus his son? If there was a God, did he really take a personal interest in individual human beings? Or was this just wishful thinking?
The seminary had just instituted a six-week program for the summer between the sophomore and junior year of college. The program
was placed in the middle of the summer, making it very difficult to get any type of summer job. The seminary leadership wisely perceived this was an important summer for us, when we needed to reflect on vocational discernment without the usual summer distractions.
My classmates and I were not happy with this new requirement. Our seminary rector told us the program was voluntary, but not optional. In other words, if you were choosing to remain in the seminary, then you were choosing to participate in this program.
The six weeks began with an eight-day silent retreat. This was a completely new experience for me. I had never been silent for more than a few hours. At the beginning of the retreat, I scheduled an appointment with the retreat master. I told him that I was very confused. Naturally, he assumed that it was about my vocation. I told him that it was much more fundamental than that. I was confused about the existence of God, about whether Jesus was who he claimed to be, and about whether — if there was a God—he had any personal interest in individual human beings.
The retreat master was very wise. He advised me to read the first half of the 11th chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, which begins with the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus gave his disciples the instruction on prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father. He follows this instruction with the parable about a man who has unexpected guests arrive in the middle of the night. He goes to his neighbor to ask for some bread for his guests, because he has none to offer them. Jesus says that if the man persists in knocking on the door, the neighbor will respond.
If the neighbor does not respond for friendship’s sake, he will do so to prevent his entire household from being awakened by the man’s persistent banging.
Jesus urges his disciples to be persistent in their prayer. Our Lord tells them: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Jesus reminds the disciples how earthly fathers know how to give their children what is truly good for them. How much more, he says, does your heavenly Father know how to give you what is truly good.
The retreat master recommended that my prayer should consist in just banging on our Lord’s door, asking God to reveal himself to me and his will for my life. He encouraged me to muster enough faith to pray: “God, if you are there, make clear to me your presence and love.”
For the eight day retreat and for the entire six weeks, I spent a lot of time in the chapel in the presence of the Eucharist. My prayer was pretty much just a persistent asking God to reveal himself to me. I did not hear any voices like Paul did on the road to Damascus. I did not experience any blinding lights. However, gradually, my doubts dissipated. I experienced God’s presence and love for me in a way that I had not previously known.
By the end of the six weeks, I was not only convinced there was a God, but that he was calling me to serve him and his church as a priest. I felt there was nothing more important that I could do with my life than help others discover God’s love for them revealed in his son, Jesus.
After this, I had six more years of study and seminary formation to see if the church agreed with my discernment. Fortunately for me, the church confirmed what I knew in my heart. In the 44 years since that pivotal summer for me of 1969, I have had a lot of challenges and some difficulties, but never again was I plagued with doubts about God’s existence or his love for me. I have also received many confirmations in my priestly ministry of what first became so real and clear to me in the summer of 1969.
The fact that you are reading this article means you are a relatively committed Catholic. What was the event or events that have made you so strong in your faith? Who were the individuals who played a significant role in your discovery of Our Lord’s love for you?
These are important questions for each of us to answer, because they should be the basis for our constant prayer of thanksgiving to God. The answer to those questions will also make up the substance of your own “call story.” We all have a story, a beautiful story of how God has revealed his love to us.
An important part of the new evangelization is for each of us to ponder and give thanks for the ways in which God has manifested his love for us.
We should also be ready, when the opportunity presents itself, to share with others the reason for our faith and hope in Jesus Christ and our love for his church.