On being called to become a priest

Our local weekly paper, The Concord Journal, offers column space for faith community leaders to share on a rotating basis. Last week's edition included this essay of mine which drew on a homily I preached about a year ago and served as an opportunity to give announce the Year for Priests to a wider audience. I'm often asked how I decided to become a priest. Well, it all began with a postcard...
Voices of Faith
July 9, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI has called for a year of prayer for priests which began on June 19, 2009. I take this opportunity to share with you some of the story of how I came to spend my life as a Catholic priest.

In 1963 when I was in high school, a classmate and friend, Kathy, sent a post card to a “priest vocation director” requesting “more information about becoming a priest” - and she filled in my name and phone number without telling me what she had done!

A few weeks later, she asked me if any priest had called to talk to me. I told her no and asked her why. She told me what she had done - and I told her what I thought of what she had done! I wasn’t happy about it and asked her why in the world she would do such a thing. She answered simply and seriously, “Because I think you’d be a good priest…”

Well, at that point in my life I wanted to be a teacher or a lawyer – not a priest. But sure enough, a week or so later a priest called me. I explained what Kathy had done and told him I wasn’t interested. He was kind and said that students often did that to their friends. End of the phone call - but the beginning of my thinking about what Kathy had said to me, “I think you’d be a good priest…”

Well, we can fast-forward here because you already know how this story ends!

I’ve been a priest for 36 years. And I wouldn’t I’d trade those 36 years for any other life. I have a full life, a rich life, a rewarding life. My life is not without loneliness, pain, hurt, disappointment and maybe a few regrets - but it is, after all, the life of a human being, not an angel, so I think in that respect it’s a fairly normal life.

The world, Church and culture in 1963 were very different than today’s. When I first told people I was entering a seminary, just above everyone thought it was a great thing. That might not be the response today. “A seminary? You want to be a priest? A Catholic priest? But don’t you know…? Haven’t you heard…?”

Without a doubt, these are tough times for recruiting men to the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Of course, the greatest reason anyone should consider becoming a priest is simply this: the growing conviction and belief that this is what God wants of you. I believed that 44 years ago when I went to the seminary and I’ve believed that over the 36 years I’ve been a priest.

It ain’t all been perfect! And I have not been perfect. My faults and failings are many more than even those who enjoy logging my errors might imagine. To date, however, my sins have exhausted neither the supply of God’s mercy nor my desire to repent and reform my ways.

Year after year after year I continue to believe that I am what I am and I do what I do because the Lord has drawn me to this work and given me gifts, talents and a spirit for harvesting the vineyard of faith in the hearts and lives of God’s people.

These past seven of my 36 years in ministry have been the most difficult. The tragedy of sexual abuse by priests and the painful decision to close parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston have taken their toll on pastors as well as the people they serve. Although a cloud of mistrust and anger still shadows church life, the work and worship of my parish sustains my congregation and me as we prepare for a future when only a continually declining number of priests will be available to serve the Catholic population. Jesus was correct when he said, “The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few.”

The joy of my life as a priest is the privilege of preaching the gospel and gathering the people of my parish to celebrate the sacraments. Word and worship are the food that nourishes us for the demands of charity and the work of justice. To walk and pray with God’s people as they seek to grow in faith through their good times and bad, their joys and sorrows, makes me a man of many families -- and that is a great gift.

Thirty-six happy years which began with a friend’s post card…

Depending on your own faith’s way of doing things, might there be a man or woman you know whom you think would be a good priest, minister or rabbi? Why not let that person know what you think? That’s what Kathy did in 1963 and I’ll always be grateful for her seven simple words, “I think you’d be a good priest.”

And if you would take a moment now and then to pray for those who minister to you, I can assure you that they will be grateful.
Image: Spreadshirt



  1. I didn't get a chance to read your article in the Journal. I'm pleased that you posted it to your blog.
    As someone who looks forward to your weekly sermons, I feel blessed to be a part of HFP, and sense your own feeling of blessings in the words you wrote. I for one am grateful for you recognizing your calling and following that path. I wish you well.

  2. I am sitting here with tears in my eyes. What a beautiful piece... I am really grateful that you have shared this with us in the blogworld who might not see this in your local paper.

    This is good for Catholics to read and maybe even more importantly, for non-Catholics to read. The idea of a Catholic priest has become so sadly twisted due to so many things. Your voice in this essay is a light in that regard.

    You don't sugar coat it though and what is challenging, both personally and more comprehensively is challenging indeed. If we don't talk about some of this, how will we ever heal? Thank you for being a voice in that discussion.

    Thank you for the gift of your life and your service to Godls people.


  3. A Loyal Reader writes:

    Have you kept in touch with Kathy? What is her reaction to the fact that you actually became a priest and are indeed, true to her prediction, "a good priest"? (I may say from what I can tell you exceed good into the excellent category!)

  4. While Kathy certainly knows that her post-card set in motion a lifetime of choices for me, we have not kept in touch on any regular basis. A few years back I was invited to speak in her parish and that occasion provided for a very happy reunion of high school friends. 2010 will be our 45th graduation anniversary - if there's a gathering we might see each other then.

  5. Father Fleming,

    In the parishes in which you've served, how many times have you counseled young men who expressed an interest in the priesthood? Have you ever invited a young man or woman to explore a religious vocation? It sounds like an individual invitation is often a starting point.

    I'd be interested to hear your stories.

    Irish Gal

  6. Irish Gal: I'm sure you would.

    Over the years I've counseled a number of men (mostly younger although some older) who have expressed an interest in the priesthood. If I could graph that experience, however, it would show a downward trend over the last 15 years or so.

    I have also served as a mentor for seminarians and newly ordained priests.

    I have asked young men if they have thought about life as a priest and have shared with them the qualities I observed in them that prompted my question. (That happened more frequently in my days in campus ministry ['78-'91] when my "congregation" was almost entirely young people considering life and career options.)

    I have found that more difficult to do since the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy has been part and parcel of church life and ministry.

    While I have worked with several women who were discerning a call to life in a religious community (here the individuals have been older rather than younger), I don't recall ever inviting someone to do so.

  7. Thank you Kathy, wherever you are!

  8. Kathy set a wonderful wheel in motion! How fortunate your parish has been to have been touched by your wisdom, faith and truth. I read online your letter to your parish about coming up on your 6th year as pastor at the combined Concord parish and the possible future happenings. Part of me says just stay where you are and the other part says go to a new parish for your final 12 years and spread the wealth. Look at what a wonderful next chapter you might have......the same old friends but a host of new friends who are exposed to the way you walk your faith and share it so openly....faults, successes, wisdom, hurts and healings. Lots of things for you to ponder about.

  9. "...the other part says go to a new parish for your final 12 years and spread the wealth."

    I'm in agreement on this. My pastor is a good man, a good priest and good pastor but ready for retirement. Parish life is beginning to reflect his burnout.

  10. "I have found that more difficult to do since the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy has been part and parcel of church life and ministry."

    Respectfully, Father, because you have found people less interested in a vocation, or do your own feelings about the scandal make it hard for you to recommend the priesthood?

    Irish Gal

  11. It's difficult to do because the questions that come forth don't have easy or satisfying answers (for most people, not just the young looking at possibilities for one's life's work).

    As I mentioned above, I've observed a downward trend in numbers over the past 15 years or so but that would be influenced by my no longer working in a setting mostly populated by young people.

    I have no problem recommending a life of ministry - it's been mine and it's been my joy much more than it's been my burden.

  12. Well, I vote you stay right in the parish you are in for the next 12 years. Holy Family Parish is very lucky to have you and this parishioner has talked with many other parishioners that hope and pray you stay right where you are. We believe you are happy here and will continue to be so if you stay.

  13. My prayer is that you stay and continue to be a Shepard to you sheep. We still need a lot of work, and you are certainly the one to help us on that journey.
    Just my opinion.

  14. I had intended to say that you had less than eight years (not 12) until your "midnight retirement" at age 70. Then I read your latest entry re amendment to be willing to serve in emergencies until age 75. I am afraid that "emergencies" will occur frequently. How will this new wrinkle effect your planning for retirement? Personally, I, along with a cast of thousands, would like to see you stay at HFP.

    Sounds as if much prayerful discernment will be in your future.



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