The Importance of the Willingness to be Formed
In April of 2003, I was a freshman living in Morrissey Hall and spent a weekend visiting the Old College Undergraduate Seminary program, which was right next door. In a remarkable twist of fate (or perhaps in God’s abundant Providence), the room I stayed in for that visit is the same room I currently occupy nearly fifteen years later. Becoming the director of Old College three years ago caused me to spend a significant amount of time reflecting on my own time in formation for the priesthood in the Congregation of Holy Cross, and to recall the various ups and downs, joys and struggles of my own journey to final vows and priesthood. More importantly, I had the opportunity to reflect on, and give thanks for, the formators who helped me along that journey. To think about the ways they encouraged me, nudged me, and pushed me to become to priest and religious I am today. To ask myself what was it about the witness of their lives that impacted me and shaped me in the way I understand ministry today. And to reflect on how I was going to do the same for the men of Old College.
When I first arrived at Notre Dame, I was already well familiar with Holy Cross religious. I had attended a high school run by the Holy Cross brothers and had already witnessed their zeal for being educators in the faith. The brothers were often the first ones at school in the morning and, often, the last ones to leave in the evening. They always had time for a conversation, or, for that matter, a little extra review. Their encouragement and support certainly helped me do well in high school and allowed me the opportunity to come to Notre Dame. Once I arrived at Notre Dame, I found an equally dedicated group of men, with the same zeal, who also expressed that zeal through the administration of the Sacraments.
In due course, my draw to that lifestyle became so intense I could no longer ignore it, so I visited and eventually applied to Old College. What I found at Old College was a community of individuals who were discerning the same call and who were willing to support and encourage each other in their discernment. However, perhaps more importantly, I also found a group of formators who were willing to challenge me and push me to be the best version of myself, and to help me understand and enact how God was calling me to grow in my life. The accountability, encouragement, and challenge they presented me was invaluable to helping me become the priest and religious that I wanted to be (a process which is still ongoing in fact). They were the ones who helped guide me into the structure and discipline of daily prayer and the Liturgy of the Hours; they were the ones who taught me the importance of silence in listening to God; they were the ones who modeled for me pastoral zeal for the salvation of souls.
The reality was that I, like most of us, was pretty certain that I could handle my life on my own, and those moments of challenge and encouragement were not always the most pleasant. None of us like being told what to do and none of us like our growth areas being pointed out or to be challenged on a habit, quirk, or point of view. Yet it’s precisely in those moments that we are often pushed to be our best selves and can see the person that God is calling us to be. It was important for me to remember that I was still a work in progress and that my journey to the fulfillment of my vocation included a bit of fine-tuning. This is still the case for me now as much as it was then, even as I now bear the responsibility of helping to form others in the pursuit of their vocations.
One of the things I often hear from men who are considering applying to Old College—or for that matter, any other formation program—is that they are afraid that they might not be worthy enough or holy enough to become a priest. That there is some struggle or challenge in their life that could inhibit them from pursuing a priestly or religious vocation. While it is certainly true that there are many things that would make someone unsuitable for ministry as a consecrated religious or an ordained priest, the reality is that none of us are worthy of such a call.
God calls broken and imperfect human beings to each of those vocations. The call to be a consecrated religious or a priest is not an issue of worthiness, it’s an issue of God’s invitation. It is through God’s mercy that He calls some to serve in those vocations and to be of specific service to His Body the Church. It is through the work of formation that we are pushed to form ourselves more closely into the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, in which we are able to hone our rough edges so that we might be a better witness to the Gospel each day. This is a process that ends not with perpetual profession or ordination, but one that is part of our life always. God is always calling us to love deeper, to be more generous, to be more Christlike every day of our life.
No matter our vocation, this willingness to be formed is an essential element to living the Christian life. It is okay that we are not perfect; it is okay that we still have some rough edges; it is okay that we are still incomplete. In fact, our growth in holiness is dependent on our ability to acknowledge those areas where we can be a little bit better, and where we have some room to grow. It’s when we are willing to own those imperfect areas of our life that we can invite God into them, and together with Him commit to becoming the person He calls us to become.
Fr. Brian Ching, CSC, is a Holy Cross priest and is currently serving as the Rector of Old College Undergraduate Seminary, located between the Log Chapel and St. Mary’s Lake. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.