Editor’s note: This is one in a series of personal vocation stories from seminarians, religious women, deacons and priests in the Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Not everyone can trace their call to a particular moment. In my case, however, it began in earnest with a unique experience I had as I was praying before the sanctuary of my parish church. I was 19. At the time I feared that I might be called to dedicate my life to God, but I was wrestling with renouncing the opportunity to have a family and a career. As I prayed, I put these thoughts into words, asking almost defensively, “What real man would be a priest?” Then I looked up and saw the life-sized crucifix seeming to look right down at me, and I understood. And more than understanding, I was filled with a joy and peace that I had never before experienced.
Inspirations happen in a moment, but a vocation is the project of a lifetime, and the experience that I had that day in my parish church took place 15 years ago. As I sought to pursue this call, I studied abroad for a time with a religious congregation, and afterward transferred to the Diocese of Salt Lake City. During these years I have tried to understand this call and live it out ever more fully. People at times are shocked to hear that I have been studying so long and still have two years until my ordination, but a religious and priestly vocation is a life dedicated to God, and I have found my fulfillment living this life. If it takes me two years or 10 to be ordained, ordination, as wonderful a gift as it is, is but a step on this journey that will allow God to work in new ways through me. The gift of my consecration to God allows me already to live my life to the full, to dedicate all my energies to the love of God and others. The destination that we all share as Christians to live forever in the full and perfect Communion of Heaven, and the life of consecration to God is nothing other than the search to live this out already on earth.
My first question to anyone interested in the consecrated life or the priesthood is, “Do you feel called to the total dedication of love that is the celibate life?” This must be the heart of every religious and priestly vocation. Every Christian has a vocation to a particular and indispensable mission in the Church, but only some have this call to total dedication. While it is true that the priestly and religious lives involve particular sets of duties, the identity of the consecrated person is not what she does, but who she is. A better word than celibacy is total consecration to God. This cannot be a negative renunciation, but a fullness of love that wishes to embrace all. If you feel this call, be not afraid – it is a path of great suffering, but even because of this, of deeper joy!
Dominic Sternhagen is assigned to his pastoral year at St. Andrew Parish in Riverton. In the fall he will return to Mt. Angel Seminary in for his third year of theology.