Why am I Studying for the Maronite Priesthood?

By Joseph Azize
Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, 15 August 2009

By the grace of God, and the permission of my bishop, I am studying for the Maronite priesthood. I feel a fulfilment I can hardly describe. Indeed, my personal feelings don’t count for very much, so there is little call to try and describe them. But, given my considerable age (I am 51 years old), and so am more than twice as old as most men who are considering the priesthood, it may be of interest to speak of the signs of my vocation to Holy Orders, rather than the biographical details. I am not speaking of the priesthood which all believers share, but of Holy Orders.

The big sign pointing to this vocation is, I feel, that I burn with a particular aim: the worship of God by the reverent service of the Mysteries (the sacraments), especially the Eucharist, and, ancillary to this, to spread the understanding and love of them. Jesus’ purpose in establishing the sacramental priesthood was to spread the Gospel and to raise ministers of the Mysteries. If you do not believe that in the Eucharist, transubstantiation takes place, and the bread and wine become Jesus Our Lord in his body, blood, soul and divinity, you do not have a vocation to the Maronite priesthood, which is a sacramental priesthood. Yet, even if you do have this aim to minister the Mysteries to God’s people, and to offer the great unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist, you may not have a vocation to be a priest.

The second sign, I would say, is preparedness to suffer, and for me, this came late. I am not just referring to poverty, although this is involved to a greater or lesser degree. The priesthood is not and cannot be another career, or a different job. It is a sacrifice, a daily sacrifice of one’s self, in the service of the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Gospel. One must go into the priesthood knowing that if one is a good priest, suffering will come your way. There is no need to make it, it will find you. You will not be able to satisfy all of your colleagues let alone all of your parishioners, and there are many who will resent you whatever you do. Our Lord said in Jn 15:20:
The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you: if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also.[1]
We must be prepared to suffer the bones and gullet pangs of confronting the bitter truth about ourselves for the salvation of our souls and in imitation of Christ.

The third sign is preparedness to obey the Lord and his commandments, although they may seem hard to us. This will mean accepting and defending the teachings of his Church, no matter how unpopular with the world they may be – and they are, in an increasing number of respects, unpopular, and even ridiculed and mocked. It will mean conforming our practice and teaching to that of his Church, even if other Catholics urge us to water them down, e.g. by countenancing or participating in respect of liturgical abuses or by teaching lax doctrines (both of these challenges come together when a person who is not at all repentant seeks absolution of sins).

The fourth sign is a love of Holy Scripture and a reverence for, and desire to better understand the teachings of the Church. These two go together, after all, the make up of Holy Scripture, and how to soundly interpret it, are teachings of the Church. I, personally, had troubles with certain teachings of the Church, for example, I was worried by the authority of the Papacy, especially in relation to the authority of Councils and the bishops. But I have given the matter devoted study, and in doing so, found that I had not really understood the Church’s position, and that in clarifying it, I deepened my understanding of other issues. For example, I saw how it was providential that one as feeble as St Peter should have been the rock, as opposed to the more impressive St James and the more brilliant St John.

I also reflected, looking back over my life, how in the course of it I had learned the biblical languages, Greek and Hebrew, and studied the Church and her teachings. For example, although I was not then considering the priesthood, I wrote a thesis on St Ignatius of Antioch, and wrote academic articles on the book of Ecclesiastes. I never, even in my darkest moments – and boy were they dark – had stopped reading good Catholic authors like Newman and Chesterton.

My fifth sign is simply this: I have fallen out of love with the values of the world and in love with the values of God. I am still an imperfect lover, but I can say that whereas I used to become at least a little bit jealous of the careers of people who made more money or seemed to have achieved more, I am beyond caring for success as measured by the standards of the world. I could give other examples, and may in the discussion.

Finally, I did, when I was young, believe I was destined for the priesthood. I never forgot this, but took it as a foible of childhood. Now I know better, I realise that it was an essence quality, and so it shone when I was very young, and has been recovered at the same time as he has shown me the vanity of the world. If you did not have this feeling of destiny when you were young, you may still have a vocation. This is, I think, a very subjective thing. Some people, e.g. some women, have all their lives believed that they were called to the priesthood, and yet they cannot be correct (at least in respect of the Catholic priesthood, which is a sacramental one and can only administer the Mysteries as he authorised). Others are surprised if not shocked to discover their vocation much later in life.

I can sum up all of these signs by saying that the priest must be prepared to be another Christ, and to take up your cross. If your life has prepared you for this, and if you desire it as the master-aim of your life, then you may have a vocation. Then, your bishop will provisionally confirm this when you are accepted as a candidate for priesthood, and gives his final confirmation when he ordains you into Holy Orders.

Joseph is preparing for priesthood in the Maronite Eparchy in Sydney, Australia.

[1] Note his prophecy in Mt 5: (11) Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: (12) Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets ... before you.