The costs and fruits of vocational discernment

By Walter Bonam, Guest Column, Clarion Herald

During the recent Chrism Mass, Archbishop Aymond’s homily touched upon the necessity for priests to persevere in their ministry even in the face of fatigue. For me, this instantly evoked a vivid recollection of seeing that message lived out in the person of the late Josephite Father John Harfmann.

The day after I sustained a paralyzing injury in 2011, Father Harfmann – who was then my pastor at Corpus Christi-Epiphany Parish – came to visit me in the hospital.

During the following week, he resolved several times to come see me again, but each time some other pressing pastoral responsibility intervened to thwart his intention. Finally, near the end of a day when he had once more meant to visit me, he arrived back at the rectory, feeling exhausted from a full day’s round of pastoral duties. He sank into a chair, silently lamenting that he had once again failed to visit me.

At age 76, he no longer had the energy of his youth. Still, a persistent inner voice kept prodding him to get up from his chair and go to the hospital. Finally, that voice overcame his exhaustion, and he reluctantly arose and drove across town to the hospital.

As he approached the hospital elevator, he noticed a cluster of people in animated conversation. When he got closer, his Roman collar attracted them like iron filings to a magnet. As it happened, they had just arrived from out of state to attend their father on his deathbed. Since the hospital’s Catholic chaplain had already gone home for the day, they were now desperately seeking a priest to anoint their father before he died.

Father Harfmann was sympathetic to their plight, but explained that he had not brought with him all that was needed to administer the anointing of the sick. However, upon finding the chaplain’s office locked, he went the extra mile to track down the hospital security guard, to ask whether he had a key. The guard obligingly unlocked the office. After procuring what he needed for the sacrament, Father Harfmann accompanied the man’s family to his room and anointed him before seeing me.

A ‘thank-you’ card

As a postscript to that day’s events, the man died a day or so later. Because they were so grateful for their father’s anointing, and since it was my injury that had occasioned Father Harfmann’s visit to the hospital, his children obtained my contact information and sent me a “thank-you” card. When Father Harfmann told me the story of how he happened to show up for them in their hour of need, it was immediately clear to me that his visit to me was a “collateral blessing,” so to speak. The more crucial reason for the Holy Spirit’s prodding him to leave the rectory that evening was because someone else urgently needed something only a priest could provide.

Reflecting on all of this later, I realized that it constituted a marvelous lesson regarding availability to God in fulfilling one’s vocational commitment. When, on the day of his ordination, Father Harfmann had promised fidelity to his priestly calling, he had thereby said an all-encompassing “yes” to the Lord’s call to priestly service.

However, like Mary’s “fiat” in the Annunciation, this assent would have been meaningless had it not subsequently been lived out through the priest’s daily “yeses” to things such as the prompting of the Holy Spirit on the evening just described.

Fulfilling such a commitment also has a parallel in the fidelity of spouses to their marriage vows. This encompasses not only their exclusive gift of themselves to each other in conjugal love, but also their openness to God’s gift of children and their willingness to exercise responsible parenthood. In other words, the “I do’s” spoken on their wedding day must find an echo in their willingness, not only to forgo the lure of extramarital attractions, but also to change diapers, to stay up all night with a sick child, etc.

The daily ‘yes’ to God

Besides the vocations of sacerdotal (priestly) or diaconal ordination, vowed religious life or marriage, the Lord also calls some to embrace the lay single state – sometimes for life. Whichever state constitutes one’s primary vocation, one’s all-encompassing “yes” to that vocation demands numerous smaller “yeses” to the promptings of the Holy Spirit that inevitably ensue. If we are faithful in responding to these smaller, more mundane invitations from God – these “vocations within a vocation” – we make ourselves available to be used by the Lord in unforeseeable ways, just as Father Harfmann, despite his fatigue, became a humble instrument for the anointing of someone he had never met.

In the great cosmic dance to which we are all invited, only the Divine Choreographer can see where, how, and with whom the music will next prompt us to interact. Only by saying “yes” to the Lord daily will our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds be attuned to the next movement in the grand adventure to which we are called as disciples of Jesus.

Walter Bonam is a member of the Office of Religious Education. He can be reached at wbonam@arch-no.org.

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