Today I am four years in the clerical state of life; on this feast of Our Lady of the Rosary four years ago, another friar, a bunch of Jesuits and I were ordained deacons at St. Peter's in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Having my religious life compounded by diaconate and the priesthood that followed eleven months later (on Our Lady's birthday) has retained a kind of adventitious character for me. It still seems new somehow, even after four years. I think it's at least partly because I didn't come to the Franciscan life having thought much about priesthood. My desire and interest was to be a friar. I remember going for an interview with my home diocese in between my time with the OFM and before I entered the Capuchins. Thinking myself a good candidate to be a secular seminarian--relatively young, having the ideal academic background, etc.--I was shocked when the vocation director said that my sense of priestly vocation didn't seem well formed. He was quite right. I hadn't really thought about it. As it turned out later, I didn't really know how to think about it either.
In the course of my formation with the Capuchins, however, the question came up eventually. Should I declare myself a candidate for Orders or remain a lay friar? I wasn't sure, but my real problem was that I didn't know how to discern the question. I had come to the Franciscan religious life because it was what I wanted to do as an individual Christian; I had decided, to the best of my discernment, that this was the best way for me to live out my baptism. Priesthood didn't seem to me to be the same sort of question. It wasn't something I should present myself for just because I might desire it. It was more of a public property than that.
I thank God that I had a wise director at the time, who advised me to examine my own experience of myself as a public minister. How did I experience myself at the moments I was called upon to preach? To lead public prayer? This practice confirmed for me the words of one of my most important teachers at the former Weston Jesuit School of Theology, who said, "The question isn't whether or not you think you want to be a priest; the question is whether the priesthood of Jesus Christ is struggling to born in you in this particular way."
Based on all of that, but not without some trepidation, I was able to consent to declaring myself a candidate for ordination to the diaconate and thence to the priesthood. I am now convinced that this life of religious priesthood is where God was aiming me all along, even though I didn't know it. But I didn't need to know it, and that's part of the point. God only inspired me and gave me the desire to take the next step at each moment along the way. This experience has helped me to remember a salutary spiritual truth that I have kept in mind ever since: Just because God leads us somewhere, or we have the grace to put good discernment into practice in leading our Christian lives, it doesn't mean that we know the whole story at any given moment. God's plans for us are bigger than we know.