We celebrate Vocation Awareness week from January 10 to 16, 2010. I believe that priests, deacons, and religious can help Catholics to become more aware of vocations when they share their story. With this hope, I share these reflections on my journey to priesthood.
In this Year of the Priest, I thank God for calling me to serve as a priest for nearly 40 years. I believe that I am the luckiest person on the face of God's good earth.
God planted the seeds of my call to priesthood in me when I was six. Whenever I met Father Grevildinger on Kieler's Main St., I greeted him "Good morning, Father." Then I extended my hand and Father gave me pennies or nickels. I proudly told everyone I met that I wanted to become a kind priest like him. However, the seeds of God's call grew slowly in my heart's rocky soil.
In grade school the nuns, my parents, and especially Fr. Albert Goetzman, a Christ-like priest, helped to keep my desire to be a priest alive. However, after second grade I hid my desire under a bushel basket of shyness. After I graduated from grade school, I went to Loras, a Catholic high school, where I fantasized that I would star in football.
Hearing the call
As a sophomore, I worked for a farmer and hoped to gain more weight for football. My football dreams ended when I became trapped under a powerful Case tractor. In desperation, I promised God that if I were rescued, I would go to seminary. But after being saved, I quickly forgot my promise. When a counselor asked if I was interested in priesthood, I mumbled guiltily, "No!"
In the Navy, I thought of priesthood again. But after discharge, I attended Platteville University and graduated with an English major and a teaching degree. I taught grade school for about four months in Dubuque and English for two years at New Lisbon Wisconsin High School.
These were good years, but, at age 29, the Holy Spirit whispered that if I were to ever go to seminary, the time was now. I listened and asked my pastor to recommend me to the Sacred Heart Fathers. He suggested that I talk to our diocese first. I met with our vocational director and entered the seminary to study for the Diocese of Madison.
Work of the Holy Spirit
After two years of philosophy, I anticipated a relaxing summer. Then I would study theology. However, as autumn approached, not knowing whether I would be allowed to continue my studies for priesthood created deep stress. In August, to relax, I went swimming with my brother. As I swam the crawl, my weakest stroke, I became tired. My tiredness plus the stress caused by an increasingly uncertain future made me panic.
I sank under the water and thought I would drown. Then an inner voice whispered, "If you drown, you won't be able to be a priest. Relax, trust in God, surface, and swim the backstroke to safety.'' Obediently, I surfaced and swam the backstroke, my best stroke, to shore.
A remarkable number of co-incidences seemed to converge. My high school classmate, already an ordained priest, was there. My loyal brother and a student who gave me much grief tried to rescue me. Now I believe it was the work of the Holy Spirit. I was allowed to study theology and became a priest four years later.
Unique call from God
I like being a priest. I enjoyed all my assignments. I feed fellow Catholics spiritually by administering the sacraments, presiding at Mass, preaching, and shepherding. I minister to parishioners at key spiritual moments. These include First Communions, marriages, Baptisms, anniversaries, Mass, hospital visits, and more. I pray for them and their prayers help me more than they know.
I visit the sick, bury the dead, counsel the doubtful, feed the hungry, teach the young, comfort the sorrowful, and pray for the living and dead. Like brother-priests, I sacrificed the privilege and responsibility of marriage and family. But I gained many families and friends. Catholics have been very kind and supportive of me.
As a retired priest I enjoy presiding at Mass and hearing Confessions. I thank all members of the priest's retirement ministry, the Knights of Columbus, parishes, and others who offered encouragement, support, and prayers.
A vocation is a unique call from God and a mystery of grace. Sometimes God calls the least likely persons to be priests. I am one of these. Like Lou Gehrig, a great baseball player, I feel that I am the luckiest person on the face of the earth.
If you are a single young or older man and think that God is calling you to priesthood, please talk with a priest, bishop, religion teacher, or diocesan vocation director or attend a vocation discernment weekend. God may be calling you. If so, we need you.
Fr. Don Lange is a pastor emeritus of the Diocese of Madison.