There is a certain joy knowing that one lives in Rome. Yes, I realize that I can spend many of my days in absolute frustration concerning my host country of Italy. The people of Italy are very different from most Americans. They move a slower pace in many ways. They tend to appreciate the finer things in life and they can take their time in doing things that would in the United States be much quicker. I had some visitors to Rome recently and one of them wanted to get a haircut. I brought him down to the local barber and, in what would most likely have been a 10-minute haircut at home in the U.S.A., became a 40-minute work of art. I can tell you that his gentleman and his wife were amazed at the barber’s care, his skill, and at the finished project! But it took so long! Add to this the experience of being on a city bus in Rome and you might understand the frustration that I feel sometimes!
But I am blessed to live in a place where our local parish is Saint Peter’s Basilica, where our local bishop is the pope, and where we need not go to a museum to see famous works of art, but merely go to a nearby church. Yes, one such church that houses a famous piece of art by Caravaggio is on the way to the universities for the vast majority of the seminarians whom I teach.
Caravaggio’s “Call of Saint Matthew,” painted for the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, is really what most art scholars believe made the reputation of the artist. On the right-hand side of the painting, coming out of the darkness, is Our Lord and Saint Peter, his vicar. Interestingly, both are gesturing toward Matthew, who might be anyone really of the five men gathered at the table, from the youngest boy to the old man.
If you examine the picture, the Lord Jesus extends his hand in a manner remarkably similar to the way that God the Father does to Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting. As the Lord does this, so too, in his shadow, does Saint Peter gesture, albeit weakly, imitating the Lord’s gesture to the men. This painting of the famous Gospel scene can serve to illustrate what it means to have a priestly vocation.
It is the Lord Jesus who calls men to his service in priestly ministry. It is the Lord Jesus and he alone who is the source and summit of the call to the priesthood, and all priests stand in response to his call. However, that call of the Lord Jesus is mediated to men through Saint Peter and through the Church.
It is not enough for the one who feels the call to service of the Lord as his priest to say “Ad Sum” and to get in line to have hands laid on him by a bishop. No, he needs to have that individual call of the Lord to which he responds affirmed by the Church, which can only come about through years of priestly formation. It is a double discernment, if you will — the seminarian discerning his call to the priesthood and the Church, in and through the process of formation, through the agents of formation (vocation director, formation staff, rector, and, ultimately, the Bishop) also discerning. This is why seminary formation takes years and years. This is why it is not merely a matter of just gaining the pastoral skills and experience. This is why it is not just about acquiring academic knowledge. This is why we have to have as formators in the seminary priests who understand what their role as spiritual fathers must be to the seminarians, these precious gifts which the Lord has entrusted to the formator.
When we see Caravaggio’s painting of the call of Matthew, he who heard the call of the Lord and responded, pray for a true understanding of this “double-discernment” that is necessary in every priestly vocation — the discernment of the candidate, as represented by Matthew, whoever that might be in Caravaggio’s painting, and the discernment of the agents of formation, as represented by Saint Peter, who extends his weak hand in imitation of the one who makes it strong, he who it is who makes it strong, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pray for your seminarians that they might be holy and just men who have discerned their call wisely and well through the process of priestly formation in the Church.