We all have memories we will never, ever forget. For me one big memory is when my father passed away suddenly while we were on holiday in London, my first ever trip abroad. I was seven then, and I remember feeling broken hearted. As you may guess, this was really devastating for my mum and myself. We had always been a very loving, caring family.
One month after my dad died, Karol Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II. As I watched it on TV and heard his voice for the first time, something moved in my heart. It was as if God was telling me: “You are not alone. I am your Father. I will never abandon you!” I have never forgotten that.
From a young age I was shown how to be a friend of God. My favourite aunt lived with us. She had dedicated her life to God, and there was something special about her. Every night, she and I would light a candle and pray the Rosary together. I had another aunt who was a nun, and an uncle who was a priest. They had chosen a different life. But I did not want to be different. I wanted to be ‘normal’ like other kids. I hated being singled out and the looks of pity. I was angry with God for letting my father die. Later I realised I was angry at myself, that I could do nothing to save my dad that day. My aunts and uncle understood what was going on in my heart, and they spoke words of hope and encouragement to me.
I remember going to Mass with my mum as a boy. There was a priest in our parish who always looked out for me. He would ask me to help at Communion time, even though I was not an altar boy. That simple invitation to be part of Mass in a special way was for me a sign that God wanted me to be close to Him and serve Him in a different way.
I became a rebellious teenager and would often get into trouble at school. My teachers were very patient with me. I remember going to a parent-teacher conference, expecting to be told off in front of my mum. Instead, my Form Teacher asked what plans I had for my life. At that time, I was fascinated with science and all I could think about was becoming a doctor. But he said to my mum: “There are many doctors around, but so few doctors of souls…” I knew he was speaking those words to me…
I used to imagine the priests in our parish to be heroes like the ones in the cartoons on TV. I imagined what exciting and adventurous lives they had, doing courageous and selfless things for others. And that gave me a sense of expectation that something would happen in my life…
After the Sacrament of Confirmation, all boys in Malta are invited to attend the Diocesan Vocations group. Seminarians would go all over the country (Malta is a very small island) visiting parishes and having fun activities for us. I used to really enjoy that. All these things helped me to make the decision to enter the seminary and study for the priesthood.
The seminary was a time to grow and mature. I also had to let go of a lot… my closest friends all decided to leave and move on to other things in life. This was very challenging for me as I was asking myself: “Do I really have what it takes?” But deep down I knew that this was not something I was following blindly, but a call that was not coming from me. God was simply asking me to trust and to follow.
As you can see, my story is in bits and pieces, but this is life after all. Life happens. Slowly the bits and pieces come together. I am grateful for the people who journeyed with me in different stages of my life; people who were able to see beneath the moody and sometimes rebellious and angry teen, to see something that was hidden deep inside of me.
The call to be a priest is not something you come up with, but something that is offered to you again and again. If it is really coming from God, the call to the priesthood will not go away even if you try to block it out of your life. God is very gentle but also persistent. He will not choose things for us but leaves us free to choose ourselves. The more we love God, the more willing we will be to risk everything for Him.
Fr Michael is a Maltese priest who helped out in the Wellington Archdiocese while serving with the ICPE Mission at St Gerard’s Monastery. He is currently serving as formator for ICPE seminarians in Malta.