It’s National Vocations Awareness Week, and Father Michael Najim has a few ways to help people become more aware of the need for vocations in the Church and ways for young people to discern their calling.
Father Najim, who is vocations director for the Diocese of Providence, R.I., and a formator at the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence, is also the author of Radical Surrender: Letters to Seminarians. He also operates the blog LiveHoliness.com.
Father Najim spoke recently with Register senior writer Tim Drake.
Where are you from originally? Tell me about your family.
I grew up, was born and raised in Rhode Island, which, although it’s the smallest state geographically, is the most Catholic state per capita. My parents raised me and my three older sisters as a typical faithful Catholic family. We went to Mass every Sunday. To this day, I find that as I get older, I get closer with my family. Like any good vocation, looking back, my vocation to the priesthood really grew out of that family, particularly with my parents.
My dad worked for over 30 years at Pfizer. One of my beautiful memories as a kid was the truck starting up at 5:30 in the morning and my dad heading off to work. It wasn’t an option for him to say, “I don’t want to go to work today.” My mom worked for many years at a small New England fisherman magazine.
What led you to your priestly vocation?
I was a typical teenage boy going to Mass with my family, but probably like most teenagers, I was at Mass but I didn’t really take it seriously. I was probably going through a little bit of a rebellious stage. At the end of my sophomore year, my grandmother, who was probably one of the holiest women I have ever known, asked me to go with her on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. I said “Yes.”
That week really changed me. The peace I experienced there, the depth of prayer that I had, led to the feeling that I could have a personal friendship with Christ. That began a beautiful journey for me. When I came back, that’s when I got more involved in my parish, the youth group, and started praying more. The thought of the priesthood really began to take root in my heart.
In your new book, Radical Surrender, you’ve composed a series of letters to seminarians. I was curious about what led you to write the book and if it’s the kind of thing you wished you had had when you went through seminary.
The second part of your question is what led me to write the book. When I first started here at the seminary, six years ago, I began to see that as good as these men are who feel called to the priesthood, there is a lot of work that they need to do in their lives. I think some people have the assumption that when a guy enters the seminary, he’s got it all together, but that’s generally not the case.
Many of these men have good prayer lives, but the Lord wants to take them deeper. I had this on my heart that I’d like to write a series of letters. I thought that style would be engaging to seminarians: about what are the spiritual habits that they should be working on while they’re in the seminary.
I dedicated the book to my seminary spiritual director, Father Mike Noonan. Many of these insights came from my own prayer, but also with the assistance of my spiritual director.
I was struck by the attention paid in the book to the Eucharist and devotion to Mary. There is a bond that binds together the Pope John Paul II priests, isn’t there?
Part of that is because those are the pillars of our Catholic spirituality. If any priest is to be effective in his priesthood, and really try to live a holy life, he has to be rooted in the Eucharist. We’ve seen a real resurgence over the last several years of Eucharistic adoration, particularly in seminaries. A lot of seminaries have Eucharistic Holy Hours every day. Where I live, we have the Eucharist exposed four days a week. Adoration of the Eucharist, which is the heart of the priesthood, is absolutely essential to seminary formation.
Obviously, devotion to Mary isn’t an option. Devotion to Mary should be an ordinary part of our spiritual lives. In fact, I think we make our spiritual lives more difficult if we don’t have a devotion to her. You do see in this generation generally a love for the Eucharist, a love for Mary, and a love for the Church, and I think that’s a great grace that the Church has been given. Pope John Paul II was a great inspiration to me and so many men who have entered the seminary over the last several years.
In your role as a formator at the seminary, what are the greatest difficulties — the vocation killers — for seminarians, and what is the best way for young men to protect themselves?
There are so many cultural challenges that we’re facing today. Particularly with this generation of men coming into the seminary, one of the things that stands out is the immersion of our culture and technologies — the Internet, cell phones, social networking and all these things that are good.
What happens is there has been a whole culture of distraction that’s been created. So, the challenge that we have in seminary formation is taking these men deeper into prayer, and making them realize that the technological advances need to be a servant, not a master.
We need to help our guys form good human habits. We see a lot of times that good men come into the seminary, but they’re really scattered. They have no concept of keeping a daily planner or keeping appointments. When you’re a priest, you have to keep your appointments and be attentive to people.
Some of the research shows that the greatest discouragement for vocations comes from parents and families themselves.
If you were to talk to a lot of vocation directors, it’s something we see pretty frequently. I know of situations where parents absolutely oppose it. There are literally situations where a parent will say, “I’m not going to have contact with you.” It’s extreme, but it happens. I didn’t have that. I was so blessed. My mother — she always had a sense that I was called to be a priest, but she never really forced it or tried to push me in that direction.
The culture seems to suggest that living chaste celibacy is an impossible reality.
We live in a sexually saturated culture. It’s just everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s the distortion of the beauty of sexuality. We have to remember that men coming into the seminary are coming out of that culture. It’s something that we have to deal with and help them deal with.
The challenge is to help these men understand that it’s not just about living celibately, it’s about loving celibately. The call to chaste celibacy has to be interiorly appropriated. The heart has to be celibate.
Priests are called to be spiritual fathers and chaste spouses of the Church. Obviously, the most effective way to live celibacy is to have a deep friendship with Christ. It’s impossible to live a happy, holy, healthy celibacy if you don’t have that intimacy with Christ.
One of the beautiful things about the ministerial priesthood is the fraternity. I see it as the antidote to what we see happening culturally. The priestly fraternity shows a properly ordered male love, whereas in the culture, we’re shown something quite different.
If you talk to any priest, some of the most graced moments in our lives are those times when we can be with our brother priests, pray together, and really have those heart-to-heart conversations about the challenges and the joys of our vocation. Priestly fraternity is based upon what Christ did. He brought together the Twelve Apostles and sent them out two by two. The priestly life is never meant to be lived in isolation; it’s meant to be shared.
What’s most important for future priests?
I think one of the most important things that a priest has to be able to do is to connect with all different kinds of people. In Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests), he talks about how the personality of the priest has to be a bridge for people to meet Christ.
Another important part of our lives as priests is to have a deep prayer life. Diocesan priesthood is a busy, demanding life. It’s easy to say that my activities are more important than spending time in prayer. It’s that deep prayer, that heart-to-heart time with the Lord that really feeds, nourishes and sustains our lives as priests.
You’ve been operating the blog LiveHoliness.com. What’s your primary reason for the blog, and do you find that writing about the topic is helpful in your own striving for holiness?
My primary reason for the blog is to encourage and inspire people to live the call to holiness. So often we think that holiness is reserved for a select few; however, each of us is called to holiness. I try to help my readers understand that holiness is not so much about our own human striving; rather, it’s allowing the purifying love of the Lord to transform us. I write a lot about God’s love because I think that’s one of the main messages that people need to hear. I believe that my blog is meeting a need: People are hungering for love and truth, and that’s what I try to provide them with.
Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.