4 Bishops on Why They Became Priests, and What They Have Learned

The bishops of Boise, Madison, Spokane and Oklahoma City share the lessons they have learned

Clockwise, from upper left: Bishop Donald Hying, Bishop Peter Christensen, Bishop Thomas Daly, Archbishop Paul Coakley
Clockwise, from upper left: Bishop Donald Hying, Bishop Peter Christensen, Bishop Thomas Daly, Archbishop Paul Coakley (photo: Register Files)

I asked four U.S. diocesan bishops what drew them to the seminary, and what their years as a priest has taught them.


Bishop Peter Christensen, Bishop of Boise, Idaho

What drew you?

God drew me! I knew I wanted to be a priest while I was in the fourth grade in Altadena, California. Things changed while I attended high school and college—as they often do for young people—but my desire to become a priest returned when I was age 25, and I found myself in the seminary. I’ve been a priest now for 34 years.

What have you learned?

Most important, if you’re a young man considering the priesthood, is that you believe it is something God is calling you to do. If you don’t have a relationship with Our Lord, and are not responding to what you believe to be His call, it will be a dry life.

It’s important that a priest have common sense. It’s important he know how to relate to people, to be able to socialize and engage in their lives. People need to know that their priests care about them, and are willing to help them. We’re all in this life together, and if we live out our faith, it will end well for us all in eternal life.

The priesthood is not an easy life, but if it is something God is calling you to, he’ll give you the grace to live out your vocation well.


Bishop Donald Hying, Bishop of Madison, Wisconsin

What drew you?

There were four factors. The first was observing my parents’ faith life. They had a relationship with the Lord and modeled it to me and my brothers. Second, when I was age 6, one of my brothers died of cancer. That had a deep impact on me.

Third, I had a brother who entered the seminary. He later left, but that left an impression on me as well. And fourth, the election of Pope John Paul II. He had such a tremendous impact on the Church and the world, and is a hero to me personally.

What have you learned?

The key to success is to never let the passion of your vocation burn out. You need to nourish your vocation with little actions of sacrifice. Don’t let yourself become lax or blasé. Love should be the passion of your vocation.

Also, be open to the needs of your people. Be flexible in how you respond to their needs.


Bishop Thomas Daly, Bishop of Spokane, Washington

What drew you?

I grew up in San Francisco, and was a parishioner at St. Brendan’s. I was educated by the Daughters of Charity and De La Salle Christian Brothers. I thought I’d become a lawyer, a district attorney, get married and have a family. But, I had the good example of my parents, for whom the faith was important, as well as some wonderful priests. So, I entered the seminary in the fall of 1982.

What have you learned?

When I was a young priest, I benefited from the influence of some excellent older priests who taught me what it meant to be a good pastor. Many of our new priests don’t have mentors today, and are made pastors very soon after being ordained.

These young pastors may be full of zeal and anxious to implement changes in their new parishes. The lay staff at the parish, however, may not like those changes. So, you have a strong priest, ready to serve, come head-to-head with a lay parish staff member that says, “Hey, this is my paid job, and you’re not respecting me.” The new pastor’s actions, then, are interpreted as clericalism. When I was Vicar for Clergy, it was something I saw often. What a new pastor may have to do is put up with the smaller things he doesn’t like and focus on correcting bigger problems.

Complicating matters is that these new priests may be assigned to work with priests born and educated in other parts of the world. We have cases where we have three priests living in a rectory who were taught at three different seminaries.


Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

What drew you?

I was raised in the Kansas City area in a Catholic home. We were regular churchgoers. My parents encouraged me to consider a vocation to the priesthood; I had an aunt who was a sister. My mom was a church secretary, and my dad was active in the church.

One of the significant events in my life occurred during my college years. I attended the University of Kansas and studied in its Integrated Humanities [“Great Books”] Program, which resulted in hundreds of conversions and many vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The program really flourished in the 70s and 80s.

I explored a monastic vocation for seven or eight months in the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault in France. While I was attracted by the monastic life, I was also attracted to the life of a parish priest. I was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, in 1983. 

What have you learned?

We have to [pray] on a regular schedule; it can’t be haphazard. We create an opening to God by consistently spending time with Him, and the Lord will respond to our free cooperation by giving us grace. 

We also need to listen in prayer. It should be a conversation with God and not a monologue.

And, our prayer must nourish both the head and the heart. I advise people to pray with the Scriptures and before the Eucharist.

I also believe we should have a strong Marian dimension. Years ago, my first commitment I made to prayer was to pray the rosary every day.