And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–12)
Saint John Paul II was fond of reminding the various groups of people to whom he spoke, “Be who you are!” Young people, married couples, consecrated men and women throughout the world heard this important reminder. I first heard him speak these words at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. It was an exciting time, one of great hope and promise, and his words struck at the heart of what so many of us too easily forget.
The Father calls each one of us to accept and live out the unique task he has entrusted to us. Our vocation therefore defines how we are to be in the world, forming and shaping every facet of our lives. St. John Paul II sought to instill a sense of confidence in our ability to be the person God has created and called us to be.
His friend Saint Teresa of Calcutta knew this as well. Often when I was with her during her visits to the United States, someone would tell her they wanted to be just like her by going to Calcutta and caring for the poorest of the poor. Mother always had the same response, “Don’t come. There is one Mother Teresa of Calcutta … me. You must do whatever Jesus wants you to do, wherever he asks you to do it, and do it with great love. I am doing what Jesus has asked me to do.”
The inspiring lives of the saints can lead us to want to become just like them, but as Mother knew, their lives should instead encourage us to say yes to whatever the Lord asks of us. This is an extremely important lesson to learn right at the start. It is common that people eager to climb the heights of spiritual perfection often attempt to adopt a life of prayer they admire in someone else. Seminarians often fall into this temptation. In their eagerness to please the Lord, they frequently heap all sorts of burdens (pious and penitential practices) upon themselves, burdens Jesus never asks them to carry.
I once led a day of recollection at a seminary (probably the one and only time) and I told the men in formation the following: “If after ordination you are planning on living off boiled potatoes and a little red wine, spending all your free time in the confessional of your parish church, don’t! We already have a St. John Vianney. What may have worked in eighteenth-century France probably will not work in the twenty-first century in the United States. Instead, why not become the saintly parish priest that Jesus wants you to become?” If we are spending our time trying to make ourselves into the person we imagine God wants us to be, we will, no doubt, fail to recognize the person he actually needs us to become.
It is an essential and important truth of the spiritual life that God knows us better than we know ourselves. We are not in charge of who we should become! No matter how spectacular the person we have in mind, God alone defines each one of us. From all eternity, God has known the persons he created us to be, and knows us better than anyone else, including parents, siblings, friends, and spouses. Our greatest responsibility is to allow his Spirit to form us according to the divine plan. The full abundant life Jesus promises will only come about to the extent that we become the person God desires us to be. We must always yield to God. This is what it means to die to self. Only this will allow his work to reach its completion. Whenever we try to take control and tell the Lord who we think we should become, we end up discouraged and disappointed, and we may eventually even come to resent God.
It does not bother me that I am not John Vianney, Claude de la Colombière, Padre Pio, Maximilian Kolbe, or Josemaría Escrivá. While I greatly admire the lives of these men and so many other women and men in our family of faith, I am not them, and they, thanks be to God, are not me. My singular hope is that the virtues that appeal to me in their lives might bear fruit within my own, as I become evermore the Fr. Gary Caster that God longs to have me be.
Personally, I find this wonderfully freeing. I admit that it used to be a bit frustrating and disappointing that I didn’t seem to be growing into the incredible Fr. Gary I had envisioned. Now I laugh when I compare that to the man—the priest—God is helping me to become. The things God continues to teach me about myself, I never would have learned in the super-priest version of my own imagination. In our daily willingness to yield to the Father’s plan, we find true freedom and lasting peace. I have learned that the plan of God is much more exciting than anything I ever could have fashioned for myself.
The impulse to become like the people we admire can become a great hindrance to our spiritual life. Our vocation, or state of life, should form our life of prayer and spiritual practices. “Pray as you are,” is a simple way to remember this. I am not a hermit, a monastic, or even a mendicant friar. I am a secular priest. However attractive certain characteristics of those other vocations may be, God has not called me to those ways of life. While I may include aspects of their spiritual practices, they cannot be to the detriment of my vocation as a diocesan priest. In other words, I cannot shut myself in the rectory, avoiding parishioners and living a semi-hermetic life. Nor can I neglect the needs of the people I serve because the rule of life I have imposed upon myself takes precedence over serving them.
This is true for every member of the Church. Married women should not have the same regimen of prayer as consecrated virgins or religious sisters. Married men should not pray like diocesan priests, mendicant friars, hermits, or monks. People that have yet to learn the way in which the Lord wants them to serve him should structure their life of prayer with an openness to learning God’s plan. The structure of my prayer life is determined by the promises I made on the day I was ordained. Alongside that which I have promised, I have incorporated practices that enable me to adhere to Christ without preventing me from serving him as I have been ordained to do.
I know of a spouse whose piety was more important than marriage and family life, someone that refused to follow this simple, fundamental principle. Because of spending nearly every moment of every day lying prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament, the marriage ended. The children, feeling unloved and unwanted gradually turned to self-destructive behaviors. One of them is now in prison for life.
So please, pray as you are and not as you wish or think you should. Always be faithful to your state of life, your vocation, for by it, God will sanctify you. In the seemingly mundane, ordinary circumstances of your life, the most extraordinary and unexpected thing can happen: You become a saint!