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Interview with Fr. Cary

December 21, 2007

Q1: Can you speak a little about yourself and what type of priest you are?

“I am Fr. Liam Cary, Pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Medford, Oregon. I am a Diocesan priest for the Archdiocese of Portland.”

Q2: What is a “Vocation”? What does it mean to have a vocation?

“It is a call. The literal translation from Latin is, “a call”, from God. But it isn’t usually heard as voice like someone saying, “I want you to do this.” It’s more through what we’d like to do, our desires, what gives us satisfaction and joy. So, it is a matter of heeding those things, heeding where we’d like to go, what we’d like to be. The first thing I guess would be to pay attention. After all, we all have a future ahead of us and what are we going to do with it? What if God has designed a future for you to serve Him in his Church, specifically? We know that He does that because people have given themselves to that way of life. ‘What if it’s me, if that’s what he wants me to do?’ Sometimes people are taken quite by surprise by such a call and they don’t expect it at all. Whether they pay attention to it, pray about, or look into it, they find that, this is exactly what they really wanted to do all along.”

So, essentially the vocation is something that is already there, you just have to discover what it is, where God is calling. To the Religious life, to Matrimony, or whatever it may be.  

“I think that’s a good way of putting it. We have a vocation from the first moment of our existence, because God calls us into being and it’s not like He needs time to figure out what He wants us to be. No. He doesn’t need ten or fifteen years to think, ‘Oh, I like that she would be a good teacher, or carpenter…’ Right from the start He knows who we are. So, we can say, I think, that our vocation is one with our creation, really.”

Q3: Some don’t see the need to discern, but from what you’re saying it seems very important to discern. Because from this discernment, or from the results of it, is what the rest of your life is going to be. 

“Definitely it is important to discern. There are two sides to the vocation; you can think of it as the vocation to Marriage or the vocation to the Priesthood/Religious life.  There is my side and there is the Church’s side and both have to discern. I have to figure out whether I’m suited to this vocation, and the Church has to decide whether I’m suited to this vocation. The two have to coincide if I’m going to be a religious of a priest. It’s somewhat similar to marriage in that I have to decide if this woman is the one I want to commit my life to, and she has to decide if I am the one she wants to commit her life to. If you don’t think about and just waltz right into marriage, for example, as people do, then you’ll have a resulting disaster.”

Q5: You mentioned the importance of payer in discernment. But, what is a good way to pray, how should one pray? What is prayer? 

“We take our bearance from the prayer of the Church. On the one hand everyone prays personally and uniquely, because when you pray you don’t pray for me and I don’t pray for you, you pray for yourself. There are long extremes of the Church on how to pray. The first thing is to give time to prayer, regular time. Not necessarily hours and hours but regular time; morning, evening, especially in the middle of the day, the time has to be there everyday. Then, as I said centering on the Eucharist. If possible go to Mass everyday, if not than try to go to Eucharistic adoration. As for the form of prayer, I would recommend to people to get used to the Psalms. Because that is the prayer of the Church. Of course if you become a religious or a priest then that is the prayer that you will pray. I found for myself, when I was thinking about being a priest, a way that I just stumbled upon, of praying the psalms; I would say three in the morning the next three in the evening and three more the next morning and three that evening again. This way I said three Psalms each day.  That was very, very helpful for a number of reasons. It quickly became very easy to do, and I liked it. I liked that form; it had a beginning, middle, and an end, so I knew when I had completed my prayer. I had a sense of completion and that’s important. Prayer shouldn’t just be this open-ended thing where I’ve got to go on for however long. It’s similar to the Mass; it has a beginning, middle and an end. The thing about the psalms is that you get to learn about the scriptures. You’ll find that in some of them you don’t understand what’s being said, but that’s alright. You just learn it, incorporate it, and gradually you get to know about things. You notice that various things turn over and over in the psalms and it can widen out your spirit, because maybe you’re not accustomed, for example, to prayers of praise. Maybe all you’ve ever done is ask for things, which is alright, but you learn there is more to praying than that, simply by going through the psalms. You can go through the whole book of psalms and then go back through them again. You’ll begin to at home with the scriptures; these prayers are at the heart of the Church. You can be sure that this is good material for prayer, where as there is other material for prayer that could be questionable. However this is unquestionable solid ground for prayer. Then, I think, the form of the body of prayer is important. You can take the church building as a model of how to pray, there are images, it has center. The space is focused on what is most important, the altar and the Tabernacle. You have the crucifix, the holy images of Mary and the Saints. So should our place, our house, of prayer be. The task is to build a house of prayer.” 

“You should take care to arrange that space, so that when you come into it, it doesn’t take you long to enter into prayer. Because that space is where you pray. The other thing is that when you have holy images you have someone looking back at you, as it were, you’re conscious of being seen. That’s very important because we are seen. Some people talking about praying as getting up in the morning and taking a cup of coffee and sitting in the easy chair on the porch. You can do it, however I think one should be more careful and attentive to the details of prayer. Then, for example take the prayer of the monks or the sisters, you begin standing up and then you kneel, and then sit down for awhile. You kneel while you pray the psalms, sit down when you read a little bit of scripture, stand up for certain parts of the office. Bow down, bow your head like the Muslims; I think the first thing they do in the morning is to bow their head to the ground as a sign of worship.”

So the goal is to really put your whole self into it.

“Exactly! Of course there are many different ways to pray but there are certain standard postures that have come down to us, and I think we should incorporate them.”

Q6: What is your definition of a “call”? Is it a specific moment? How does someone know they have been “called”?

“People know at different times and there are different reasons. But the call comes through, in my experience, different people. My own vocation came through my parish priest where I lived as a boy. The main reason, I’m convinced; I don’t know why it took me thirty years to figure it out; I wanted to be a priest as a young boy, was because this priest was my parents best friend. Both parents converged on this man. To put it simply, the reason I wanted to be a priest was because I wanted to take his place. Therefore, to my little mind as a boy, I could see that if I was in his shoes I could have my parents’ affection forever. This is how the emotional connection where the call came to me as the convergence of the affection of my parents. He could have been a plumber, or a carpenter, or a gambler and maybe that’s what I would have wanted to be, but he was a priest. What I take from this is that people who want to discern should look carefully at the people in their lives. Who are the influences in my life and who do I want to be like? That’s what has always intrigued me.  Whom do I want to be like? And why? Do I want to be like that person to the extent that I would like to take that person’s place and do it myself? I had a vocation that came to me very early. However, I know one priest who the first time he ever thought of it was in high school. It was because the priest asked him, 'Have you ever thought about being a priest?' It was the first time it was ever put to him and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. He is a priest today as a result of that question. I guess it’s that you have to be curious about it. There is another thing too, depending on how old you are, which is dissatisfaction with other things. They can be perfectly good pursuits, occupations that are perfectly good and necessary for society. But for the person who’s got a vocation to the priesthood or religious life there will be sense that there is a need for something more. Often people will say, ‘This doesn’t satisfy. I want to do something more.’”

Like a lack of fulfillment…

“Yes, and asking what will satisfy.  It is important to seek counsel so you can talk about these things with someone. Then questions will come about what the commitment will involve and it’s important to answer those accurately. Sometimes people can get misconceptions and you wouldn’t want to decide something like this on faulty information.”

Q7: Sometimes we ask ourselves whether we will be happy? Or if we do what God is asking us, even though it’s different from what we wanted, is there an assurance that we will be happy?

“I think this might be the biggest question. That can keep you at a distance for a long time. One way to confront that question is to live an experiment.”

"That is, for the religious life or the diocesan priesthood, they involve the three evangelical councils; poverty (except for the diocesan priesthood), chastity and obedience. So, what I would suggest for people to do, and what I did, is to live as if I had these vows. I would do it for the next 3 months, 6 months or a year. It’s like I’m taking a private promise to live poverty, chastity and obedience. So what would that mean? It means that in terms of poverty I attempt to live simply, without having a lot of possessions. And if I do have a lot of possessions I look and see, ‘How much of this do I really need?’ or ‘How much can I get rid of, at least for awhile?’ If I’m going to experiment then why not experiment with getting rid of some of the superfluities I have. If I have real fancy car, all kinds of electronics, the latest in everything, what if just cut back on it all? Trying to live very simply, to find out what it would be like to live the vow of poverty, to kind of adjust myself to that. I would also want to be giving money or time to the poor. That is a part of poverty, giving what one has, and I will find out, ‘How generous am I?’ Or if I don’t have that much money, then how much of my time am I willing to give? These are some dimensions of poverty. And with this experiment I don’t have to tell anyone and I’m free to pull back at any time, although it is good to have a set period and hold yourself to it. Chastity would be to live that specified period of time like I’m not going to get married. Therefore, seeing how do people who are vowed to chastity and celibacy live. There are certain places that you can’t go regularly, that are perfectly good and innocent. There are certain ways of relating to people that you can’t do. These things can be perfectly good in and of themselves but they’re leading towards marriage, so you have to say, ‘Well if I’m going to live as an unmarried person then how do I have to live differently?’ Thirdly is the vow of obedience. Obedience is like the heart of the whole business, as any one will tell you that is living the religious life. As a general rule, unless there’s a reason not to, obedience means that anything any one tells me to do I’ll do it. This is a very practical thing that helped me a lot."

"I remember an instance at the bus depot: I tried to get a ticket and the driver was very rude to me and publicly humiliated me. Instead of striking back and arguing with him, as I would have done before, I just simply shut up and got on. I considered that an act of obedience, I did it with an obedient spirit. I wouldn’t have done it before and I would have been quite upset afterwards, but as it happened I felt very much at peace. And I remember I noted that, I thought, ‘This is a change, something has changed and I like this change!’ That is the point of these three vows, poverty, chastity, and obedience, if you live it that way you have the ability yourself to gauge whether you’re happy or unhappy, as a result of living this way. If you’ve found, for example, you have lived in this chaste fashion for a certain period and you find that after six months you’re absolutely miserable, ‘I’m just so lonely and miserable I can’t stand it anymore.’ Well, then maybe that’s a sign that that’s not what you’re meant to do. That’s one of the key things, if you’re happy or not. I think most people will find that if they’re made this way then they will be happier. And similarly, I think that there is a certain sense of freedom that comes from living in a more simple fashion. What this can do is at least create a floor of possibility where one can think, ‘Maybe I can handle this and so maybe I can go further.’ Another might say, ‘Well, no. I don’t think this is for me, I’m just not suited for this.’ Well, that’s fine. Then you know something about yourself.”

“There is a certain freedom there, an anonymity, which helps a lot. Though one has to be quite serious about it and I think it very practical to do that.”

Q8: One thing that is often difficult is finding how much weight to give to the opinions of others, especially family for instance. Sometimes they will push a vocation so much that one doesn’t know if it’s theirs or their family’s, and conversely some will completely disregard even the value of a vocation.  How do you work through the opinions of others? 

“You’re absolutely right, it can go either way. That’s probably a really good point for the need for an objective third party. Someone not tied into the family, who can say, ‘What about this, what about that…’ Certainly, that’s what the seminary can provide or what a religious community will provide.  They’re not going to take the assessment of the family “wholesale”. That’s where a spiritual guide can be very helpful. “Yes, one can say, ‘My mother and father are saying this…and I feel this way.’ A spiritual guide will help you get to the bottom of it.”

Q9: I always like to ask about one’s particular vocation. So, if you would, can you speak a little about the diocesan priesthood? 

“I would say that a parish priest is basically called to put his talents to the service of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the life, the heart of the church, so in other words the priest is called to the service of the sacramental life. By talents I mean whatever talents one may have, but especially one’s mind and heart to understand and to make available the riches of the sacraments of the Church. But of course all the sacraments circle around the Eucharist and come home to the Eucharist. When I say sacraments it involves people; drawing them into the sacrament, each sacrament is an interpersonal encounter with Christ through the Church. So as a priest, whenever you administer a sacrament you’re making the Lord present but you’re also meeting someone or some ones. I guess in a way it is a very rich life, in terms of people. They are all ages and all conditions and they want to meet Christ. It is a life of meeting people, accepting each one as they are, as Jesus does."

Q10: If you are willing, can you tell your vocation story?

“I already started with the first part of it. That I am the oldest in my family and when my sister came along, I was three, all of the sudden I lost my parents’ undivided attention and I was very conscious of that. Roughly at that point, we moved to a new place and we became very tied to our pastor. He was at our house all the time and everyone in my family thought he was the greatest person in the world, and he was a very great priest as a matter of fact, he was a very fine priest. And I wanted to take his place, unconsciously, I think I thought this would bring my parents undivided approval forever. So that was good. When I was 14 I entered the seminary and was there for 9 years. I left after a year of college because I wanted a different experience, although I still wanted to be a priest. I just thought it would be wise to have some different life experience. So, I got more than I expected, I got 15 years of it. I came back after 18 years, and then it was with the definite maturity that this is it. I mean can’t put this off any longer or I’ll be on Social Security.”

Was there a defining moment for you, or did you just always have that interior knowledge that you were called to be a priest?

 “I always had, by the grace of God, as long as I can remember, even during that 'leave of absence' if you will, saying, 'I’m going to be a priest someday.' I always knew it. But there was a moment, if you want, a 'defining' moment.  Yes, there was one in that sense when I finally sought counseling from a different priest and I then went on retreat with the specific intention of deciding. I went to talk to a priest before going on this retreat, and I kind of realized when I drove over to see him, that my decision was already made underneath. It was just a matter of acknowledging that it was made. When I got back, I made the Stations of the Cross and it was one of the most painful I’ve ever made, because I knew I was about to surrender my independence. I was 41 years old at the time, had a life of my own, and my way of doing things. I realized that if I really became a priest it would involve sacrificing my independence, and that was very difficult to contemplate. But then I did it. It has occurred to me in later years that if I had not sacrificed my independence, I never would have learned what it is to be free. Once I followed this call, I found out who I could really be.”

Q11: You spoke a little about the vow of chastity, but for some this can seem very daunting or impossible. You did mention that maybe for some it’s not their call; but for those that it is their call, what is the value of this vow or what are the benefits that we don’t always see? 

“There is a great freedom that comes from that, a certain freedom for friendship. You are not tied to one person, tied in the best sense of the term, and, therefore, you are free to be available to more people. There is a certain joy in that type of friendship. However, as a priest you don’t have time for a lot of 'deep' friendships. C.S. Lewis has a famous book called The Four Loves. In it he talks about the difference between 'affection' and 'friendship'.  Affection is where you don’t really know people in depth that much, and yet they become very much a part of your life, very dear to you. I believe there is a great deal of affection in the priesthood, because you see so many people, and you see them regularly. You don’t just see them once, but you see them over and over again. You don’t have time; most people don’t have that time; to get to know that many people, and have a deep friendship. But there is a great deal of affection from all different ages that is a part of the priesthood, which is linked to celibacy. There is a certain joy comes from that, at least that I find. Additionally, there is this business of being free for the Lord. As St. Paul says, we want to be able to center ourselves on the work of the Lord. That is a good part of celibacy also. I think there is more that could be said but this is what occurs to me right now.”

Q12: You also mentioned this before; as religious or Diocesan priest you take specific vows, but what, is it’s essence, as a vow or a promise? Is it just that commitment you make to God? How can it be explained to someone who doesn’t understand what it is? 

“It is comparable to what married people do. They take promises, which is a word derived from the Latin roots: 'pro'- towards, 'mittere'-send, it is like you are sending yourself into the future on a certain path. You commit yourself to walk a specific path in the future and not to deviate from it. A diocesan priest takes vows of Celibacy and Obedience, not poverty, but it is very much a part of the priesthood. You need to have that spirit.”

“For instance, I am 270 miles away from the bishop and I’ve never had any problems with the vow of obedience, in fact it’s been a great help to me. Being told, in some cases, something I didn’t want to do and, without arguing about it, knowing that this is what God want me to do. Because I promised to be obedient, so that must be what God wants. The main area where one practices obedience, at least as a parish priest, is if, for example, I have an appointment to meet with someone in ten minutes and then I get a call from the hospital and someone is dying, then I have to go, I have to obey. If somebody calls and says, “I want to go to confession.” Then, even though I may have been taking the rest of the day off, I have to obey; I have to submit my will to what someone else wants. Obedience, even though we don’t take the vow as a religious would, we take a promise to the Bishop, practically speaking is the heart of the whole business. If I’m too attached, for example, to material things or comfort and entertainment, I will say, ‘Oh, I don’t have time…I’ve got to go to that concert, or I’ve got this and that other thing to do…A trip to Europe and my schedule won’t allow me to be involved in this or that project.’ Well, this is when obedience is going to cut through some of that stuff. I will have to give up these other things because I need to obey the needs of these people. I am here to serve. When discerning a vocation ask, ‘How ready am I to put myself at the service of others?’ We think of it as making a vow to a religious superior or a bishop thinking, ‘This is where the obedience is going to come from.’ But, in fact, maybe it will help if we think of it in terms of coming from the people we are sent to serve. If you find that you like to, that you take joy, in serving others selflessly and you want to do it more, than that might very well be a sign that you're inclined towards true obedience.”

Q13: How does one know which order to join, where their place is? Because maybe you’ve discerned you’re attracted to serving others and God is calling you, but you just don’t know where. There are so many different places in the Church, so how do you discern which one you belong in?

“This would get back to the idea of ‘Who do I want to be like?’ If I’ve decided Religious life, well then what figures; either people I’ve known in my own life, or people I’ve read about, or certain saints for example, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Ignatius, St. Dominic,.. I think the thing to do would be read the lives of some of these founders or some prominent figures of a particular order so you can see what they’ve done and ask, ‘Can I imagine myself doing that too, or not?’ If I’m inclined to be a Jesuit and I can hardly put two sentences together, or in other words I’m a terrible student, it might very well be that I’m not called to be a Jesuit. Maybe I’m called to something more practical, but every bit as important. If I’m drawn to Mother Teresa’s order or the caring of the sick, but I can’t bear to look at blood, I just can’t stand to do that, than maybe that is not for me.”

So, it is a process of evaluating your strengths and your talents.

“Yes, but especially in line of what particular order does. Then go and visit these places too. Talk to them, get to know them, ask questions. I remember when I was vocation director for…[Identifying information] there was a man (who’s now a priest actually) interested in the Diocesan priesthood, then he thought he’d just go down for a weekend of discernment with the Benedictines at […]  and he asked, ‘You don’t mind if I do that?’ and I told him, ‘Go ahead. I think it’s the best thing to do; you’re not decided yet so you expose yourself to the various possibilities.’ So he went down for that weekend and when he came back he said, 'That’s not for me. I am going to be a diocesan priest.' For me that was a very helpful thing to know. He might have been called to be Benedictine, I had other people that were, but was there and for all he respected he knew, 'This isn’t what I want to do.' In this way you find out what you don’t want to do, and that’s important to know, and not to be afraid of finding out ‘this isn’t for me.’”

Q14: For you, what has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being a priest or being totally dedicated to God.

“The first thing that comes to mind is the experience on a very personal level, an intimate level really, of seeing people convert or a re-conversion. Seeing them coming to self-mastery over sin and over disintegration, coming to God and really coming alive. To see this change over time…I can think of people I’ve had tell me, 'I could never do thus and so…' Or an alcoholic who says, 'I could never, never, quite...' These are people now who have long since been to daily Mass, totally integrated into the faith. Every time I see them it’s a reminder to me of what marvelous things can happen. It’s hidden too, it’s not something that gets put on the front pages. Personally, to have a hand in that, to be a part of it, is really a great privilege, a great, great privilege. That would be one of the rewarding things on my priesthood.”

Q15: As a last question, what advice would you give to someone who is considering or discerning a vocation? What would you tell them if you had the opportunity?

“Just what I’ve said, be serious about discerning a vocation. I guess in a word it would be:  pay attention. Don’t just dismiss it, but pay attention. If you are not called to be a religious or a priest then, first of all, how are you going to be harmed by looking into it? I think you are going to be all the better for it, because if you find out God is not calling you to it then you can give yourself more wholeheartedly to the other. In the meantime, if you’re serious enough about it while inquiring, you’ll probably change yourself in some very good ways that will prepare you for whatever you want to do. Poverty, Chastity and Obedience are for all Christians in one way or another. If you can focus on these for a period in your life, how can that do you any harm? I think it will do you a lot of good. If you feel a call to the religious life or priesthood than you should pay attention to it because it may be a part of your call to married life. It’s not as if it’s going to be a dead end, it’s going to be a part of whatever you’re called to. Fundamentally you have one call, in the sense that you have one life. If you choose; no one is going to force you; to discern the religious life or the priesthood and then choose not to pursue it, you are still all the stronger for it.”   

For the Faith 
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