As part of his formation for the priesthood, every seminarian engages in a variety of pastoral ministry works during his time in the seminary. Some seminarians, for example, teach the faith to young people in the classroom, while others help catechize adults moving through a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program in preparation for full initiation into the Catholic Church.

Some of the men may be assigned to work at a local parish soup kitchen or food pantry, while others make visitations to homebound parishioners and residents in nursing facilities, or work with hospice patients.

In short, these wide-ranging assignments span the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. These assignments help the seminarians recognize and appreciate their individual God-given talents and abilities, while simultaneously stretching them out of their comfort zones by highlighting areas for growth. These pastoral ministries, then, are important opportunities for the healthy formation of every seminarian desiring to have a heart like that of the Good Shepherd.

As the seminarians engage in these works of mercy, a shared sentiment usually emerges that often sounds like this: “Father, I am getting so much more than I am giving.” A beautiful reality indeed, yet one that requires a spiritual awareness and attentiveness when there is a frequently sly temptation that so often goes unnoticed lurking behind it – “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour; resist him, solid in your faith” (1 Pt 5:8-9). The subtle temptation is this: “I don’t mind doing these Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy because I am getting something out of it.”

What happens, though, when the consolations stop? Will you stop the work because the task has become more arduous without the consolations? This is an easy trap into which a soul may fall. Why? Because that soul has not yet developed the habit of sacrificing a lesser good – the desire to receive a spiritual consolation – for the greater good – faithful and sacrificial obedience to God without the expectation of any benefit. As a result, the soul suffers from malice. To become a saint requires the development of the disposition of holy detachment to everything that is not God Himself.

Every person must be purified of the desire to engage in pastoral ministry because he is attached to a benefit it affords him. Each of us must learn to be about the work that God has designated for us to do simply because He who is goodness itself commands it. It is precisely when God retracts, or altogether withholds, spiritual consolations from the soul that one’s willingness for true sacrifice, unconditional love, and supernatural faith are really forged in the fire.

It is rather easy to do something good when one receives some benefit, yet it is not so straightforward when the benefit is no longer afforded. To love means to will the good of the other and to provide that good as one is able. Notice in this definition there is no reference to emotions, consoling feelings, or benefits of any kind. This is because love and sacrifice go hand-in-hand.

The spiritual and theological tradition of the Church as explained in the writings of the saints captures it thus: The one thing that Almighty God wants from every person is the sacrifice of his or her will to Him. In other words, the soul’s willing sacrifice of any and every lesser good, for the greater good, until it culminates in the greatest good, which is God Himself.

This is a tall task, indeed. This manner of life requires much attention, discernment, prayer, and growth in virtue if one is to ascend the ladder to the heights of heaven. There is far too much at stake – eternal life – to presume that by merely offering a hot bowl of soup to one who is hungry, re-stocking pantry items when supplies run short, visiting shut-ins when one “has the time,” or instructing the ignorant in the ways of God, one has sufficiently fulfilled the divine commands of perfect sacrificial obediential love. Thorough introspection, accompanied by a daily examination of conscience, is absolutely essential if one’s soul is to be purified of its own desires, preoccupations, and proclivities.

To accomplish any of this, the grace of God is required, and for the work to redound to the spiritual merit of the one performing the work, it is essential that the worker’s soul be in a state of grace. Thus, grace is indispensable, “for by [it] [we] have been saved through faith, and this is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Be ever mindful of the words of our Lord: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8).

Let us be very careful not to consider ourself good simply because we perform a good work.  Remember, “there is only one who is good” (Mt 19:17). Echoing the young man who approached Jesus in the Gospel, let us ask the Lord, “What do I still lack?” and await the Ddvine response.

And once we have heard His Word, will we stop striving spiritually and go away sad because we do not want to relinquish our worldly consolations? May we take a hard and honest look behind our engagement with the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy and take stock of what we find there – “seek, and you will find” (Mt 7:7).

What great love awaits the aware, attentive, discerning, prayerful, purified soul.

—Father James Dodson is vocation director for the Diocese of Burlington.

—Originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.