“Why don’t we start with a prayer?”
This request, made by Fr. Gregory Merkley at the beginning of our interview, reminds me of why I had reached out to him in the first place. Though only ordained two short years ago, he seems to embody all of the characteristics of the ideal priest – attentiveness to his spiritual children, a joyful spirit of surrender, and most importantly, a deep and sincere love for God.
“There had been a call when I was young,” he shares, once we’ve closed our prayer on an emphatic Amen. “And it came back again when I was getting confirmed.”
But Fr. Greg, having been raised in a nominally Catholic household, admits that he wasn’t, “doing much faith stuff” at the time. As a result, he didn’t give too much thought to his call. Then, when he entered university, he drifted from his faith entirely and began to live a much more worldly life.
But our God is not so easily deterred. He called Fr. Greg back to the Church by introducing him to a woman of faith, with whom he began a relationship. But, unbeknownst to Fr. Greg, this relationship was not to end in marriage.
“As I got closer and closer to the Lord,” he relates. “I realized that I just wanted to turn my life over to Him.”
“I really had this hunger, and it just naturally emerged from the depths of my heart and intuitively became my desire. The light of Christ shone in my heart and brought to light what I had always been made for.”
For a time, Fr. Greg resisted this calling, but it proved too strong to ignore. Finally,
“I just kind of gave up. I thought, ‘I’m done trying to resist this. I’m going to let myself be captured by the Lord.’”
Though it was difficult for him to reach this initial point of surrender, Fr. Greg soon discovered that God’s plan for his life, though not exactly what he’d expected, was exactly what he needed.
“God’s will makes us happiest, by far,” he asserts. “It’s what’s going to make us the most happy and most fruitful for His kingdom. It’s the most joy-filled, love-filled, glorious, and beautiful plan that could ever be!”
This is not to say that his life is free from difficulties, however – only that those difficulties pale in comparison to the infinite love of God.
“The fact is,” Fr. Greg begins. “God often blesses those He calls to the greatest of holiness with the greatest sharings of His Passion. And the Passion is not purely suffering in itself – it is love! It is love that is willing to suffer.”
“If we love without limits,” he goes on to say. “Of course we’ll suffer. I mean, we’re always going through sufferings in a certain sense. But we’re made to love and be loved! If we give up trying to avoid suffering, or to see it as a bad thing, then we become free to love without constraint. And because we’re made to love that way, there’s a deep joy that profoundly exceeds the suffering that comes with love.”
The truth of his words strikes a chord in my heart and I find myself nodding in agreement. But even without such an eloquent explanation, the fact that Fr. Greg’s life is permeated with the love of God is evidenced by the joy and enthusiasm with which he speaks about his vocation.
“I love saying Holy Mass,” he gushes. “It is the heartbeat of my life, it is so beautiful. But I love hearing confessions.”
“I could hear confessions all day! I wish I was able to.”
But that would leave little time for prayer, which keeps him united to his heavenly Spouse.
“Jesus is the bridegroom of every soul, whatever vocation you have.”
But Fr. Greg’s vocation to the priesthood, “Simply allows me much more time. My state in life is in every way directly related to God.”
This time is often spent before the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration.
“Christ is the One I lean into. That’s part of why I spend so much time with Him. I can tell Him what’s really in my heart, and He understands me better than any woman would. He understands me perfectly, as does Mary.”
And although Fr. Greg is without a physical companion, the Lord is diligent in providing consolations through the people he serves.
“God gives us so many consolations,” Fr. Greg attests, his smile evident over the line. “Every time someone says, ‘Thank you, Father.’ Or the unspoken peace and lightness of a person’s countenance when they leave confession, for example.”
Such encounters encourage Fr. Greg in his mission, which is, ultimately, to be a saint.
“I’m striving to be a heroically good priest,” Fr. Greg soberly attests.
“I’m trying my best. And I am nothing – seriously, I am so nothing! But God sees my good will, which is itself a gift from Him, and He makes it fruitful, despite my human limitations.”
The Lord’s penchant for using the weak to confound the strong is a truth that Fr. Greg believes should free us to say yes to His requests, whatever they may be.
“We should ask God to show us our vocation,” he advises. “And when He calls, we should be generous in responding, with a freedom of spirit that comes from knowing that He will only call us to what is best for us.”
Regardless of the form that this call might take, Fr. Greg offers one last bit of universal advice before our call draws to a close:
“Don’t be afraid of saying yes to God!”
Because even though we can’t be sure of where that yes might lead, what we can be sure of is that it will be beautiful.