Having just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, I can now rejoice in the same number of years as a Catholic, for I was received into the Church a week before the ceremony. What that also offers me is a compressed view of the sacraments and the generous priests who made themselves available on my behalf.
While God was certainly intricately involved in my life since conception, I can see his hand specifically in the men who have “put on Christ.” From a parish “inquiry class” to Pre-Cana, from reconciliation to conditional baptism, from the Newman Center on my college campus to the military chaplain who witnessed our vows, I was introduced to a wide range of priests in a short period of time. Despite disparate ages and personalities, they all served holy Mother Church in the capacity to which they were called. Praise be to God, they each said yes.
The most important thing that we can do for priests in this year dedicated to them is to pray for them. As we reflect on the priesthood in the coming months, we should take the time to recall the great number of men in holy orders who have accompanied us on our pilgrimage of faith.
We may not know the name of the priest who baptized us, but we can rack our childhood memories for those early encounters — first holy Communion, confession and the priests who oversaw our CCD programs. There are the parish suppers, the feast day festivities and the graduation events. Then there are the priests who made hospital visits with our loved ones, the men who consoled us in our grief and those who said the funeral Masses.
Not all encounters go perfectly — there are often hard feelings or differences of opinion. There are well-meaning gestures that go awry and the expectations that cannot be met. What must be realized is that these men have tried. They go from joy to joy, from tragedy to tragedy — not living the normal swells of family life but rather at the emotional edges of a fallen world grasping at eternity. It cannot be easy.
Surely the graces are there — but each priest relies on our prayers for his ability to respond appropriately to the demands of the flock entrusted to his care. During the Rite of Ordination, the bishop calls the candidates who have been formed to serve the people through holy orders. Their response is to stand and announce that they are present.
They are present; that is the essence. Just as Samuel presented himself to Eli, the candidate presents himself to his bishop — each recognizing his fundamental unworthiness and that the call is from on high, beyond them both and not to be ignored. Subsequently, the good priest makes himself present to the faithful over the years of his service, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, til death do they part.
We must respond to that faithful presence by lifting these priests up before the throne of God. Take the time to recall all of those fine men who have served so generously over the years. In your kindness, remember those who may not have been as generous as they could have been. Forgive them, pray for their intentions, and remember that we often failed them along the way ourselves.
Recalling Moses’ frustrations in the wilderness, we know that shepherding souls cannot be an easy task, but in the end, it is Christ that matters. Ultimately, without the priest, he cannot be present — and then where would we be?
[The Anchor 8.21.09]