When I was ordained in 2003, I was one of eight cheerful, excited and eager young priests who could not wait to begin leading souls to Christ. Close to 13 years later, three of my classmates have left the priesthood for one reason or another, and now I am part of a class of five.
When I prepare engaged couples for marriage, I try to get them to understand the need for them to take their marriage preparation seriously by reminding them that no one enters into marriage hoping later to become a divorcee and yet many people who are entering into marriage today are ending up in divorce.
In a similar way, I do not believe that my classmates or any man who left the priesthood entered into the priesthood with the intent to leave active ministry. I am sure that, like me, that they imagined themselves living their entire life as a priest. With this in mind, I decided to share with all of you ten reasons why I have remained a priest.
Throughout my time in the seminary, many different people told my classmates and me that the first step that led most priests toward leaving the priesthood was that they simply stopped praying. Some of my classmates who left the priesthood told me that this was true; others have told me that they still pray today. I can honestly say in my life that, when my prayer life is strong, the temptation to leave the priesthood is weak, if nonexistent. And, with self-reflection, I can see that the times in which the thought of leaving the priesthood was strongest were also times in which my prayer life was the weakest or nonexistent.
Ultimately, I am reminded of something that Cardinal Rigali told me before he ordained me a priest. He said, “The Holy Spirit does not contradict himself.” I have always remembered this. So when thoughts of leaving the priesthood come to mind, I see them more as a call to deepen my prayer life. When I deepen my prayer life, I can see the temptation to leave the priesthood shrink.
2) Good Priest Friends and Mentors
The second reason why I believe that I have survived this long in the priesthood is the wonderful support system that God has blessed me with. I have two to three priest friends who are not only excellent role models but also great mentors. I know that I can go to them at anytime with any problem and receive an honest answer without them passing any negative judgments on me. Their willingness to help me keeps me connected to my brother priests and helps me protect my vocation.
3) Good Lay Friends
In addition to having a good network of priests to support me, I have also been blessed by God with a wide variety of good friends from the laity. As we share with each other our daily successes and struggles, these lay people help to remind me that the grass is not always greener on the other side.
4) Remaining Positive
Seeing all the good things that God has accomplished through me helps fuel my desire to be a priest. In our world today, it is easy to focus on our mistakes and the people that we were not able to help. It takes real effort to remain focused on the positive. Having battled depression in my life, I have learned the value of positive sentiment override.
The idea behind positive sentiment override is quite simple. The more positive feelings we have toward someone the more we will put up with their negatives.
In order to combat the negative thoughts that my mind produces, I have learned to examine my daily life for the ways in which I have made others’ lives better. This is not a practice of the ego, but rather a simple mental exercise that I need each day to remain healthy.
5) Virtue is Always in the Middle of Two Vices
The fifth reason why I believe that I am still in ministry is that I have learned the value of the lesson that a virtue is always in the middle of two vices. For example, self-hate is just as much the opposite of humility as pride. Realizing this has helped me balance my life in areas such as my work load. I strive to avoid working too much so that I don’t experience burnout, and I strive to avoid being too idle so that my mind and hands cannot become the devil’s playground.
6) Avoid Negativity
I strive my hardest to avoid negativity, especially if it comes from my brother priests. I have heard that studies about the priesthood say that most priests view themselves as having happy and fulfilling ministries, but these same priests feel that their brother priests are not happy. I think this is because, often when priests get together, there is some negativity directed at the leadership of the Church or at different policies. While I do not always agree with the way the Church is heading, or with the latest diocesan directive, I know that for me complaining to others about them often opens the gateway to others sins that are more serious.
7) Going on Retreat Each Year
Going on retreat each year has been a time of great spiritual growth. This is the same whether or not the retreat director is a good retreat director. When I go on retreat, I am reminded that the most important thing about me is that I am a “beloved son” of the Father and that God loves me even when I am not doing anything productive in the eyes of the world.
8) Continuing to Learn
Another key reason that I am a priest is that I am continually amazed at not only how awesome God is but also how awesome our Catholic faith is. Through study weeks, theological readings and other study opportunities, I find myself amazed at how everything comes together.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church, which is, of course, quite a different thing.” The more I dive into the teachings of the Catholic Church, the more I am left in awe and wonder that God has chosen me to be His humble coworker.
9) Enjoying the Challenge
No one ever said that life would be easy. In fact, Jesus assures us that His followers will be persecuted. Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others never had an easy life. I do not want an easy life. I want an adventure, a challenge. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
I do not want to be mediocre, and I know that with God I can accomplish great things for His glory. St. Irenaeus of Lyon put it this way: “The glory of God is a person fully alive.” I want and desire this fullness of life, and I find God opening this way of life up to me through the priesthood.
10) Living a Life of Gratitude
I have found nothing in life that motivates me like gratitude. When someone does something good for me, I desire to do something good for them. God has blessed me more than I could ever imagine. I am aware of this, and I am grateful for this. Why would I not want to live the life God wants me to?
When I was in high school there was one Fourth of July when I had to leave the family gathering to go to work at a fast food restaurant. As I was leaving, I began to complain about having to work. My aunt quickly corrected me and reminded me that I got to work and that I did not have to work. Working was a privilege that not everyone was able to participate in.
I get to be Catholic, I get to be a priest, I get to bring God’s love to the world in this unique way. The more mindful I am of this fact the more resolved I am to remain a priest and to avoid anything that might make it difficult for me to remain a priest.
These are ten reasons why I have decided to not only to remain a priest but to rejoice that I am a priest. I thank God for all the graces that He has bestowed on me, and I pray that I may never be far from His divine wisdom. I hope my reflections will help you grow.
FATHER PASTORIUS, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, is pastor of the Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis, Missouri.