Msgr. Owen F. Campion
In March, Pope Benedict XVI declared that June 19, 2009 -- June 19, 2010 would be observed as the Year for Priests in the Catholic Church. Many dioceses and parishes have made an earnest effort to do something in this Year for Priests.
In some places, however, there seems to be no consensus on how to mark this year. Some suggestions have been downright silly. "Do something for your pastor," read one suggestion. "Take him out for lunch."
The Year for Priests is a time for Catholics in the pews to truly begin asking themselves what the priesthood means to them.
About 20 years ago, not long after the fall of communism, I was among several American Catholic journalists who, at the invitation of the Catholic Press Association, went to several places in Eastern Europe -- where atheistic communism had held the reins for two generations -- to see how the Church was faring now that it could function unimpeded and in the open.
We met a layman in Prague, Czech Republic, who told us how communism had hit the Czech Church with a fury. This man's pastor, and then another pastor, and then the next, were arrested and vanished into the darkness of the Czech communist political prison system. Finally, his parish church was closed.
He yearned for the Eucharist. He yearned to confide in a priest, to be absolved. He soon discovered from an underground source that Mass was secretly celebrated daily at noon in the basement of a restaurant. So, every day, he would enter the restaurant as if going there for lunch.
Quietly, he would go into the basement, along with a few other brave souls. A priest, who kept his priesthood a secret by working under the guise of an electrician, celebrated Mass there. No singing, no praying aloud, only whispering took place, since if they were discovered, everyone would have been subject to arrest. The priest surely would have been arrested for acting as a priest without government "license." (Such licenses were hard to come by.)
This layman was a physician. He spoke about his gravely ill patients, many at the point of death, who yearned to receive the sacraments. A funny thing would happen then. The doctor would discover an "electrical problem" in the patient's house and call an "electrician" he knew. The priest would come, again at great risk.
The physician watched his own children attending schools in which religion was mocked and discounted. Understandably, when the children grew to adulthood, few would follow his advice to have a Catholic wedding. Such a wedding, of course, occurred only behind closed doors.
But he grew to appreciate what the priesthood meant to him. It meant spiritual life. It meant being in touch with the Lord in the Mass and in confession. It meant the consolation of the sacraments when illness or distress troubled him. It meant that he could expect to die with the prayer of the Church around him. It meant the Church. It meant Christ.
This is what the priesthood should mean to every Catholic -- not just to priests. This understanding of the need for the priesthood should both excite people about the Year for Priests and suggest ways to observe it.
The best way to begin observing the Year for Priests is to ask what the priesthood means, for Catholics as individuals and for the Church as a whole. A good resource is the pope's homily inaugurating the jubilee year. (You can find it by visiting www.osv.com/priestyear and clicking on "Year for Priests Links.")
After all, if your pastor suggested he would take a married couple out to lunch each day as a way of strengthening marriages in the parish you would likely respond: "Father, it will take more than that. Tell us what makes a marriage a truly Catholic marriage."
Now, in this Year for Priests, is the time for Catholics to reflect. What is the meaning of priesthood? For all of us?
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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