Recently I came across a status on Facebook that read “If no one comes back from the future to stop you, how bad an idea can it be?” This saying not only caught my attention but got me thinking. If I could go back in time and talk to myself before I was ordained, what would I say to myself as I finish my 10th full year as a priest? Here are the seven things I came up with:
1. You are the only person who can be responsible for you.
Looking back on my days in the seminary, one of the things I miss the most is the evaluation process. I find it easier to do the things I am supposed to do when I know that I will be held accountable for doing them. Unfortunately, once a priest is ordained today, there is very little accountability in his daily life. I do not have anyone making sure I am praying the Liturgy of the Hours or evaluating my management skills.
I have made it a point in my life to have a spiritual director, priest mentor, and support group, and I have found these things more valuable to my priesthood than I could ever imagine. It is still up to me, though, to make sure these things are in place.
2. Turning the other cheek.
In the past, when people told me to “turn the other cheek,” I would ask myself, “Why would a person allow himself to be hit again and again?” The answer to that question came one day when I was watching my brother play with his son, my nephew. My nephew had begun throwing a temper tantrum by swinging his arms wildly and screaming at the top of his lungs. My brother calmly reached down, took his son into his arms and held him tightly against his chest. He did this despite the fact that he received a couple of good wallops from my nephew’s tiny fists.
Eventually, my nephew calmed down, and my brother was able to talk to him. In much the same way I find myself understanding that, before I can help people, I need to allow them time to expel their negative energy before I can talk to or comfort them.
3. Positive sentiment override.
At my first parish there was a staff person whom I simply could not stand, a person I had a difficult time working with. It seemed that we butted heads over everything. As the associate, I was not able to fire her, so I prayed for guidance on how to love her the way God wanted me to and how to work with her.
In reading a book on relationships in marriage preparation, I came across the idea that psychologists call Positive Sentiment Override. The idea is simple: the more positive feelings you have toward somebody, the more you will put up with their negative attributes. I, therefore, began to pray before I would meet with this staff person. In my prayer I would thank God for three specific good qualities in her.
Over time I began to treat her better, and I can say in all honesty that when she left the parish for another job, there was a part of me that was sad. The concept of Positive Sentiment Override has helped me with many difficult parishioners and coworkers in my 10 years as a priest.
4. God works through failure.
As I was coming to the conclusion of my fifth year of priesthood, I was forced to take a leave of absence in order to get a better grip on my battle with depression. There are many scars and wounds that surround an event in my life that I do not wish to write about, but let’s just say that I felt that my leave of absence was unjust. I felt totally defeated and like a complete failure.
But, during that time, I started reading the Exodus stories. The thing that caught my attention was that Moses had failed 10 times before he succeeded in convincing Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. It seemed to me that God was the one causing Moses to fail, as we read in Ex 7:9: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.”
I can see now how my leave of absence, while still unjust in my eyes, prepared me for deeper ministry. Now I find myself a better careing counselor, with an amazing amount of empathy. This has allowed me to become a better pastoral counselor and has led to my work with Project Rachel in my diocese.
5. Everything is grace.
As I look back on my leave of absence, I thank God that a brother priest challenged me to look past the injustice and see the opportunity to improve myself.
I was finally able to ask the Lord to heal some important “father issues” and more important, I realized that there was a large creative part of myself that I had been holding back out of fear of being rejected. It was only after my time in the depression program that I was brave enough to start writing for magazines like The Priest.
6. “To get at the core of God at his greatest, one must first get into the core of himself as his least.” — Meister Eckhart
When St. Peter first encounters the Lord in Luke’s Gospel, he declares “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). The Lord’s response is so powerful. He does not deny that Peter is a sinner. He does not run away to leave Peter in his sins, but rather Jesus offers the job of co-worker to Peter. Being able to declare my sinfulness to the Lord and know that he is not going to run away from me is a huge gift.
7. “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” — Fulton J. Sheen
I am truly amazed at some of the misconceptions people have about the Catholic faith. Since the Faith is so dear to me, it hurts when I hear these false statements. Over time, though, I have come to see that many of these misconceptions are not malicious but rather come from either ill-informed people or severely wounded people who need love as much as they need the truth. This is why I think adult education and my Internet ministry are so important.
8. “The loudest one in the room is the weakest.” — Frank Lucas (Played by Denzel Washington in “American Gangster”)
In the movie “American Gangster,” Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, a young man who becomes one of America’s biggest drug dealers. After he is caught, he helps put away a lot of crooked cops. In the middle of the movie, though, Frank invites his brothers to be a part of the business and this turns out to be a mistake, as his brothers begin to dress really flashy, etc., Frank takes one of his brothers outside and beats him up pretty badly, shouting at him “the loudest one in the room is the weakest.”
This saying, even though it is a line from a movie, helps me to understand how some people overreact to things. For example, not too long ago, I preached a homily on the bishop’s plan for immigration reform. After Mass, a man verbally attacked me.
As I tried to remain calm and let his emotional energy run down, I tried hard to understand his argument so that I could counter it. I began to realize that the man was not making any sense. Most of what he was saying was simply attacking me, and the points he was making on the topic of immigration actually seemed to support everything I had said in my homily.
Eventually, he stormed off mad. Remembering this quote I realized that the horrible things he said about me were not meant to hurt me, but somehow I had touched a nerve and he needed to say something. In the past I would have taken offense to what he was saying about me, but now I just desired to pray for him.
While I have not had anyone from the future come back to stop me from doing something, we did have someone who stepped from outside of time into time to show us the way to eternal life. Over the last 10 years, I have strived to serve Him well as a priest. I know that I have made mistakes, but I believe that is all right because, through the grace of God, I am learning from my mistakes.
I hope that some of my reflections will help you in your ministry.
FATHER PASTORIUS is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis, Missouri.