I always tell seminarians and priests that as long as they wear the Roman collar, they have a chance at doing some good. Once time, in an Atlanta airport, my connecting flight delayed for two hours, I pulled out my breviary. Observing this, a member of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary came over and said: “We’re counting on you to get us through safely.” “Well, then I’ll be sure to include you in my breviary,” I replied, “because, after all, we’re all going to be on the same plane.”
As indeed we are in life as well — fellow flyers, seatmates thrown randomly together for this most human and spiritual of flights. Just as you would instinctively reach out to pull a drowning child from a pool, so should we be prepared at any moment to reach out and help any co-traveler in need — as I was reminded later in the same Atlanta airport.
Walking toward my gate, I noticed a handsome, if distraught, young man barely old enough to be out of college. His frazzled demeanor shouted out that he was in some kind of trouble. Stopping, I asked if I could help. Immediately, he spat out his story. He was going to be indicted, following a friend already in jail for embezzlement. He wanted to go to Confession but having been so many years since he had, he barely remembered how. So we more or less did it on the spot. What he needed was to be straightened out . . . a good talking to, which I gave him.
Had this young man not recognized that I was a priest, seen my collar, we probably wouldn’t have spoken. But seeing my collar, he came right over to me and made his Confession. Afterwards, I sent him away with a settled mind and the instructions that he had to straighten out his life. “You have a long life ahead of you, as well as parents of wealth and great understanding,” I counseled, “you need to use the talents God has given you.” He took it well.
Priests, in particular, must always stand firm in the belief that the priesthood, above all else, is service and sacrifice. When they start seeing a vocation as a service to themselves, they get off track. Though the Second Vatican Council declared that priests are to be coworkers with the bishops in serving the faithful, it is never to be forgotten that a coworker is also a worker! Whatever it takes to get the job done — often many jobs simultaneously — is what you have to do. Following Vatican II, the scales of the priesthood got tipped from not enough freedom to too much freedom. The system of rigid institutional discipline gave way to self-discipline — or lack of it, frequently resulting in unhappiness. One of the toughest problems I ever have to deal with is when a priest comes to me asking for a leave of absence, a dispensation from his vows so as to no longer be called a priest. In my experience, whenever a priest wanders from the path of dedication to his vocation, he invariably will veer off in the wildest possible ways — like a star or planet which, not staying its course around the sun, gets off track to cause destruction.
My long life as a priest has overflowed with an abundance of joy and wonder at the power of Almighty God — most particularly in everyday living. One day after Mass, a woman around fifty approached me. “You don’t remember me,” she said. “No, I really don’t.” Beside her, stood a girl of about twenty-two, her daughter who spoke slowly and walked haltingly as if she had polio. Nevertheless, she was obviously very intelligent. The mother continued. “You don’t remember, but many years ago, you blessed my daughter who had a tumor on her brain. The doctors had given up on her completely, saying there was nothing they could do to save her. But you gave her a blessing, and here she is today, walking around!” It was a remarkable — humbling — story, reminding me yet again of the potential power of the priesthood in every transaction. In the midst of a day’s turmoil, that conversation provided complete consolation.
In the final analysis, however, there is no one more important, or connected to Catholicism at its core, than those who serve on its front lines: the parish priest. Indeed, whenever I attend or see the inspiring Urbi et Orbi blessing of the Pope (to the city of Rome and world) I am again piercingly reminded of the contribution of these truly religious warriors. Delivered from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on important occasions, most particularly after the new Pope’s election as Supreme Pontiff, His Holiness bestows this special blessing on an audience usually stretching from the courtyard of the Basilica through the Piazza and along the Via della Conciliazione (Street of the Conciliation) to the Tiber River. Crowds for the Urbi et Orbi blessing frequently number two hundred fifty thousand fervent people.
Though the glory of the occasion is the presence and blessing of the Holy Father, the faith of each person standing there is the work of the humble parish priest. Without his efforts and dedication, neither the streets of Rome nor the local cathedral would be filled with true believers in the Holy Trinity. For him we give our heartfelt thanks to God — Amen. Amen. Amen!
“Priests are in the Heaven Business,” as my cousin Nancy Collins once put it. “What is it? Where is it? And how do you get there?” She’s got a point. And having devoted years to the subject, you would think that by now I would be able to offer a precise, surefire answer on what to do down here to make it up there. Yet, even for priests, at least speaking for myself, this hopefully ultimate destination for all souls remains at times as intangible and mysterious as it does to those who haven’t made it a lifetime, full-time study.
Having presided over thousands of deathbeds and funerals, it stands to reason that I might be uniquely qualified to offer a recipe guaranteed to get you to the Lord’s Table. Yet, at ninety-seven, faced ever more personally with the question and reality of heaven, the only ingredient I know to be absolutely necessary is faith.
The road to heaven begins — and ends — with faith in God from whom all blessings, wisdom, tolerance, joy, and forgiveness have always — and will ever — flow. Consequently, I have come to believe that only when we actually get to heaven will we truly understand what we accomplished here on earth — especially when it concerns the priesthood. From my perspective, a priest — I will accomplish in death what I could not in life because as priests we are most fully alive when we die. If we don’t feel that way, we certainly have not served the cause of Christ as we were meant to. In the final spiritual analysis, to fulfill the will of Christ, a priest must die in life as did his own Son. And when that time comes, with the grace of God, I am ready.
This hardcover book is 464 pages, $24.95 plus S&H. Copyright 2010, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.