There was once a young couple who decided to invite their old pastor over for dinner despite the fact that the pastor was known for being a little bit of a curmudgeon. The pastor arrived at the couple’s house early and was escorted into the living room and invited to take a seat. The couple returned to the kitchen to finish preparing dinner. As the pastor was waiting, the young couple’s 4-year-old son came running up the steps from the basement. The pastor decided to ask the boy a question. He looked at the young boy and asked him what they were going to have for dinner. Without hesitation the young boy responded “goat.” The priest was a little taken aback and tried to clarify the situation. “Did you say that we are having goat for dinner? Are you sure?” he asked the young boy. “Certainly,” the child replied. “I heard my father tell my mother this morning that today was as good as any to have the old goat for dinner.”
After 13 years of priesthood, I do not so much fear leaving the priesthood as I fear becoming the old grouchy curmudgeon priest that everyone seems to tolerate. When I tell people this, I am often met with the encouraging response that I am too on fire for the Lord and love being a priest too much for that ever to happen to me. Yet there is always a part of me that thinks that these same words were probably said to those who left the priesthood and to priests who have become old curmudgeons. All vocations must be nurtured; otherwise, they can become stale and even lost.
While praying over this one day, I was drawn to two separate parts of the Bible. I found myself reflecting a lot about the character of Jonah and how, at the end of the Book of Jonah, he is nothing but an old curmudgeon despite the fact that he has just pulled off this amazing missionary and evangelization effort (see Chapter 4).
Antithesis of the Our Father
Contemplating Jonah led me to ask the question of how he ended up that way and, strangely, this led me to the Our Father prayer in Matthew’s Gospel (see Chapter 6). Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that Jonah was in a very real sense the antithesis of the Our Father, and it was this that led him to be unhappy at the end of the story. The Our Father, therefore, is not only a prayer that Jesus taught us but a way of life that leads ministers of the Gospel to find happiness in their lives.
For example, it begins with the words “Our Father,” and this is a real stumbling block for Jonah, who does not want to see the Ninevites as his brothers and sisters. To him they are foreigners who do not deserve God’s mercy.
At the end of the story, instead of rejoicing that God has relented and had mercy on the Ninevites, Jonah is furious that they are not destroyed and wiped out. I have discovered that one of the best things I can do for my own mental health and happiness is to see others as brothers and sisters in Christ; if I am not seeing them as brothers and sisters in Christ, I can too easily see them as competition for God’s love and/or other people’s attention.
“Who art in heaven”: I cannot help but think that part of Jonah’s grouchiness comes from the fact that he forgot that the God he had promised to serve as a prophet was the Lord of heaven and earth. Despite his best efforts to run away and hide from the Lord, Jonah discovered that God was too great. Sometimes in life there are things that we wish to keep from God, but just as God relentlessly pursued Jonah, He pursues us. We can either become resentful of God’s awesomeness or become thankful for it. In a special way, I am thankful for God’s pursuit of me through my battles with depression. Unfortunately, I have seen others who hold a quiet resentment in their heart because God would not allow their personal sins and wounds to remain secret.
“Hallowed be thy name”: Jonah does not understand that God’s ways are not our ways. For God, the greater glory is not the destruction of a group of wayward individuals but rather their conversion. Because of this, Jonah does not recognize the tremendous feat that God has accomplished through him — evangelizing a whole city in under half a day! Perhaps when we are looking for words of affirmation or a sense of accomplishment we miss them because we don’t truly see the importance of what we are doing and have a different idea of what “glory” is, rather than what God does.
“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”: When I lay in prayer on the floor of the cathedral and heard the people singing the litany of saints at my ordination, I felt a very real sense that the tasks before me were not earthly tasks but rather heavenly ones. As I settled into parish ministry, I began to realize that part of the challenge of the priesthood for me was that I needed to turn earthly tasks into heavenly ones. I discovered that finding the toilet paper and cleaning up a spill on Sunday morning cheerfully were just as much ways of showing Christ to others as preaching homilies. In fact, I could preach the best homily in the world and, if I had been rude to someone who asked my help in an earthly matter (like finding out where the extra toilet paper was kept), it all meant nothing to that person or to the people who had witnessed that interaction.
I think two of the challenges in the priesthood are, first, for us to elevate earthly service to a divine realm by always reminding ourselves that the person we are serving is Christ, and, second, we must never lower heavenly tasks such as celebrating Mass into the earthly realm by treating them as something routine and mundane.
“Give us this day our daily bread”: Perhaps the most difficult challenge of being a Christian, much less a priest, is to have faith that God will provide for our needs. There are many times that we are like the apostles ministering to large crowds with meager resources that make the five loaves and two fish (see Mt 14) seem a lot. In the end, God always provides, even if it is not in the way that we would have chosen. Remember the apostles’ way of dealing with the crowd was to have Jesus dismiss them. And later, when they were panicking in the boat during the storm, they did so because they did not understand the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves (Mk 6). A person who knows that God is going to provide has no need to ever be grouchy.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”: Holding onto unresolved anger and hurt is like drinking spiritual poison; there is no way that it can bring happiness. Forgiveness, though, opens us up to freedom.
“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”: I know more than ever how important this part of the Our Father is after having three classmates leave the priesthood for various reasons, not all of them good. It is more important than ever that we learn to avoid temptation, and not only for the sake of avoiding temptation. We must learn to avoid temptation for the sake of being all the more capable of doing good. I make sure that I have healthy boundaries and healthy relationships because the stakes are too high in our world if I don’t. One mistake — or even the appearance of a mistake — can mean the end of active ministry for priests today.
I know this is a reality, but I try to focus on it in this way: I love the people of God that I am privileged to minister to, and I know how much pain they would be in if I were to ever cross that line or appear to cross that line. Therefore, I choose to go nowhere near that line.
I also count on my prayer life, my spiritual director, my friends and, especially, my priest support group to keep me firmly anchored so that there is no danger of falling off the cliff. I will say it once again, “I love being a priest,” so why would I not do everything in my power to protect my vocation.
Often I have been told that in life you can learn good habits from people who are good examples, and sometimes you learn what not to do from the bad examples others offer. Growing up, I always assumed that all the prophets were good examples of what it meant to follow God’s will, but now I have come to see that Jonah is actually more an example of what not to do.
May God protect all our priesthoods by aligning our hearts with His by reminding us of what it really means to live out the Our Father each and every time we pray it.
FATHER PASTORIUS is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis.