Striving for Our Best Selves

Each fall as farmers harvest their crop, they tally if the harvest yielded a hundredfold, sixtyfold or thirtyfold. As the field lies fallow for the winter, the farmer ponders, “What am I doing right and should keep doing?” while also wondering, “What didn’t I do and need to improve?” The land is there, able to yield more — there is more to be. Should not each of us do what the farmer does, reflect if our potential is being achieved? Could there be more within us that is just waiting to be tapped, for our own yield to increase multifold?

Every parent must look at his or her child at birth and wonder: “What lies within this child waiting to be? What will become of this little person that I am holding in my arms? Is this the girl that will be the first woman president? Is this the boy that will find a cure for cancer?” The same wondering and predication occurs at the annual rite of passage in high school yearbooks, as graduates speculate what each person might become and posting it under their picture. Becoming that full person God intended hopefully is our desire as each day unfolds, getting closer to the fully actualized person God had in mind.

Three years ago, when actor Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor for his performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” his acceptance speech was more along the lines of a motivational speech. He gave thanksgiving to God as he recognized the grace God had given him. He shared a story about who is his hero, who would he like to be. His hero is always himself 10 years from now. At 15 he was chasing after the person he would be at 25, but when he reached 25 he realized there was more, so he chased after the person he would be at 35, and so it goes on. You can Google the speech for the full impact. The words he spoke painted a great image of always becoming more of the person that God intends, while knowing that will never be fully achieved, though it is always something to strive toward.

Have you ever stumbled onto a photo album of yesteryear, maybe when cleaning out your parents’ attic as they downsize from the family home to a simpler condo, and saw the person you once were and wonder, “Is that little boy I see in the picture really the same person I am today?” As that freckle-faced kid with a mouthful of braces in the photo looks back at you, does the kid even recognize himself these decades later? Is he pleased at what he has become, or disappointed, or a little bit of both? As you flip through the pictures looking at yourself in a Catholic school uniform, or a navy blue suit when receiving first Communion, or a tuxedo when going to the prom, or a cap and gown as you walk across a college stage, or a chasuble and stole at your first Mass, what has changed in that little boy, and what has remained the same? Is that little boy, that teenager, that young man living out the potential that always has been within him, and is there time still to go even deeper and further?

You see this same walk down memory lane at funeral homes, where all these photos are scanned into a collage of pictures showing the many facets of a life lived. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York writes about promoting life from the womb to the tomb in this very issue of The Priest (Page 54). This phrase conjures up the multiple stages in all of our lives. The womb is that first sanctuary where we are formed and transformed, coming to full term for that stage and that time. Then as the years and decades unfold to the tomb, there is a sanctuary at each stage where there is more transformation and formation, hopefully moving toward that person we are chasing to become.

The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in 2001 published The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests. While Part One reminds each priest of the four pillars of formation (spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral), it is Part Two that is apropos to Cardinal Dolan’s message and McConaughey’s concept of chasing after the person you want to become.

Part Two goes through the many stages of a priest’s life, from ordination to retirement. The writers recognize that each of these stages offers something to the priest in that particular leg of his journey. The ages discussed are “the first years of priesthood,” “changes of assignment,” “the first pastorate,” “midlife” and “growing in wisdom” for senior clergy.

Depending on where you are in the journey, each of these periods of time are womblike moments, as each stage shapes and transforms us. It is as if we are in a mortar and pestle, being broken down and built back into something else in order to become that person we are meant to be. There are growing pains from the freckle-faced kid in a Catholic school uniform when life was easy, to putting on a cap and gown, then off to college, to walking down a cathedral aisle. There are growing pains from one’s first assignment to the next. Each moment allows us to reinvent ourselves as priests.

Like the farmer in October who takes inventory of his yield as to what needs to stay and what needs to go, each leg of the journey is crucial. Then there are transformational moments in priests’ lives when that first parent dies, and even more so when the second parent dies and those who loved him unconditionally are no more. As you move into the pastorate, there is no pastor to blame now except yourself. Each of these formative periods has its own tasks and challenges as well as graces and temptations — and hopefully discernment. This journey for each priest parallels the rest of society, as many men and women transition from single to married to parents to empty nesters to grandparents. Their tasks and challenges and graces and temptations will be different from a priest’s, but still formative as each person is becoming the next version of themselves in their life, adding another snapshot to the album of their journeys.

Isaiah’s prophecy is a great word to pray us through this concept that each of us is destined for something special in this life: “Just as from the heavens / the rain and snow come down / and do not return there / till they have watered the earth, / making it fertile and fruitful, / giving seed to the one who sows / and bread to the one who eats, / so shall my word be / that goes forth from my mouth; / it shall not return to me empty, / but shall do what pleases me, / achieving the end for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11).

Every one of us is created by the very breath of God; it is as if we are one of those words that will not return to God empty, but will return having achieved the end for which God sent it. We live each day and stage of life striving and hoping we are living the life that God intended for us. Each person made in God’s image, imaging that same God as our life unfolds at each junction. Christ reminds us to live this life intended for us and to live it abundantly (see Jn 10:10), so that what God has begun in each of us, he will continue to complete (Phil 1:6).

FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.