You have asked me to share with you things I have learned in 59 years as a priest which might help you as you prepare to offer yourself to the Lord for service to him and to his holy people as a sharer in the high priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Let me begin by recounting a story told by our current archbishop in St. Louis, Robert Carlson. Decades ago, when he was vocation’s director in his home diocese of St. Paul, a young man considering going to seminary told Carlson that he needed to go home first and pray about whether he was good enough to be a priest. “I’ll save you some time,” Carlson said. “You’re not good enough.” He was right, of course. God doesn’t call us because we’re good enough. No one is good enough to be a priest of Jesus Christ: not the Curé of Ars, not Padre Pio, not even the Pope. The Lord doesn’t call us because we’re good enough; he calls us because he loves us.
Never forget that, John. The desire for priesthood which is in your heart has been put there by the One who is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8). He wants you to be a messenger of that love to others: through words when appropriate, but always through the example of your life.
You can never do that unless you are constantly receiving the love that the Lord wants you to pass on to others. This brings me to the first thing that almost six decades of priesthood have taught me. You can’t make it in the priesthood, and you certainly can’t be happy as a priest, unless you are spending time alone with the Lord, every single day. We can all pray when we feel like it. The test comes when we don’t feel like it, yet still set aside time for the Lord. For this we need:
A rule of life, centered on prayer. One of the Lord’s great gifts to me is to have had such a rule since I was 12 years old. At that age I joined what Catholics would call a sodality: the Servants of Christ the King. Members promised to follow a simple rule of life, centered on prayer. You can read the details on page 64 of No Ordinary Fool, my autobiography. Members made an annual report to the sodality’s director, grading themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, and received from him a friendly note of admonition and encouragement in response. You should have such a rule for which you must be accountable to a spiritual director.
Why is this so important? Because it will keep you faithful to the daily prayer time with Lord which every priest needs. There will be many times when you don’t feel like praying, when the time you have set apart for the Lord is dry and nothing but a mass of distractions and prayer seems a complete waste of time. All that is of no importance, provided that you remain faithful to your commitment to prayer, because you have “a date with the Lord.” When you seem to “get nothing out of it,” because of your dryness and distractions, this means that you are making a costly offering to the Lord. And the Lord loves a costly offering.
Here is what St. Teresa of Avila writes about this in chapter eight of her autobiography:
Very often, over a period of several years, I was more occupied in wishing my hour of prayer were over, and in listening for the clock to strike, than in thinking of things that were good. . . . Whenever I entered the chapel, I used to feel so depressed that I had to summon up all my courage to make myself pray at all. . . . In the end the Lord came to my help. Afterwards, when I had forced myself to pray, I would find that I had more tranquility and happiness than at certain other times when I had prayed because I had wanted to.
Should a daily Holy Hour be part of your rule of life? You must decide that for yourself. I have never done that. I think that those who do, fill up the hour with praying the breviary, the rosary, and other devotions. That’s not my scene. The one universally applicable rule for prayer is this: pray as you can and not as you can’t. For decades I have sat in silence for a half-hour before Mass, waiting on the Lord. I pray the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer after Mass. That is a 75-80 minutes spent with the Lord, a half-hour of it in what the books call contemplative prayer. Later in the day I pray the rest of the Divine Office; and I also spend time invoking the prayers of 20-plus Saints and Blesseds for various people and intentions.
Another spiritual practice which I strongly recommend to you is “the practice of the presence of God.” Read what I write about this on page 87 of No Ordinary Fool. Going up or down stairs, I say one of the holy names at each step: Jesus, Mary, Joseph. Because of this practice, constantly renewed over the span of 65 years, I find myself praying the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and one or two other familiar prayers as I walk down a hallway, from one room to another, back and forth to my car — and at many other “empty” times during the day. I don’t consciously start; I just find that I am already praying one of these prayers, quite spontaneously.
You have mentioned difficulties with celibacy. Well, join the club, Brother! I have had those difficulties almost all my life. In his Life of St. Benedict, St. Gregory the Great says that during the three years Benedict lived in his youth as a hermit, he became so inflamed with desire (a polite word for lust) for an attractive young woman he had known, that he threw off his clothes and rolled in a thicket of thorns and nettles. “He vanquished sin by changing one fire into another,” Gregory says. “As Benedict told his disciples, from then on sexual temptation was controlled to such an extent that he never felt it any more.” The modern reader, living in our sex-obsessed society, could be excused for commenting: “Lucky man!”
That has not been my experience. Nor is it likely to be yours. After decades of inner turmoil and much chaos in my life, the Lord evidently said: “Jay, you’ve had enough. I’m telling the Devil to lay off.” I say “evidently,” since I knew nothing about this. But gradually, I think it was in my late seventies, I realized: “I’m free! Free at last!” The temptations had simply disappeared, and with them the images and videos that used to run in my head. I couldn’t get them back even if I wanted to. How lucky can you be? So don’t be discouraged. Never, ever give up. And, when you fail (as we all do at times), keep in mind what our wonderful new Pope Francis has told us: God never gets tired of forgiving us. It is we who grow tired of asking for forgiveness.
Will you be lonely in the priesthood? Sometimes, sure. But through pastoral ministry I learned early on that married people are lonely too. Loneliness is part of the human condition. It comes about because no human relationship — not the perfect marriage nor the ideal friendship (and how many people have found either?) — can fully satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts. Only the Lord God can do that. No one has said it better than St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, till we find rest in you.” Or, to put it in terms best understood by your generation, we are hard-wired for God.
As a 20-year-old seminarian, I read something about loneliness which has helped me all my life long: “Turn your loneliness into solitude, which is the loveliness of being alone with God.” The moment I read that, I realized in my head that it was true. Internalizing it in my heart has taken me a lifetime. Read what I write about this on page 298 of No Ordinary Fool.
Here is something else I read as a young seminarian. It helped me then, and it helps me still:
The conversation of the brethren should help and cheer us, but God’s voice speaks most often in silence. Keep some part of every day free from all noise and the voices of men, for human distraction and the craving for it hinder divine peace.”
It is common to see members of your generation going through the day, and half the night, with those ghastly electronic buds in their ears, so they don’t have to endure even a nano-second of silence. How pathetic. Adults are afflicted as well, priests included. I know a priest, aged 70, who keeps the television on all day and until he retires for the night, listening to some sports event or other. He says that without that background noise he feels restless. He is a good priest. He would be even better if he were able to experience, in silence, the peace of God which passes human understanding.
So turn off the TV, John. Learn to be content with the presence of God. Turn off the radio in your car too when you are driving, and pray the rosary (the only time, incidentally, when I am able to pray in that way: I wasn’t brought up on the rosary and am not really comfortable with it even today.)
The priest with whom I live is away this week, and, once the parish secretary has left in mid-afternoon, I have the house to myself. I just love the silence. I have whole shelves full of long-playing records and CDs with recordings of classical music, which I love. I seldom listen to them any more. I prefer the silence. “God speaks most often in silence.”
You’re keen to be a good preacher. For that you must read widely: anything that has substance and value, provided it is not trash. Reading stimulates the imagination; watching TV kills it — it’s not called the boob tube for nothing!
You will need especially a rich knowledge of biblical images and themes. Read all you can on Jesus’ parables. Allow yourself to be inspired by Paul’s personal witness to the Gospel, starting with his conversion story, told three times over in the Acts of the Apostles.
Don’t neglect the Old Testament. The story of the patriarchs in the Pentateuch shows God doing his characteristic work in every generation: bringing life out of death. He creates new life in the dead womb of the aged Sarah. He repeatedly rescues Joseph from death (from his brothers, from false accusation and from famine in Egypt). He rescues His entire people at the Red Sea (which the exegetes tell us was the Sea of Reeds). Those stories are what Jesus was referring to when he told the two disciples the first Easter afternoon on the road to Emmaus: “O slow of heart to believe all that was written” (Lk 24:25).
There are rich treasures in the prophets as well: the message of social justice in Amos and others; Isaiah’s call in chapter 6 of his book; the assurance of God’s forgiveness (“Though your sins be like scarlet they shall be white as snow” [Is 1:18]; “Their sins and offenses I will remember no more” [Jer 31:34]). I could go on and on.
Alone with the Lord
Finally, time spent alone with the Lord in prayer is the preacher’s sine qua non. There was a day when the text from John 12:21 was posted inside pulpits for the preacher to see: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” That is what people want from us above all. And the people of God, whom we are ordained to serve, have a keen spiritual sense. They can tell whether we simply know about God; or whether we know him as one knows a dearly loved friend — because we spend time with Him.
Only if we are spending time alone with the Lord will our preaching manifest joy. Few things are more pathetic that the joyless proclaimer of the good news. How can we maintain joy, not just when our mouths are filled with laughter, and our tongues with joy (to quote the psalmist), but when we journey, as all of us must, at one time or another, through the psalmist’s dark valley?
Let me tell you about what works for me: cultivating the prayer of thanksgiving. I started to do this as a schoolboy. On my birthday each year I used to spend time in the school chapel. Kneeling, or sitting before the Lord in the tabernacle, I would write a list of all the reasons I had for thanksgiving. It was always a long list, and it was never difficult to compile.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
It has been decades since I have done that. But that adolescent practice has made the prayer of thanksgiving easy for me. My greatest reason for thanksgiving today, apart from my baptism, is my joy in priesthood. At age 12 the Lord planted in me the desire for priesthood. From that day to this I have never wanted anything else. Priesthood has brought me joys beyond telling, John. It has also brought me bitter grief and pain. If, however, you were to ask me whether, if I were able to live my life over again, knowing in advance the worst that priesthood would throw at me, I would still choose to be a priest of Jesus Christ, I would answer without hesitation: In a heartbeat! I would change just one thing: I would try to be more faithful, and above all more generous.
I was ordained a priest over 59 years ago. And I’m still head over heels in love with priesthood. I couldn’t tell you how many times I say every day: “Lord, you’re so good to me, and I’m so grateful.” Find your own way of saying that, John, and there will be joy in your heart — a joy so intense that you will be able one day to say with me: “If I were to die tonight, I would die a happy man.”
You probably know the story of the man whom St. John Vianney saw every day in his church, without rosary or book, his lips not moving, his gaze fixed on the crucifix.
“What do you do?” John Vianney asked the man one day.
“I look at Him,” the man replied, “and He looks at me.”
St. Teresa of Avila calls this silent waiting on God “friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him who we know loves us.”
Your parishioners won’t always love you, John — though some of them will, probably more than you deserve. Your pastor and your brother priests will find you, much of the time, less than lovable. Your bishop will tell you he loves you. You may find it hard to believe. (Pray for him, and cut him some slack: he receives more critical letters in a week than you will in a year.) But there is One who always loves you. He doesn’t love the ideal person you’d like to be. No. He loves you as you are, right now: with all your faults, and compromises, and sins. It is His love, and His alone, that can enable you to persevere in the priesthood to which He has called you, and to be happy in it.
In the priesthood, as in every life, you will experience times when your will is crossed, your self-love wounded and what you think are your rights are disregarded. Times when you feel put upon, passed over, disliked, unjustly attacked. You will feel the downward pull of ambition, envy, covetousness, lust.
There will be periods that seem colorless and monotonous, when prayer is difficult, and other people are hard to live with, perhaps impossible. The only way you can survive — and not merely survive but be deeply happy despite all these things — is to spend time alone with the One who loves you more than you can ever imagine, who will always be close to you no matter how far you stray from Him or how often you let Him down; whose love will never let you go.
His name is Jesus Christ.
In His love I remain always, dear John, your devoted friend and brother,
John Jay Hughes
FATHER HUGHES is a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and author of the memoir, No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace (Tate).