The life of a parish priest is one of perpetual ministry. Some years ago I came across a prayer card that illustrates this point. Although I do not know its origin, I read it every day as part of my prayers.
“No matter where he is located, the parish priest has to be the sharer of secrets, the carrier of burdens, the fountain of consolation and the pillar of strength. Solitary, he is called father by thousands; poor, he enriches the lives of thousands; weak, he gives strength to thousands; unimportant, he does things each day whose importance cannot be told in any tongue on earth. He is never too busy to hear another’s sorrows; often too busy to realize his own burdens. He is a 24-hour-a-day man. He is called from his dinner; wakened from his sleep; disturbed at his prayers. He is at the beck and call of any of his people. He is the target of God’s enemies, the magnet of God’s needy. Occasionally, he attracts attention; but usually he works unnoticed and unacclaimed while he does the noblest work on earth — keeps Christ in the lives of his people.”
One of the challenges for any priest is ministering to his own family. Family ministry reaches its climax when a parent dies. The priest leads his family through this valley of darkness while experiencing deep grief himself.
When my parents died, Mom in 2001 and Dad in 2002, my home parish pastor strongly encouraged me to preach at both of their funerals. He said, “Dave, no one knows your parents more than you.” While that was in both cases a very difficult moment, it is one I certainly do not regret. Nevertheless, both of those funerals took everything out of me. I remember coming home from both funerals collapsing into deep slumber. Death is exhausting, especially when it is someone whom we deeply love.
The grief of losing a parent can be overwhelming and paralyzing. I remember discovering at some point that I was driving my car for months with an expired inspection sticker. I would go home each week on my day off to an empty house. It was not the same. I reached out for comfort food. And I withdrew in those months. It was such a sad and lonely time.
In my utter desperation I decided to get a dog. It happened that a family nearby had to part with their 2-year-old Shih Tzu. I took him and named him Bobo. Quickly we became best of friends. By no means was he a replacement for my parents, but he began to fill my heart up again. When I would return to the rectory he was always the first one to greet me to let me know that I was loved.
Bobo lived with me through three assignments. He brought a lightheartedness to each of those places. It is no wonder advertisers use dogs in commercials. They have a way of touching the human heart. We would take walks through the community. I cannot begin to tell you how much street ministry we did. People found me more approachable with a dog.
But just like people, dogs do not live forever. Three years ago I had to put Bobo down. He suffered from seizures and kidney disease. Ever since his death I have a renewed appreciation for animals.
Even if you are not a pet lover, just know that, if you live in a place that traditionally blesses pets in observance of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4, these creatures of God are a blessing to their owners. In their own unique way they make a difference in people’s lives.
FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 13 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. To share your thoughts on this column or any others, follow The Priest on Twitter @PriestMagazine and like us on Facebook.