“You are so kind, Father. You give me such comfort,” said the scared but relieved 95-year-old woman as she lay dying. And then she kissed my hand three times. What better experience to describe that Catholic Church that Jesus Christ founded by His suffering, death and resurrection?
On the other hand, the man who declared defiantly: “I left the Church 30 years ago because of the way that priest treated me!” Notice that he left the Church not because of what “the Church” had done to him, but because of what “the priest” had done to him! If the priest is cold and insensitive, so is the Church. If the priest is not available or approachable, neither is the Church. If the priest is kind and listening and conveying God’s love and goodness, so is the Church. And people want to be a part of that Church.
People come to priests when they are hurting and shattered, their lives devoid of meaning. They come to us because we are the only one who might be able to offer them “something” beyond their present paralysis. They come to us because they have nowhere else to turn, and they trust that maybe we can give them “what they need” to carry on. That “something” is Christ, whom they embrace through us!
It is an awesome challenge to embody Christ and the Church in all the circumstances of life! We cannot do it on our own. Sometimes we may present only a skeleton of Christ; other times a life-sustaining body. But only if we do our best.
Only our spirituality enables us to keep on trying. Christ wants to live and grow and love in and through us. Christ shares His compassion with us and ministers through us. Christ wants us to be the living Gospel.
Can we do it? Yes, “through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.” Will we do it? Only if we live in unity with Him. “It is now not I who lives; Christ lives in me.”
Will we surrender our self-sufficiency to God’s power “to work in us far more than we can hope for or imagine”? As Pere Henri Lacordaire reminds us, “To share all suffering; to penetrate all secrets; (to go from men to God and from God to men) to bring pardon and hope. . . .My God, what a life; and it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ.”
The Catholic Church will be alive and well in believers’ lives — if we priests are credible agents of God working in us.
Remaining a good priest is what our vocation is all about: “the whole package” of my person unconditionally committed to being a holy priest.
Is there any priest happily serving today who has not been tempted to leave? Who has not met “the right woman”? Yet, we persevere. And feel happy and fulfilled doing so!
People’s enduring love and respect and gifts confirm our priestly commitment. The promised “hundred-fold” infuses us with fidelity to continue to be there, to make a difference, and to uplift both ourselves and those to whom we minister.
Deep down we know that we would not prevail and be where we are today without the ongoing, unfailing grace, love and power of God working in us. The older a priest grows, and the more effective he becomes, he realizes how little it is “me” and how much it is GOD working in him. As St. Paul told young Timothy, “Bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tm 1:8).
Disillusionment may try to divert us along the way. Discouragement may torment us. Yet, here we are, still doing good, still penetrating lives, still advancing the kingdom of God. And because we are living “now not I, but Christ is living in me.”
Why do some guys — so talented and gifted — leave the priesthood? We can never see into their hearts and souls and psyches. All we can do is be grateful to God for being so good to us, for overpowering our weakness, our deplorable inadequacy, our selfish failures. It is GOD who puts up with us and keeps us faithful and functioning.
A good priest ultimately finds joy in gratitude. The more aware we are of our ineptness, the more amazed we are at our effectiveness. But our vulnerability remains our strength. The more we face it, the more God accomplishes through us. And we priests “can do ALL things in Him who strengthens us.”
MSGR. FATER is a retired priest of Archdiocese of San Antonio.