Each year I concelebrate with hundreds of other priests in the ordination Mass of new priests. I find such Masses deeply spiritual. I have no role other than to quietly concelebrate, so the readings and the rites move me deeply. As I sit quietly, I ponder the mystery of my own priesthood.
When I was growing up, there was little to indicate that I would become a priest. I wasn’t a particularly spiritual child (at least not after age 7). I didn’t “play Mass.” In fact, I didn’t like church at all. At the end of Mass when the priest said, “The Mass is ended, go in peace,” I responded, “Thanks be to God!” much more vigorously than necessary.
My teenage years were marked by rebellion and pride. While I did join the parish youth choir, it was only so that I could meet girls. My intent wasn’t evil, but it wasn’t particularly spiritual, either. I did end up dating a few of those girls, two of them seriously.
Sometime during college, a strange and uncomfortable notion came over me that I was being called to the priesthood. It was an odd desire—one I could not explain.
By that time, I had become a Church musician, organist, cantor, and choir director, but again, I don’t think I was particularly spiritual. Music was something I enjoyed, but my involvement was more about leadership and impressing others—especially girls.
Yes, this growing desire to be a priest was inexplicable to me. At the time I was dating a real beauty queen, Denise. She was pretty, kind, and did not bring a heavy agenda to the relationship. Her greatest desire was just to get married and raise children. I was two years away from my college graduation, but already had a job lined up with the Army Corps of Engineers. My life seemed pretty well set. And now this? The priesthood? What a crazy idea!
It wasn’t just a fleeting thought, either; it was a desire that was only getting stronger. It was so mysterious, so strange, so unexpected. In my most honest moments, I knew that my desire for the priesthood was stronger than my wish to get married, but it seemed disloyal to Denise. I wasn’t going to break her heart—no way! Besides, I didn’t respect most of the priests I knew at that time. This was the late 70s-early 80s, the era of beige Catholicism, and the priests I knew seemed worse than irrelevant. I often fought with the pastor about music. He couldn’t think past Carey Landry and the St. Louis Jesuits, while I favored Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, and Victoria.
What on earth (or in Heaven?) was this thinking about being a priest? I just couldn’t make sense of it.
I will spare you all the details, but God eventually won. Denise had a change of heart, or maybe she sensed my growing ambivalence, and our dating ended. The troublesome pastor and I also parted ways (he later left the priesthood, by the way).
Two years later I entered the seminary. And now here I am, today, celebrating my 30th anniversary as a priest.
Sitting in the Basilica earlier this month and seeing ten new priests ordained was a great joy. I heard again those words that speak to the mystery of the call: Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet (Jer 1:4). Yes, God’s call is a great mystery to me. Before I was born, He knew I would become a priest, but I didn’t know until long after my birth.
God has been good to me. For 30 years now I have prayed every day, celebrated the liturgy every day, read and studied God’s Word every day, and confessed every week. Through it all I’m a changed man. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be either. A wonderful change has come over me. I’m more confident and serene. I’ve seen sins put to death and graces come alive. I love God more than ever. I love to pray and to teach. I’ve come to love God’s people so much more.
I’m not the same man who entered the Basilica 30 years ago today—and thanks be to God for that. His Word is true. Attending to His Word and to the preaching, teaching, and celebration of the sacraments has had wondrous effects! I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years will bring, if God grants them. For now, I can only marvel at the mystery of my call and how it has unfolded over all these years.
I’d like to conclude with some words of encouragement that were give to me some years ago during a difficult time in my priesthood.
The holiness and humanness of the priest is the deepest source of his authority. The person of the priest is the “substantial bread” of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Personal development and the personal quest for God make the priest credible in the sight of the faithful (Rev. Robert Schwartz).
Amen. So be it, Lord.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Thirty Years a Priest and Most Grateful