The Mystery of Being a Priest

FullSizeRenderEach year I concelebrate with hundreds of others 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 ever become a priest. I was not a particularly spiritual child (at least not after age 7). I did not “play Mass.” In fact, I did not 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. And while it is true that I joined the parish youth choir, it was only so that I could meet girls. It was not an evil intent, but not particularly spiritual. I did indeed date a few of them, two of them seriously.

But 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.

It was true that by that time I had become a Church musician, organist, cantor, and choir director. But again, I do not think I was particularly spiritual.  Music was something I enjoyed, but my involvement was more about leadership and impressing others, especially girls.

The 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 start raising children. I was two years away from graduation from college. I already had a job lined up with the Army Corps of Engineers. My life seemed pretty well set. And now this? The priesthood? How crazy is that?

And it wasn’t just a fleeting thought; it was a desire and it was growing. It was so mysterious, so strange, so unexpected. Somehow in my most honest moments I knew that the desire for the priesthood was stronger than the desire for marriage. But it seemed disloyal to Denise and I wasn’t going to break her heart, no way! And frankly I did not respect most of the priests I knew at that time. It was the late 70s and 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 had met 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 won. Denise had a change of heart (or maybe she got glasses and saw that I wasn’t all that great  😉 ). Or maybe she sensed my growing ambivalence. I won’t go into the details, but our dating ended. The troublesome pastor and I also parted ways (he later left the priesthood).

Two years later I entered the seminary.  And now here I am, today, celebrating my 26th anniversary as a priest.

Sitting in the Basilica the other day seeing nine new priests ordained was a great joy. And there again were those words that spoke 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). Well, God always knew, but it sure was news to me before I was 22.

Yes, the call of God is a great mystery to me. Before I was born, God knew I would become a priest, but surely I did not know until long after birth.

Even after my ordination I would not have selected most the assignments I was given over the years. I came forth from the seminary as a Thomist, a Moral theologian. I graduated at the top of my class. I was skilled in Latin and the ancient liturgy, a lover of chant and polyphony. But my assignments were in African-American parishes that knew little of these, and where Gospel music was the mainstay.

Yet I could not be happier. I lost nothing of what I had; I only gained more. The mystery of God’s call makes our own notions and plans seem laughable in retrospect.

The second reading at ordination this past Saturday also speaks volumes to my experience. Paul wrote to Timothy, Until I come, attend to the reading (or Sacred Scripture) exhortation and teaching … Be diligent in these matters, be absorbed in them, so that your progress may be evident to everyone. Attend to yourself and to your teaching (1 Tim 4:12ff).

Here, too, God has been good to me. I can only say that for 30 years now, 26 of them as a priest, I have prayed every day, celebrated the liturgy every day, read and studied God’s word every day, and confessed every week. And through it all I am a changed man. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. A wonderful change has come over me. I am more confident and serene. I have seen sins put to death and graces come alive. I love God more than ever. I love to pray and to teach. I have come to love God’s people so much more.

Surely my faults are still quite manifest. I am proud, opinionated, and too rash in many of my judgments. My zeal makes me impatient and too quick to judge. Have mercy on me, Lord and dear people of God!

But so many good things have come to change my life and to make a new man of me. Thank you, Lord. I do not boast, except in the Lord, for it is He who has accomplished all through the means above and by the prayers of his Holy people.

I am not the same man who entered the Basilica 26 years ago today. And thanks be to God for that. His word is true. Attending to His word, to the preaching, teaching, and celebration of the Sacraments has had wondrous effects! And I can’t wait to see what the next 26 years will bring, if God grants them. For now I can only marvel at the mystery of my call and its unfolding 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 and anxious time in my priesthood. The words expand on what St. Paul said to Timothy in the passage above.

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.

36 Replies to “The Mystery of Being a Priest”

  1. Beautiful post! So, you’ve been a priest almost as long as I’ve been alive :p Just had to throw that one in there. The ordination on Saturday was the third one that I’ve been to. Just like the first two, words just cannot fully describe how awesome it was to be there and witness that.

    When you’re called to something, the road is never an easy one. I really, truly think that careers/lives like the priesthood, religious life, healthcare, and public safety/EMS are callings. I also think at times that one career/lifestyle can lead to another. People, places, and jobs come into our lives for reasons. Some reasons we don’t always know right away.

    I can tell that you are very well loved as a priest. Your parish absolutely adores you, and you make an impression on many of the people that you get to meet. We are all very lucky to have you in the ADW!

    1. Thank you. Bless you. I have indeed been blessed by the great love of my parishioners and many others!

  2. A great story! When you didn’t want to become a priest, God called you to be one. Then He gave you the desire to be one. Then God gave you the ability to be one.

    Now God is equipping you to have an impact on the Church, to uphold the teachings of the Church vehemently.

    Praise God!

  3. Trust me, there is nothing more mysterious than being a priest of a diocese in Canada’

  4. GOD Bless you on your 26th year as a priest. Please continue the good fight and HE will be faithful to complete it in you. We pray for you and your ministry. May The LORD Bless and keep you. Amen!

  5. Msgr Pope Congratulations on your 26th anniversary of priesthood. May God continue to bless you.

  6. Having witnessed you preach on more than a few occasions, I’ll say that God certainly knew what He was doing. Congratulations, and thank you for another beautiful post.

  7. Congratulations Monsignor! Thank you for all the good that you do outside your parish via this blog. Through your various postings and daily meditations, I have received much spiritual food. Thank you for the times you have enlightened me, consoled me, admonished me and instructed me. May God Bless you always!

  8. Like the others here, I offer my congratulations and my thankfulness that you accepted your call over 26 years ago.

    I have sometimes thought that we are all called. Yes, Priest, EMTs, Religious, Health care are often thought of as callings, but those who do whatever they do with care and pride in their work are called to that work. Those who do not care, or strive only for money or fame are probably not in their proper calling, because money and fame don’t bring satisfaction or joy. A carpenter or plumber can get pride and joy from doing a good job, and they are fulfilling the calling that God has given them.

    Perhaps I am justifying my own way of living – I have changed careers, living places and paths as opportunities arose. I never had a “plan” for my life and we celebrate what works for us.

  9. Congratulations your 26th anniversary as a priest. I think I speak for many here and thank God you chose to become a priest. The priest at my church here in Honolulu, Father Carvalho, was ordained in 1985. He is a fan of your blog, sometimes reading portions of it in his homily.

  10. Ad Multos Annos Monsignor and a profound Te Deum to the Most High for all of the many graces mediated to us through your ministry!

  11. Msgr Pope:

    As a United Methodist and a (woman!) pastor [no, we won’t go into that here], I am not your “typical” reader, I imagine. However, some months ago I stumbled across your blog … and have been blessed by it ever since. Thank you for your clear and bold witness; you do a great job of articulating what Christians need to hear during these days when our moral foundations are under such attack.

    This post particularly blessed me … as I read your story, I considered my own story …and what you said about your personal growth in grace during your years of being in the priesthood resonated with some of my own experience as I have served in ministry.

    My our Lord continue to bless you, empower you, and uphold you. You are a gift to His Church.

  12. Thank you for the ministry. Without a priest I

    would have never learn the faith, we are in

    debt! Makes me think of all the great priest God

    has blessed me with in this journey.

  13. Thank you for your service over these many years. You are a candle in the increasingly dark room that we Americans live in.

  14. Your testamony reminds me of Leon Russel’s “Song For You.”

  15. Thank you for saying “yes” to God’s call to the priesthood! We are so very grateful for insightful teachings you provide for all of us. I have a very dear friend who’s also celebrating his 26th ordination anniversary this spring. Sadly, we live in an archdiocese where orthodox, faith-filled, holy, reverent priests are horribly persecuted. But, like you, he has immense joy & happiness in being a shepherd of souls. He’s very humbled by God’s Call. God bless you!

    1. Thanks. Sorry to hear that the diocese where you live is so troubled.

  16. Congratulations Msgr Pope! This post brought me such joy, I had to read it more than once! Although I am a daily reader of this fine blog I rarely comment. But I couldn’t help but wonder if our Lord, upon your entrance into the kingdom will allow you a moment to see the number of people that the Lord has reached through your priesthood that you have never seen nor met personally. People such as my wife and I, and I am sure countless others have been touched by your insight, your holiness and even the personal struggles that you have shared on this blog. With the Lord’s help, you have cast the net wide and it has been a true blessing! Thank you for your priesthood!

  17. Bless you on your anniversary…you have blessed me time and time again with your writings. You are a beautiful pencil in God’s hands.

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