Thirty Years a Priest and Most Grateful

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

A Sacramental Six-Pack on the Eve of My 50th Birthday: A Brief Snapshot of the Gift of the Priesthood

This Past Sunday I celebrated my 50th Birthday and of all the gifts I received, I must say I got the best from the Lord who delivered it in a “strange package.”

It began the day before as I arose and realized with some dread that I had surely over-committed myself. As I looked at my calendar I saw that I had scheduled four Masses and luncheon meeting. “How could I be so crazy!” I told myself as I prayed in the groggy early morning. The Lord remained quiet but I sensed he was smiling just a bit.

The first Mass was at 8:00am and was the most straight forward. It was a very pleasant Mass with the Sisters in the Convent. I offered it for the repose of my Mother. When she was alive I always bought her flowers on my birthday, since I figured she did all the work, and I just showed up. If anyone deserved a gift she did. Now that she has departed this life, my gift to her is Mass for her happy repose. A nice but brief breakfast followed with the sisters. They are always so kind to me. And so here was the first of the six sacraments I would celebrate that day: Holy Eucharist.

The second Mass was at 10:00 am, a solemn high Latin Nuptial Mass for a wonderful young couple from Africa, both of them studying medicine here in the States. God be praised, it was a beautiful Mass, with all the ceremony and splendor that the Traditional Latin Mass offers. But it was a workout, coming in at an hour and a half. And here was the second of six sacraments I would celebrate that day, Holy Matrimony along with Holy Eucharist, again.

A luncheon followed with parish leaders at noon. Here too, a wonderful occasion. I have so many wonderful leaders. God be praised. They surprised me with a birthday cake and three different versions of Happy Birthday.

By now I felt a nap coming on, but no time for that….I have miles to go before I sleep.

The third Mass was at 2pm. It was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the Sacraments of Initiation for woman who had been delayed for over two years while “canonical issues” were resolved. At long last she had her green light, and there was no way I was going to make her wait until next Easter. With her family in the Chapel we celebrated big time with Mass wherein she received her Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist AND had her marriage validated! Wow, God is good. She’d had a long wait, and was so patient. It was so satisfying to finally see her through. And here were the third and fourth of the six sacraments I would celebrate that day: Baptism and Confirmation, along with Holy Matrimony and Holy Eucharistic, again, and again.

It’s 4:00pm now. Time to go hear confessions in Church. And here was the fifth sacrament I would celebrate that day: Confession.

At 4:30pm Mass # 4 and Holy Eucharist again, Mass number four!

6:00 pm – Time to chill. “Lord you really made me work this weekend. That’s a strange thing to do to me on my birthday weekend!” There’s that silent smile of the Lord again. What’s he up to? Sure enough: the phone rings. Hospital call! And not even nearby. I am mindful of the words of Mother Teresa who said that the Lord told her he’d never give her more than she could take. She only wished that the Lord didn’t trust her so much! Off to anoint the critically ill. And thus the sixth sacrament I celebrated: Anointing of the Sick

Well, there you have it. My gift in a “strange package,” a sacramental six-pack, every sacrament I can possibly celebrate. It was a bone-crusher of a day but God is so good. I don’t suppose a priest could have any better gift that to be reminded so powerfully of his purpose on the eve of his 50th birthday.

But God knows me well enough to realize that he had to send a prophet to decode it all for me, just to make sure I got it. It came on Sunday afternoon, the evening of my birthday. Two of the Sisters came from the Convent presented me with a cake and sang happy birthday.

Innocently they asked me how my birthday weekend had gone. “Do you have a few minutes Sisters?” I said. And I told them the whole story.

One of them looked at me and said, “Do you see what God was saying to you on your 50th birthday? He was saying, ‘This is why I created you.'”

Yes, that is what he was saying alright. And it was the best gift I could have received.

Cardinal McCarrick: “What Is a Priest?” from Rocco Palmo on Vimeo.