The best time to be a priest

"Priests who like being priests are among the happiest men in the world.” Those words, in a book review by Fr. Andrew Greeley which documented high levels of vocational satisfaction among good priests, lifted me out of my chair when I read them a few years back. He’s right and I can confirm it from my own and other priests’ experience.

How is that possible? Given the terrible abuse some priests have inflicted on the young, many will ask: Why would any man in his right mind want to be a Catholic priest today? At the height of the sexual abuse crisis in 2002, retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco answered: “I believe that this is the best time in the history of the Church to be a priest, because it is a time when there can be only one reason for being a priest or for remaining a priest – that is to ‘be with’ Christ. It is not for perks or applause or respect or position or money or any other worldly gain or advantage. Those things either no longer exist or are swiftly passing. The priest of today is forced to choose whether he wants to give himself to the real Christ, who embraced poverty, including the poverty of the commonplace, rejection, misrepresentation – the real Christ of the gospels – or whether, with the mistaken throngs of Jesus time, he wants an earthly, worldly messiah for whom success follows upon success.”

Say, if you like, that I lead a sheltered life. But I have yet to encounter rejection. On the contrary, I have experienced love and support from those we priests were ordained to serve, far beyond anything we deserve. On Holy Thursday 2002, the priests of St. Louis gathered for the Chrism Mass, at which we priests the world over renew our priestly commitment, and the bishop consecrates the holy oils to be used in the ensuing year for baptism, confirmation, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick. As we walked in procession, more than two hundred strong, into our cathedral, we passed through ranks of applauding laypeople holding signs which said: “We support our priests.” “We love our priests.” Did we deserve that outpouring of love and support? We knew we did not. But we were grateful nonetheless. I cannot have been the only priest whose eyes were moist.

No vocation brings uninterrupted joy. Every life is shadowed by the cross. A widow spoke for married people when she told me: “Father, when you walk up to the altar on your wedding day, you don’t see the Stations of the Cross.” If priesthood, like marriage, leads to Calvary, it leads beyond Calvary to resurrection – and unending joy.

There is, first, the joy of preaching the gospel: feeding God’s people from the table of His word. An evangelical hymn defines the teacher’s task thus: “Tell me the old, old, story / Of Jesus and his love.” John’s Gospel says it more briefly, in words once posted inside pulpits for the preacher to see: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” (John 12:21). His story, and Jesus’ words, uphold us when we are down, rebuke us when we go astray, and fill our mouths with laughter and our tongues with joy (to use the Psalmist’s words) when the sunshine of God’s love shines upon us.

There is also the joy of pastoral ministry. Like priests everywhere, I have witnessed miracles of God’s grace in the people we serve. Not ten years ago a man came into my confessional bruised and bloodied from a failed marriage. Then one of our CEO Catholics (Christmas-and-Easter only), he is today a daily communicant, and a frequent penitent. Every priest has stories like that, many of them more dramatic.

What nourishes me most, however – next to the daily half hour I spend waiting on God in silence before Mass – is the privilege, so far beyond any man’s deserving, of celebrating Mass and feeding God’s holy people with the bread of life. It was that which drew me to the priesthood when I was not yet in my teens. Every time I served Mass, I thought: “One day I’ll stand there. I’ll wear those vestments. I’ll say those words.”

As a Catholic priest I have experienced the joy of celebrating Mass all over the world: in tiny chapels and great cathedrals; in hotel rooms in China and Vietnam; on little Rottnest Island off Australia’s west coast; at Mother Teresa’s tomb in Calcutta; on 2000-passenger cruise ships at sea, and in small sailing yachts in remote coves; in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice and at Notre Dame in Paris, where I was asked to offer prayers in German and English for the hordes of tourists who often outnumber the local worshipers. Everywhere the welcome has been the same, from brother priests to laypeople of all ages and both sexes, whose devotion and faith inspire us priests and often put us to shame.

In April 2005, writing to my old teacher in Germany, Joseph Ratzinger, to express my delight at his election as pope and assure him of my prayers, I closed the letter, “In the joy of our common priesthood.” What more can one say than that? From age twelve, the priesthood has been all I ever wanted. If I were to die tonight, I would die a happy man.

John Jay Hughes, a priest of the St. Louis Archdiocese and a church historian, is the author of a memoir, officially released today, No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace (Tate Publishing, Mustang,Oklahoma).

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