The three essentials in every priest’s life
Funerals, wakes, and weddings are some of the best times to articulate God’s presence. One of my closest friends has lost several loved ones to illness and tragedy. He and I have planned and participated in too many funerals. When his 44-year-old wife died, we met to pick out readings and try to make sense of that awful moment. He told me he really wanted to do a reflection during the Mass. He suggested that he and his wife’s sister talk briefly after the gospel, and then I could, as he put it, “clean up the mess.”
I don’t know if the mess got cleaned up after their very personal comments, but I did use their messages to articulate an image of God and the resurrection that seemed to touch and comfort the mourners. Together we looked at how his wife’s death evoked the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Using their stories and images and adding some of my own, I was honored to articulate God’s presence with them.
At a recent wake I took part in a long storytelling session. Another priest and I not only led the prayers, but we invited those present to share a story or experience about the deceased. As is often the case, people were reluctant at first, but then they really opened up. The stories were touching, sad, sensitive, and funny. The next day at the funeral and the graveside service, my job once again was to weave together their stories in a way that pointed to God.
Weddings are my other favorite time to articulate God’s presence. I enjoy the rehearsal dinners because I can get to know the bride and groom a bit better, along with their families and closest friends. Through toasts, conversations, and a few simple questions of my own, I soak up many rich images of love and commitment. I also ask couples ahead of time to write down why they want to marry each other. Again, I take this rich variety of images and use them during the wedding liturgy to paint a picture of God’s love for all of us.
We must also suggest God to each other. John the Baptist was the ultimate example of someone in this role. At the height of his own popularity he pointed others to Christ; he suggested they follow Jesus. Very often in crisis situations when folks are particularly burdened, their religious imagination becomes narrow and limited. I find it helpful to suggest that God is with them. What they are enduring, I tell them, provides a powerful way to grow closer to God.
Recently I was talking with a young woman who is struggling with many issues. Many of her concerns seem to stem from not having fully discovered her own goodness. We talked about the story of creation and identified the pattern that God demonstrates there. God created, then stepped back to admire what God created, and then proclaimed it good. I used this pattern to suggest that the same is true in her life and that she was good. I also used the story to remind her that several people who had caused her pain, including her father, were also creations of God and thereby good.
I don’t know the depth of this woman’s goodness. But taking a chance to suggest it, to suggest the goodness of God and the goodness of human creation, is what I am called to do.
Roman Catholics celebrate well. We have a rich tradition of religious and social celebration that enlivens the world. Being a diocesan priest is such an honor because we are often integral to the celebration of God’s presence in the world. People invite us to accompany them at a wide range of significant moments. Their lives break open with tragedy and ecstasy and everything in between, and they include us at these moments in very intimate ways. Often just being along for the ride is overwhelming. But at these moments, peppered with strong emotions, we turn to a faithful God who accompanies us.
Probably the most important time for celebrating God’s presence is during the Eucharist. Our role there is unique, a gift from God and the church. The Eucharist is the ultimate opportunity for prayer. During Mass the Body of Christ becomes so real. We eucharistic ministers know this by the expressions on people’s faces as they come forward to receive Communion. On any given Sunday, particularly in my neighborhood, there is a multi-colored, multi-aged, multi-ethnic, multi-involved, and multi-emotional tapestry of humanity that reaches out to receive the Body of Christ from me. It is one of the most magical moments of all.
Recently I baptized Frank and Ann Power’s great-granddaughter at my parish, St. Matthias, on Chicago’s north side. Frank is 90, and he and Ann have been parishioners for many, many years. Frank is a retired Chicago police officer who is now confined to a wheelchair. A strong, proud man, he is frustrated because he can’t get to church regularly. Frank was grateful to be at church that day, celebrating a significant event with his family. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he reached out for my hand. As I shook it, he pulled me to his face and kissed me on the cheek. It was one of the tenderest gestures I have ever experienced. It seemed to seal and celebrate all that priesthood is meant to be.
Sometimes it is difficult to explain why I want to be a priest. It boils down to this: I still find true today what I hoped on ordination day—that priesthood is the best way for me to love. Fortunately, people like Frank Powers reciprocate that love in real ways. It is humbling how people demonstrate their love for priests. I have had so many people acknowledge the unique role I have played in their lives. Through the years some families have shared a whole string of monumental events with me. I’ve been there as the one who articulates, suggests, and celebrates God’s presence during powerful moments. My efforts to date have only helped us to dip our toes into the ocean of God—leaving me a lifetime to point to God’s vast goodness.
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